A Philosopher's Blog

Trump & Misogyny

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 12, 2016

Watching Trump is rather like an observing a submarine test: you wonder how low it can sink. Like an amazing sub, Trump keeps reaching new depths. An old recording of Trump was recently released which features the Republican candidate saying rather awful things. This has cost him the endorsement of some Republicans, but he still seems to be incredibly resistant to damage: he had managed to spew forth a stream of awful things such that any one of which would have been a career ending injury for almost anyone else.

While there have been some calls for Trump to leave the race, Trump has so far decided that he is staying in. As should be expected, Trump has presented a reply to the situation that includes his usual tactics.  While most would not consider Trump philosophical, he does say things that are certainly interesting to discus in this context.

Trump begins his response by pointing out that the recording is from 2005 and he asserts that he has changed since then. As such, he should not be criticized now for what he did then. This defense potentially has merit: if he has reformed, then while the recording shows that Trump was awful, that was then and this is now. From a moral standpoint, the main concern is whether or not Trump is still the same sort of person he was in 2005. Interestingly, Trump’s initial defense did not include claims that his remarks were out of character; presumably he accepts that this behavior was in accord with his character in 2005.

While there are no known recent remarks about women by Trump that exactly match his 2005 remarks, he does not seem to have reformed in any morally meaningful way. He casually and routinely engages in misogyny and sexism and this gives lie to his defense. As such, the 2005 remarks do reflect both who he was and who he is. If Trump had shown signs of moral growth, then this defense could have merit—there are certainly cases of people who redeem themselves and become better. Unfortunately, there seems to be no evidence of this in Trump’s case.

Trump also endeavored to use a red herring (a rhetorical device in which someone attempts to divert attention from the original issue) to switch attention from his remarks. Rather, he hoped to get people to ignore them and focus instead on his assertions that “We are losing our jobs, we are less safe than we were eight years ago and Washington is totally broken.”

It could be countered that this is not a red herring because the character of a president does not matter in the face of such alleged problems. This approach does have potential merit and will be addressed in the context of Bill Clinton, who seems to have been used in another Trump red herring.

In his response, Trump also asserted that “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course.” This could also be regarded as a red herring—the matter of whether Bill has said worse things or not is a different issue from the matter of Trump’s remarks. Even if Bill has said worse things, this proves nothing about Trump’s remarks.

As mentioned before, perhaps Trump’s defenders could make the case that Bill Clinton was an excellent president despite the things he allegedly said. Given that many successful leaders have had awful moralities in regards to their views of women, a case could be made here arguing that a leader who will do the job well should not be assessed based on such alleged failings. Put crudely, it does not matter what the leader wants to grab, because “it’s the economy, stupid.” While this does have some appeal, Bill’s behavior did have damaging consequences for him and the country, so there is clearly a downside to this quality in a leader. There is also the moral question of whether or not the tradeoff would be worth it, especially if a good leader could be found who was not a misogynist.

If Bill were running against Trump, then showing that Bill is just as bad would be a relevant response. This is because if Trump and Bill were equally awful in this regard, then Trump’s awfulness would not disadvantage him relative to Bill—at least under a rational assessment. To use an analogy, if a HP laptop and an Asus laptop had equally short battery life, then battery life would not serve as a reason to pick one over the other. But, of course, Trump is not running against Bill. He is running against Hillary. As such, it is no surprise that he also attacked Hillary by saying, “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.”

While attacking Hillary can also be regarded as a red herring in that it proves nothing about the matter involving Trump, it is certainly relevant in assessing the two candidates against each other. Trump is, in effect, trying to establish that Hillary is just as bad (or worse) than he is in regards to treatment of women. Trump does have some ammunition here—he can point to Hillary’s alleged role in the handling of the “bimbo eruptions” that plagued Bill in the 1990s.

While there certainly seem to be some legitimate concerns about Hillary’s behavior, she can point to an otherwise solid record on women’s issue. Even if the claims about her misdeeds are true, she can certainly make a much stronger case than Trump that she has changed since the 1990s. After all, the recording of Trump is more recent than the 1990s and Trump relentlessly affirms his misogyny, thus showing that he has not changed significantly. As such, while Hillary can, perhaps, be justly criticized for her actions in the 1990s, it would be a false equivalence to say that she is as bad as Trump in this regard.

