A Philosopher's Blog

Ethics, Children & Immigration

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 30, 2014

While children, accompanied or not, have been immigrating to the United States from Central America for quite some time, this matter has attracted considerable attention as the number of children has increased (although not as dramatically as some media coverage would suggest). Not surprisingly, this has become a political issue within the larger context of the immigration policy debate and both Republicans and Democrats are struggling to figure out how to best exploit the opportunity (or best avoid disaster).

To focus the moral discussion, I will narrow the subject considerably and focus on young children who are arriving from Central America and who are not gang-members or other sorts of criminals. One reason for this is that the issue of allowing criminals to come to the United States is easy enough to address: they should not be allowed to come here for the purpose of committing crimes.

Since many Americans claim that the United States is a Christian nation, it is certainly tempting to apply Christian ethics to this matter. The bible is rather clear about this issue: “Thus has the LORD of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’” The bible also enjoins people to “not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Given these clear statements, it would seem to follow that those who which to practice Christian ethics would be morally (and religiously) obligated to show compassion and kindness to the children who are strangers and foreigners.

There are, of course, people who do take these injunctions seriously and act in accord with them. However, there are others who profess the religion but have reacted quite differently to these words: “But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears from hearing.…” Perhaps such folks believe that following Christian ethics is merely a matter of being opposed to birth control, abortion and equal rights for women.

Alternatively, a person could profess the principles and content that they are overridden by other concerns. One possible line of argumentation is to point out that the children are here illegally and this entails that they should not be given the full measure of compassion but rather shipped back to their point of origin immediately. Another possible line of argumentation is utilitarian: though extending kindness and compassion to the children would be laudable, to do so would require resources that are either unavailable or would be better used elsewhere (such as helping poor Americans). On this view, utilitarian ethics or practical concerns would trump the religious based ethics.

There are, obviously enough, people who are not Christians and people who, though professing to be Christians, reject the specific principles mentioned above. As such, other reasons would be needed to show that the children in question should be treated with suitable compassion and kindness.

One fruitful avenue is to appeal to a principle of moral debt: that is, when someone has been harmed or wronged, the wrongdoer has an obligation to set matters right. In the matter at hand, it has been claimed that some of the children have been sent from Central America to escape the terrible violence that plagues the region. This, of course, can be challenged—one could argue that the children are being sent to the United States for other reasons, such as better economic opportunities (or to become parasites on the American taxpayer). These arguments are not without merit and must be given due consideration. After all, if the children are coming to the United States illegally to escape danger and death, then that is a rather different matter than if they are coming to have a better life (perhaps at the expense of the taxpayer).

That said, let it be supposed that some of the children are, in fact, fleeing danger and the risk of death. The obvious concern is why this might obligate the United States to allow them to stay. One answer, as noted above, is to appeal to a moral debt owed by the United States (that is the people of the United States as a collective political body). Some might wonder what the foundation of such a debt might be. There are two easy and obvious answers to this.

The first is that the United States has a well-documented history of political and economic machinations in the region and these include toppling governments, supporting death squads, and other such nefarious deeds. In short, the United States has significantly contributed to the conditions that threaten the children of the area with death and danger. Fairness does, of course, require noting that the United States has not been alone in its adventures in the region (the Cold War helped shape much of the current situation) and some of the instability and chaos is self-inflicted. Given the United States’ role in creating the current situation, it would seem that we owe a collective debt and this would obligate us to addressing the consequences of these past actions.

The second is that a significant cause of violence in the region is drugs, specifically the production and distribution of drugs. While there is obviously local consumption, the people of the United States are a primary market for the drugs produced in this region and the war on drugs pursued by the United States has been even more disastrous in Central America than it has been in the United States. Given our role as drug consumers and our war on drugs, the United States is thus a major contributor to the violence and danger of the region. Since we are doing wrong, this would certainly seem to create an obligation on our part in regards to the children that are fleeing this situation.

To use an obvious analogy, if affluent outsiders wreck a neighborhood and serve as the prime customers for the drug industry that arises there, then these outsiders have a significant degree of moral accountability. If children try to flee the ruins of that neighborhood and head into the affluent neighborhood, it would certainly be wicked of those people to insist on sending them back into the mess they themselves worked so hard to create and maintain.


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A Modest Challenge

Posted in Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 1, 2011
Republican Party (United States)

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Republicans tend to make a point of claiming that they are people of faith-typically Christians. However, they often seem to take positions that directly contradict key parts of Christianity.

As an intellectual exercise reconcile Exodus 22:21( “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt”) with the views of most of the Republican party.

Bonus points for reconciling Herman Cain’s view of the poor with Luke 6:20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Additional points for reconciling  Exodus 22:25 (“If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest”) with the capitalist banking system.