Some of Trump’s defenders have asserted that Trump did not say anything that other men do not regularly say. That is, what Trump did was not a problem because this sort of thing is a common practice. The easy reply to this defense is that an appeal to common practice is a fallacy: even if something is commonly done, it does not follow from this that it is good, justified or right. All that follows from something being commonly done is that it is, well, commonly done.

It could also be argued that it is hypocritical of men to criticize Trump because men have, no doubt, said or thought things equally as bad. While it is surely true that everyone has said or thought something awful, these tend to be anomalies for most men. Everyone has their awful moments and this should be taken into account when judging a person. If Trump had but this one blight on an otherwise decent character, then it would be reasonable to judge him by his consistent character rather than an inconsistent remark. However, these remarks are not an aberration for Trump—they are utterly consistent with his character.


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Some Thoughts on the Ferguson Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Comcast & Century Link Lost My Business

Posted in Business by Michael LaBossiere on May 10, 2013
English: Comcast service van, Ypsilanti Townsh...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many places, Tallahassee has one cable provider. This is, of course, the often reviled Comcast. For quite some time people had the choice of Comcast or nothing, but the rise of DISH TV provided some competition in the TV area. Century Link also recently entered the battle with PRISM and they have offered DSL for a while.

When I moved to my current house I was married and my wife had a deep and abiding love of TV, so we got Comcast cable. We also got a land line phone, since this was well before the days of the mobile phone. When broadband internet became available, I added that that via the only option in town: Comcast. My phone service went through various providers as this company bought or merged with that company, finally resulting in Century Link being the one sending me bills.

As the years passed, I noticed that the bills always went up, although the service provided was the same. Then I noticed that the bills started going up far more frequently, despite the fact that what I was paying for was the same. When my land line bill hit $45 for the basic service, that was that-I went with a mobile phone that provides unlimited data for $35 a month and set up Google Voice with a VOIP adapter (the OBI 100) so I could still have a home phone that worked (more or less) as a home phone.

For Comcast, the final brick that broke the camel’s back was when they started billing me $1.99/month for the digital adapters that had been “free” for the past three years. While I do understand charging for premium equipment, charging extra for what is needed to even use the service pushed me over the edge and that was it for cable TV. While I will miss a few shows that I cannot find (legally) online, most of what I used to watch is readily available online. For free. Most networks now have their own streaming shows, plus there is Hulu. I already had Amazon Prime and Netflix, so I don’t really miss the TV. I sort of miss CNN, but not really.

My situation got me thinking about more general matters, such as how companies can hurt themselves. In the case of Comcast and Century link, they face many problems, some of which are self-inflicted.

One obvious problem is that they increase the cost of their services relentlessly while not offering customers any greater value in return. While I get the need to deal with inflation, the increase in the bills seems to be rather out of proportion to inflation. For people like me who do not get regular cost-of-living pay increases, these increases are especially bad-the increasing bills are push towards a non-increasing salary. Not surprisingly, people do elect to cancel services.

It might be replied that these companies are only raising prices because they must-they have no choice in order to keep up with inflation and other cost increases. However, as my friend Ron always notes, when people cancel a service like cable, they are often offered  better deals to stay. As Ron says, if they had offered him that deal before, he would not have cancelled. This sort of thing indicates that they can actually offer the services without such relentless increases but chose not to do so.

One point worth considering is that perhaps companies are following not a stupid strategy, but a clever one. Some years ago, I needed repairs done on my house and got some estimates. One contractor’s estimate was three times that of the others. Naturally, I went with a lower estimate. While the contractor’s approach might seem like a bad idea, it could actually be a good approach. After all, suppose that the contractor charges three times what other contractors do and only gets one third of the jobs they do. He actually comes out ahead, since he does a third of the work (in hours) for the same income. Perhaps Comcast and Century Link have the same approach: when they raise their prices, they lose customers. But, perhaps this is offset by the decrease in their operating costs. So, if Comcast loses X dollars because customers cancel due to bill increases, but the money they get from the increase paid by remaining customers and the lowered expenses from having fewer customers results in them making that X back (or better), then that was a smart move. Of course, they have to be careful to avoid losing too many customers and they probably have to worry a tiny bit about people saying bad things about them.

Another obvious problem is that companies like Comcast and Century Link that increase the cost of TV and phone service run the risk of losing out to alternatives. As I noted above, when my phone bill hit $45 a month, it made more sense for me to abandon Century Link and go with Google and Virgin Mobile. In the case of Comcast, I am still stuck with them as my ISP, but I can do without TV thanks to the internet. It was not so much that I just wanted to not pay anything-I was willing to pay a reasonable amount for cable TV and a land line. But, the relentless price increases convinced me to scrape off the leeches.  If I am not unusual in having such a breaking point (at which doing without or finding alternatives beats paying a company), then companies like Comcast and Century Link will need to approach the future cautiously-they might price themselves right out of profits.

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Feeding the Beast

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on April 22, 2013
English: The Pure Speculation Festival Logo

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a runner who had friends at the Boston Marathon, I followed the news relating to the event with great interest and concern. Like many others, I was struck by the moral and critical defects in some of the coverage.

Not surprisingly, the New York Post led the way in terms of defective coverage. The Post started off by getting the death toll wrong and then proceeded to link a Saudi national to the bombing. The Post then topped it off by putting two innocent people on the cover with a heading (“bag men”) that clearly implied they were involved.

While other folks in the media did not reach the depths explored by the Post, the coverage of the event was widely marked with factual inaccuracies and unfounded speculation.  While it is reasonable to forgive the folks in the media for not having all the facts when a story is evolving, it is also reasonable for the folks to use proper diligence and critical methods to assess the alleged facts before committing to them. It is also reasonable to expect the alleged professionals to be clear when they are just speculating and to restrain such speculation to its proper scope.

I do understand why the media folks often engage in speculation and hasty judgments. News is a for-profit business and they need to keep people watching the news so that they are watching the advertising between the stories. If a media person honestly reports that they do not have the facts and refuses to engage in unfounded speculation, then people will tend to turn to other media sources in the hopes of getting the facts. If these sources do not have the facts, they obviously need to choose between the ethical course of being clear about the lack of facts or engage in  unfounded speculation and unwarranted judgments. Obviously, the speculation and judgments have a better chance of keeping the audience’s attention. After all, if one source reports that the suspects are not known and another claims that a Saudi national is a suspect, people will turn to the sources making the claim about the suspect-even if the claim is completely unfounded.

While this approach does make some sense from a business perspective, it can obviously be rather harmful. In the case of the two innocent people who appeared on the Post’s cover, they have to worry about being harassed or harmed by people who bought what the Post was selling. There is also the concern that such misleading reporting can impeded investigations by leading the public to think that the suspects have been found and hence there is no need to keep looking. There is also the ethical concern regarding making claims when a person knows that they are not properly grounded in evidence.

In addition to the defects, I was also struck by the volume of empty chatter, such as the repeated statements of the very obvious and the vague filler comments. I do get why they talking heads have to do this-they need to stay on the big story to keep people watching, but when they have no actual facts to report and run out of unfounded speculation, they still have time to fill. To fill this time, they typically take the easiest route-empty chatter. Sometimes, as I saw on CNN, they even run out of empty chatter-the image of  John King standing with two people desperately checking their phones for something to say nicely exemplifies this situation.

While the media folks could do the obvious and switch to another story that involves actual facts, that creates the risk of losing the audience. Presumably CNN believed that showing people standing around would keep the audience better than going to another story. There is probably also the concern of backlash-that going to another story might create the impression that the media folks do not care enough about the big story to remain focused on it even when they have not a damn meaningful  thing to say.

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Opinion Over News

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 20, 2013
The Rachel Maddow Show (TV series)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my critical thinking class I teach a section on critical thinking and the news media. One of the points I focus on is the importance of distinguishing between someone presenting an opinionated perspective and someone engaged in actual reporting.

Obviously, any report is going to be colored by the perspective of the person presenting it, but there are clearly degrees and important distinctions. It would be an error to merely assume that all reporting or opinion giving are equal-that is, that everyone is just as bad as everyone else.