Even more bonus points if you can explain why the media folks seem to never raise the point that there appears to be a serious inconsistency between certain espoused Republican values and actual Christianity.

Since Democrats are supposed to godless atheists, they get a pass on this one. 🙂


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Freedom & the Middle East

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 12, 2011
President George W. Bush and Egyptian Presiden...

Image via Wikipedia

While the Middle East is a land of seemingly endless turmoil, it seems that a democratic sandstorm might be striking the region with a vengeance. This potential for democracy exists, sadly enough, largely despite and not because of the United States. In general, we have backed autocrats, kings and despots in the hope that out cash would buy us allies in our war on whatever. For the most part, these allies tend to enrich themselves and their fellows while ensuring that their countries are most certainly not democracies.

Looking back on our own revolution, it should have come as no surprise that people in the Middle East would grow weary of living under the rule of despots and would rise up against them. While Egypt is the main focus of the media, Iran is also a place of potential revolution. The leadership in Iran is doing its best to keep its people focused against the United States and Mubarek. The official line is that Iran supports the people of Egypt against Mubarek and they are urging the installation of an Islamic government comparable to that in Iran. Obviously enough, Iran is hoping that the situation in Egypt will end up in their favor-either gaining Egypt as an ally or, at the very least, seeing the United States and Israel lose Egypt as an ally.

I suspect that the Iranian leadership is also a bit worried. After all, revolution can be a contagious sort of thing and seeing the people of Egypt revolting against a despot might serve to inspire Iranians to rise up once more against their own despots.

This upheaval could prove to be a good for the people of the region as well as the United States. In terms of the people, the result could be the creation of democratic states. Or, at the least, states that are not as repressive and autocratic in character. This change could, over the course of several years, create more stability in the region and lower the threat of terror by addressing some of the motivating and enabling factors.

However, it is well worth considering the lesson of Iran. That revolution resulted in the creation of an oppressive regime that has been consistently hostile to the United States.  While the Brotherhood in Egypt seems to be relatively moderate, there is the real possibility that radical elements might take the reins of the upheaval. There is also the reasonable concern that those who come to power will resent the fact that America has been a major force in keeping Mubarek in power and not regard the United States as a friend. The possibility of a protracted struggle that plunges Egypt into chaos is also well worth worrying about.

Ideally, the outcome will be resolved by peaceful elections and result in the dawn of a new era for the people of Egypt. However, the history of the Middle East suggests otherwise.

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Friend of Autocrats

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 2, 2011
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi - late Shah of Iran
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During our own revolution, we persuaded the French to support our efforts. They agreed, not from a love of democracy but from a love of themselves: they were well aware that backing us would weaken their major rival, the British. Now that we are a super power, we take a similar sort of approach: we back those who we think will support what we perceive as our interests (or at least the interests of those who hold wealth and power). Matters of principle are brought up against our enemies as rhetoric, but generally seem to fail to move us.

This “pragmatic” approach has led us to back rather repressive autocratic rulers. During the Cold War we would support almost anyone who would oppose the Soviets and we were tolerate of truly horrible violations of human rights and what we regard as our core political values. However, we often seemed to be woefully ignorant of what our approach would spawn. The most notable example is, of course, the fall of our ally the Shah and the creation of one of our most devoted foes. Our actions also served to create considerable anti-American sentiment in the world and helped to forge many of the problems that we now face. But at least we beat the Communists. Well, not China or Cuba. But at least the Soviets.

In the case of Egypt we pursued the classic approach: backing an autocratic ruler who was willing to play ball with us while being willfully ignorant of what was really going on within the country. As such, we were apparently surprised at what happened in Egypt (though it will, as always, seem obvious in hindsight).

With memories of Iran dancing in our heads, we are not entirely sure what to do. Will we lose yet another autocrat to a revolution of their own people and face another Iran? Will democracy triumph? Will chaos rule the land? Time, as always, will tell.

I would like to say that we have learned valuable lessons about backing autocrats against their own people, but that is obviously not the case.

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Egypt & Oil

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 1, 2011
P middle east
Image via Wikipedia

While Egypt is not a major oil producer, it does control the Suez canal as well as a major pipeline. As such, what is happening in Egypt could have a profound effect on the world economy. While it is possible to transport oil without using Egypt, this would add thousands of miles of travel distance-thus making the oil more costly and also slowing things down. There is also the obvious concern that the ships will be at greater risk making the longer journey.

As with almost every other incident in the Middle East, this latest episode exposes how unwise it is for the United States to rely so heavily on foreign oil for our energy needs. There is also the more general concern about the entire world economy-how it is effectively held hostage by a few countries in an incredibly unstable part of the world. This has always struck me as bordering on madness.