Interestingly enough, MSNBC is the leader in relying on the presentation of opinions over reporting, at least according to this study. While I try to avoid watching MSNBC, the study is consistent with my own experiences with the network and there seems to be little reason to doubt this. Naturally, one can easily check on this matter by enduring a marathon watching session of the station. Apparently 85% of MSNBC’s airtime is composed of the presentation of opinions.

While MSNBC leads the way in opinion over news, FOX and CNN have also cut back on actual news reporting. Fox News is mostly (55% opinion). CNN is still mostly news.

One obvious reason for the dominance of opinion is that chatter tends to be cheaper than investigative journalism. Since news is a business and the business of business is making money, it is hardly surprising that the news corporations have slashed back their reporting budgets. Since they still have hours to fill, opinion segments provide the media equivalent of pink slime-a cheap filler product.

A second reason for the dominance of opinion is that such material can be more entertaining than the news-in many ways, the pundits at Fox and MSNBC (and to a lesser extent CNN) are putting on news theater that aims more at entertaining than educating. This, obviously enough, ties back into the idea that the business of the news corporations is to make money.

A third reason is that Fox and MSNBC are strongly linked to political agendas. Fox is, obviously enough, very closely tied with the Republican party. While MSNBC seems to be less formally linked to the Democrats, this could be chalked up to the nature of the Democratic party rather than a lack of desire to have such a relationship. As might be imagined, objectively reporting on the facts generally does not do much to advance a specific agenda. In contrast, opinion segments are tailor-made to do just that.

This dominance of opinion should be of concern for those who wish to be well informed rather than well propagandized. As might be suspected, I would suggest avoiding MSNBC-something I have done for years.

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Mental Illness, Violence & Liberty

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 19, 2012
Human brain NIH

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mass murder that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school has created significant interest in both gun control and mental health. In this essay I will focus on the matter of mental health.

When watching the coverage on CNN, I saw a segment in which Dr. Gupta noted that currently people can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when they present an imminent danger. He expressed concern about this high threshold, noting that this has the practical impact that authorities generally cannot act until someone has done something harmful and then it can be rather too late. One rather important matter is sorting out what the threshold for official intervention.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the relevant authorities need to be proactive. They should not wait until they learn that someone with a mental issue is plotting to shoot children before acting. They certainly should not wait until after someone with a mental issue has murdered dozens of people. They have to determine whether or not a person with a mental issue (or issues) is likely to engage in such behavior and deal with the person well before people are hurt.  That is, the authorities need to catch and deal with the person while he is still a pre-criminal rather than an actual criminal.

In terms of arguing in favor of this, a plausible line of approach would be a utilitarian argument: dealing with people with mental issues before they commit acts of violence will prevent the harmful consequences that otherwise would have occurred.

On the other hand, there is the obvious moral concern with allowing authorities to detain and deal with people not for something they have done or have even plotted to do but merely might do.  Obviously, there is rather serious practical challenge of sorting out what a person might do when they are not actually conspiring or planning a misdeed. There is also the moral concern of justifying coercing or detaining a person for what they might do. Intuitively, the mere fact that a person could or might do something wrong does not warrant acting against the person. The obvious exception is when there is adequate evidence to establish that a person is plotting or conspiring to commit a crime. However, these sorts of things are already covered by the law, so what would seem to be under consideration would be coercing people without adequate evidence that they are plotting or conspiring to commit crimes. On the face of it, this would seem unacceptable.

One obvious way to justify using the coercive power of the state against those with mental issues before they commit or even plan a crime is to argue that certain mental issues are themselves adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in a crime, even though nothing she has done meets the imminent danger threshold.

On an abstract level, this does have a certain appeal. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a condition occurring, then it make sense to treat for that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.

It might be objected that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. The obvious reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this.

Moving into the realm of the concrete, the matter becomes rather problematic. One rather obvious point of concern is that mental health science is lagging far behind the physical health sciences (I am using the popular rather than philosophical distinction between mental and physical here) and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. As such, using the best mental health science of the day to predict how likely a person is likely to engage in violence (in the absence of evidence of planning and actual past crimes) will typically result in a prediction of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state against an individual on the basis of such dubious evidence would not be morally acceptable. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.

It might be countered that in the light of such events as the shootings at Sandy Hook and Colorado, there are legitimate grounds to use the coercive power of the state against people who might engage in such actions on the grounds that preventing another mass murder is worth the price of denying people their freedom on mere suspicion.

As might be imagined, without very clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could easily be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.

It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have the right (or rather wrong) sort of mental issues. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.

However, it seems that normal people might. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression) and there is the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in incorrect determinations of mental issues.

To close, I am not saying that we should not reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. Rather, my point is that this should be done with due care to avoid creating more harm than it would prevent.


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The Abortion Issue

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2012

, member of the United States House of Represe...

Thanks to Todd Akin, the issue of abortion is once again in the political spotlight. While the Republican leadership uniformly chastised Akin for his remarks about “legitimate rape”, the social conservatives in the Republican party still support Akin’s (and Ryan’s) view of abortion.

This year the Republicans platform is supposed to (once again) include a person hood plank. While the final wording has yet to be set, CNN received a leaked version that states:“Faithful to the ‘self-evident’ truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”

Lest anyone think this is something entirely new, similar (though less extreme) planks have been included in 2000, 2004, and 2008. These did not get much attention, but Akin’s words have brought the spotlight to this plank.

While the social conservatives regard this as a very important matter, the Republican leadership clearly wants to push the spotlight off this issue and onto the economy. After all, the economy is seen as Obama’s weak point and the Republicans stand a better chance of winning on this issue. However, if abortion continues to be an issue, this could bode ill for the Republicans.

Naturally, people do point out that there are anti-abortion women. I am well aware of this and I even know women who oppose abortion on moral or religious grounds. However, most Americans believe that abortion should remain legal. This alone makes abortion something of a losing battle for the Republicans.

It might be replied that the Republicans can still win over women who are pro-life with their pro-life position and win over pro-choice women by their claims about the economy. This is, of course, a good strategy. In the past, the Republicans have been able to include a pro-life agenda while winning over women voters, in part because some women are pro-life and in part because pro-choice Republican women could rest assured that nothing would come of the pro-life agenda. The Republican party was also regarded as not being hostile to women, at least by most people in the mainstream. However, things have changed.

One substantive change has been the push to severely restrict abortion and even eliminate it. While a small number of pro-life woman might favor this, there are still plenty of  pro-life women (and men) who believe that abortion should still be allowed in cases of rape, incest and when it is necessary to save the life of the mother. As might be imagined, pushing such a restrictive view of abortion would not play well on the national stage. However, one thing that favors the Republicans here is the fact that people tend to believe, based on the past, that this position was just thrown in as a bone to the social conservatives and that Romney would not really make it so. As such, people who might be dismayed by this view can also feel they can safely ignore it.

On stylistic change has been the language and approach of certain Republicans, especially Ryan and Akin. In  the legislation penned by Ryan and Akin, the term “forcible rape” was introduced and this created the impression that Ryan and Akin think that only certain types of rape are “rapey” enough to allow for a woman or girl to have an abortion. Akin obviously tossed gasoline  on this fire when he used “legitimate rape” and made false claims about the female body’s ability to defend against being impregnated by rape. I would imagine this sort of language is unappealing to women and creates a rather negative impression of the Republican party. Interestingly, while the mainstream Republicans rushed to distance themselves from Akin and to condemn his words, the Republican party seems to be sticking with Akin’s principles regarding abortion. As such, they seem to be sending the message that women’s rights should be restricted but politicians should not talk about it that way.

Since the election is still a few months away, the Republicans have time to do damage control and to attempt to make this a non-issue for the election. Presumably they want it to be important and not important at the same time-important for the social conservatives, yet ignored by everyone else.

While some are casting Akin’s remarks as an error in which he misspoke, it is tempting to some to think that what was seen was a moment of honesty-that is, the true face of this sort of social conservatism was revealed in all its ignorance and misogyny.

In closing, the  abortion issue is such that Obama cannot win on it, yet Romney could lose on it. That is, Obama will not win the election by holding to his pro-choice view. However, the way the Republicans handle (or mishandle) the issue can antagonize enough voters (especially women) to cause Romney to lose. Obama is currently ahead with women voters and incidents like these can only help him.