The obvious way to mitigate the impact of the Middle East is to develop alternative energy sources such as solar and biofuels as well as exploiting other sources of fossil fuels in the short term. Doing this on a sufficient scale would help stabilize the world economy by making energy costs more consistent and would also help reduce the relative value of the Middle East. This would also help cut the financial support for some terrorist organizations. On the minus side, this could mean serious economic woes for the countries in the Middle East which could in turn lead to instability, revolution, war and a spike in terrorism. As such, effort would need to be made to transition the Middle East as the world economy shifted away from their oil. Of course, given the success rate of almost anything attempted in the region, failure is the most likely outcome.

Naturally, there will be considerable opposition to such a transition from Middle Eastern oil and oil in general. There are major political players who have a vested interest in oil in general and the region’s oil in particular. They will. of course, fight any attempts to change things by casting these attempts as being left wing, unrealistic, unpatriotic and so on. However, freeing the world economy from such a deranging factor would seem to realistic, patriotic and not left leaning at all.


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The Egyptian Dilemma

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 31, 2011
President George W. Bush and Egyptian Presiden...
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As Egypt suffers through its latest time of turmoil, the United States faces a challenging dilemma. On one horn, there is the choice to stay mainly on the side of the current government. Given that Mubarak has been a consistent ally and opposed to radical Islamic groups, this option has significant appeal. If the current regime holds the day, then staying clearly on that side would cement the alliance even more. On the downside, backing a restrictive regime against a popular uprising is somewhat inconsistent with the values America professes and is not without the obvious risks.

On the other horn, there is the choice to push against the current regime in favor of the opposition. On the positive side, this could allow the United States to be on good terms with whoever replaces Mubarak’s regime (assuming it falls). On the minus side, this would be harmful to our relationship with Mubarak (assuming he wins) and could also backfire on the United States. To be specific, not supporting Mubarak could contribute to his fall and the winners that emerge might not have any real gratitude.

Between the horns is what seems to be the safer course-say vague things about our ally Mubarak and vague pleasantries about the “will of the people” and “democracy.” On the plus side, this commits us to none of the sides and thus avoids much of the impact of backing the wrong horse. On the minus side, such non-commitment means that the winners will not owe us and we will also have less impact out the outcome

What, then, should we do?

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Unrest in the Middle East

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 29, 2011
CAIRO, EGYPT - JUNE 4:  An Egyptian man lights...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Obviously, this post’s title is almost eternally accurate. However, the focus today will be on the more recent unrest, namely that in Egypt.

Many people in Egypt appear to have had quite enough of the government and are actively engaged in protesting the regime. In response, the government has attempted to suppress the protests, cut off communication, and silence the media. This is, of course, to be expected from this sort of government.

While Obama praised the folks in Tunisia, the administration is taking a different approach to Egypt. This is hardly surprising-though the government has been fairly repressive and is hardly a bastion of freedom, it has been fairly consistent in being on what we see as the right side of American interests in the region.

The situation in Egypt does present the usual interesting dilemma for Americans. On one hand, we profess a set of values that include freedom, self-government, democracy, and justice. These values and our own historical revolution would seem to give us good reasons to support those who are pushing for freedom against a repressive state. On the other hand, we seem to always be in a war against an opposing ideology and this leads us to support almost any government that promises that it will be on our side against the communists/terrorists or whoever the enemy is at the moment in question. That these governments are often repressive, undemocratic and lacking in freedom never seems to be a major point of concern-at least for those in power.

While it is tempting to see this policy as being pragmatic and realistic (“yeah, we talk democracy, but that is for us…we need these states to repress their people so that they don’t go over to the commies/terrorists/whoever”), it is well worth considering the price that must be paid for this.

The largest price is, of course, paid by the people who live under the repressive regimes. They get to live without freedom (or at least far less freedom) so that the United States can have a “reliable” ally in the region or so that American interests can be advanced.

We also pay a price. The first part of the price is that we become hypocrites: we speak of freedom while tolerating and supporting tyrannies and repressive states. This, of course, seems to be quite contrary to our professed commitment to democracy, freedom, liberty and all that. Given how we throw these words about, we should be the ones supporting revolutions against repressive states, rather than trying so often to keep them propped up against their own people.

Second, we pay a rather ironic price: our efforts to prop up repressive states as allies against the enemy of the day sometimes ends up leading to that state falling to that enemy (Vietnam) or another enemy (Iran). People tend to remember who backed the government that jailed their relatives and murdered their friends.

Of course, it can be argued that the people in the Middle East are not yet ready for democracy and must be kept under the watchful eye of authoritarian states. It could also be argued that the threat posed by radical Islam means that we have to support states that will keep repressing the radicals. Of course, this strategy might (as noted above) turn out to have a result that is opposite of the one we desire.

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