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The Ethics of Spinions (Spinning Minions)

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 27, 2012
English: The CNN Center in Atlanta.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being rather interested in politics, I spend a fair amount of time following the news of the day. Not surprisingly, I get to see numerous spinning minions (spinions) working their talking points. In the context of politics, a spinion is a person who takes on the role of presenting the talking points of the ideology being represented. In general, the spinion has two main tasks. The first is to make his/her side look good and the second is to make the other side look bad. Truth is, of course, not really a point of concern. Naturally, there can be spinions in other areas as well, such as business, religion and academics.

One somewhat interesting thing about spinions is that it is often rather easy to tell when a person is in spinion mode. In many cases, there seems to be a certain change in the facial expression, eyes and voice of the person as s/he begins to spin.  This reminds me of the fact that in the Pathfinder role playing game characters can use their perception skill to notice whether another creature’s will is not its own. That is, whether it is charmed, dominated or otherwise being controlled. Being a gaming nerd, I imagine the spinion look is what a person would look like in such cases. More scientifically, research has shown that the brain actually undergoes internal changes when a person is thinking about ideological matters: “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.” Given this, it is not surprising that a person’s external behavior would be altered in discernible ways when engaged in spinning behavior. After all, emotional changes are often manifested visibly in changes in behavior and voice. However, my main concern is not with spotting spinions (although there is probably some interesting research to be done here) but with the ethics of spinions.

When I observe spinions in action, what I mainly notice is that they relentlessly present their side in a favorable manner while being equally relentless in casting the other side(s) in a negative manner. In the context of United States’ politics, this spinning has reached the point that any concession to or positive view of the other side is regarded as traitorous. For example, when Bill Clinton spoke of Mitt Romney having a sterling business record, this created a bit of a political storm. I would present other examples, but they are rather rare-in these times it is almost unheard of for one side to say anything positive about the other.

Another disturbing aspect of the ways of spin is that truth and principle seem to be of little importance. Each spinion attempts to construct a narrative favoring his side and damning the other, warping and ignoring facts as needed. For example, the Republicans bashed Obama because the worth of the middle class fell on his watch but they conveniently ignored the fact that this worth had been falling since before Obama was in office. Similarly, the Democrats bashed Romney regarding Massachusetts’ economic woes while Romney was governor, conveniently ignoring facts that went against this narrative.

Needless to say, spinions seem to also have no qualms about making use of fallacies and rhetorical devices in the place of reason. To see this is the case, simply turn to the 24 hour news station of your choice and watch. You might want to have a book on fallacies on hand to catalog all the examples you will see. This is, of course, prudent of them: while it makes me sad, fallacies and rhetoric are far more effective than good reasoning when it comes to getting people to believe.

Grounding this behavior seems to be the idea that what matters is beating the other side. The view seems to be, as Hobbes would put it, that “profit is the measure of right.” This is perhaps most clearly put by Mitch McConnel, namely that the Republicans top priority should be making Obama a one term president. Rather than, for example, working hard to get us out of the depression. While Democrats are not as overt about this as their Republican associates, it is obviously still a factor.

As might be suspected, I regard the behavior of the spinions as morally dubious at best. After all, they engage in willful manipulation of the facts, they employ rhetoric and fallacies to sway people, they cannot acknowledge anything right or good about the other side, and seem to be solely concerned with achieving victory for their side (or the side that pays them).  This spinning has contributed to the high levels of polarity in politics and had made it rather difficult for issues to be discussed rationally and fairly. I would even go so far as to say that this has harmed the general good through its impact on politics. As such, the spinions are a source of considerable moral concern.

One rather obvious counter is that the job of the spinion is to do exactly what they do and this is a legitimate activity. While philosophers and scientists are supposed to seek facts and engage in good reasoning so as to determine what is most likely to be true, this is not the role of the spinion. Their role is rather like that of any spokesperson or advertiser, namely to sell their product and see to it that the competition does not succeed. This is not a matter of right or wrong and truth or falsehood. Rather it is a matter of selling product, be that product soap or a political party. This sort of selling is how the consumer market works and thus the spinions are acting in an acceptable way.

I do agree that parties do have a legitimate right to have people who speak in their favor and against their opposition. However, the spinions appear to present a danger to society similar to that of the sophists. That is, they seem to be focused solely on the success of their side rather than on what is true and good. Since the top spinions are routinely given time on national and worldwide television, they have a rather substantial platform from which to spread their influence. Spinions are often presented as commentators or panelists (and sometimes they are actually presenting the news) which, as I see, creates a problem comparable to allowing corporate spokespeople to advertise their products under the guise of being panelists or commentators. That is, the spinions often seem to simply be presenting political commercials for their side while not having these ads labeled as such. This can mislead people who might think that they are getting an objective report when they are, in fact, essentially just getting a political advertisement in disguise.

A counter to this is that the spinions are presenting the views and talking points of their respective sides and this is not advertising. After all, there will sometimes be opposing spinions spinning in opposite directions on the same panel or in the same segment. Further, the spinions are often presented as being spokespeople for specific parties or candidates.

One reply is that this is still like advertising. After all, networks are happy to sell time to competitors so that a viewer might see an advertisement for Coke followed by one for Pepsi. Also, while some spinions are identified as such, this is not always the case. As such, people do often get misled into thinking that what they are hearing is a matter of fact when it is, in fact, merely spin.

The obvious counter to this is that the spinions are protected by the right to free speech and hence are free to spin away even when doing so is detrimental to the public good and what they say is contrary to fact.

This, I will agree, is true-spinions do not lose their right to express their views (or the views they are paid to express) just because they are spinning. However, the news networks who enable them to spin (or even hire them to spin) are not obligated to provide the spinners with a platform or to let them operate largely free from critical assessment. Obviously enough, having opposite spinners spinning away is not the same thing as having critical assessment of the spin.  In fact, spinning is the opposite of what the news is supposed to do, namely present the facts objectively.  As such, there should be greater effort to contain spin and to ensure that spinners are clearly identified as such. Finally, what the spinions do is wrong-they should stop doing what they do.

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Soldiers & Freedom of Expression

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2012
Constitution of the United States, page 1

Constitution of the United States, page 1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In modern democracies, soldiers remain citizens when they enlist. As such, they retain the rights to vote and express their political views.  However, they are also expected (and legally bound) to act in accord with the rules governing expressing their opinions as members of the military. Of course, this is also true of almost all jobs. To use an example, while I surrendered no rights when I became a professor, I am obligated to regulate what I say in my official capacity.  I cannot, for example, spend class time campaigning for Obama or support political candidates by saying that they have been endorsed by Florida A&M University because I endorse them.

The matter of the rights of soldiers to express their political views has gained attention with the incident involving sergeant Gary Stein. Stein created an Armed Forces Tea Party page on Facebook back in 2010 and  posted a comment on the site saying, roughly, “I say screw Obama. I will not follow orders given by him to me.” As might be imagined, this seems to be a violation of Article  134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice  in regards to things that are “prejudicial to good order and discipline.” In reply, Stein said that he meant that he will not follow an illegal order, which is quite another matter.

On 3/22/2012 I saw CNN interview with Sergeant Stein in which he made this same point. The person conducting the interview attempted to criticize him on the assumption that soldiers are required to obey orders. Stein was right to point out that military personnel can refuse illegal orders and gave the example of being ordered to engage in theft. As he noted, he could correctly refuse such an order. As such, saying that he would refuse an illegal order would not, on the face of it, seem to violate Article 134 and would, in fact, be the right thing for a soldier to say.

The discussion then turned to the matter of whether or not a sergeant should be interpreting whether an order is unlawful or not. Stein’s view is that he has the right to do so, based on his being an American citizen and he also contended that his oath to uphold the constitution and defend the United States would require him to do so. This, of course, raises the classic issue of whether a person should or should not obey the state when s/he regards the command as immoral or unlawful. This matter is complicated a bit when the person in question is under special conditions that would seem to favor obedience (such as being in the military).

On the one hand, a stock answer is that (as the interviewer seemed to be implying) such decisions are not to be made by mere sergeants and that the order should be obeyed. This does have considerable appeal. After all, if soldiers could simply disobey orders because they believed the orders to be unlawful or immoral, then this would be a serious threat to “good order and discipline.” A chain of command exists for a good reason-namely so that orders are carried out. To use an analogy, if I decided that I disagree with the system of grades and refused to assign grades to my students while posting snarky Facebook comments about university personnel, it would certainly be legitimate for the university to compel me to act in accord with the policy of assigning grades or to fire me if I refused. If professors simply did whatever in regards to grades, that would have a significant negative impact on the university. Likewise, soldiers who just disobey orders or sow dissension can be justly disciplined.

On the other hand, another stock answer is that a soldier does need to make such decisions and that the soldier has the right to do so. After all, the soldier is accountable for his/her actions and the defense “I was just following orders” carries little in the way of legal or moral weight. As such, the soldier must have the right to decide since s/he will be held accountable for the actions taken on the basis of orders. There is also the classic point, made by Thoreau, that even soldiers should follow their conscience rather than simply obey as if they were automatons. Soldiers are still citizens and still moral agents-putting on a uniform does not rob them of either of these statuses. There is also the fact that the right to disobey can help prevent or avoid wickedness, such as war crimes. To use an analogy, if I was told to pass a student who never attended my class because s/he was a star athlete, then I would be in the right to disobey and to bring this matter to the attention of others. Likewise, soldiers who are told to do what is unlawful or immoral have the right to refuse and bring this matter to the attention of others.

As such, the obvious conclusion has been reached: there are good reasons to enforce obedience and good reason to allow disobedience. The challenge would seem to be  to balance the need for both obedience and dissent in a way that creates the most good (and avoids the most evil).

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The Media, Gotcha Questions & Tacos

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2012
English: Sarah Palin speaking at a rally in El...

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It has long been a common practice on the right to accuse the media of having a liberal bias. Sarah Palin added a new spin on this approach by popularizing the notion of the “gotcha” question. As might be imagined, politicians continue to avail themselves of the notion that the media is out to get them.

In some cases the media does act in ways that seem to indicate that certain folks are out to get politicians. For example, CNN’s John King started off a presidential debate by asking Newt about what his second wife had said about his alleged request for an open marriage. While Newt handed King his rump on a platter, Newt also launched into an attack on the media.

On the one hand, Newt made some legitimate criticisms about how the media folks tend to bring up matters that are salacious yet lacking in actual merit as news stories. In the case of Newt, his character is relevant. However, as Newt points out, the story of his infidelity is old news and bringing it up at the start of the debate does seem to be rather uncalled for. This does, as one might imagine, raise some interesting questions about media ethics in regards to the timing of stories as well as the focus the media folks place on certain stories.

On the other hand, the media did not make up the story-Newt did, in fact, behave in ways contrary to his own currently espoused morality. Newt’s claim that the media makes it difficult for decent people to run for office seems to be questionable in that the professional media merely reports what people do and, as such, decent people would have no such sordid tales in their background. For politicians to complain that the media folks are reporting what they do and say is comparable to Meletus’ anger at Socrates for making evident his failings. The misdeed lies not with the person who reveals the misdeed but with the person who commits it.

More recently, East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. was asked by the press about the alleged harassment of Hispanics by members of the town’s police force. In reply to a very straightforward question about what he would do about the situation, he said he   “might have tacos.” As might be imagined, this did not go over very well.

While he did say he took responsibility for his actions, he also blamed the media and accused the reporter of asking a “gotcha” question. However, the question hardly appears to be anything that would legitimately count as a “gotcha” question in that it is not loaded, overly complicated, confusing, or otherwise trap-like in content. Also, the media folks presented his claim in full context. If they had, for example, asked him what he would have for dinner and then edited that in as his reply, then he could justly accuse the media of being unfair. However, he was asked a straightforward question and his reply was presented in context. As such, the only one he has to blame for his words is himself. Perhaps the biggest gripe that politicians have with the media folks is that they so often make public what politicians actually say and do (“how dare they report what I said!”). That, however, does not seem to be anything unfair or unjust on the part of the media. Rather, that seems to be their job.

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