A Philosopher's Blog

Virtual Cheating I: The Wrongness of Cheating

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on June 16, 2017

The morality of cheating in a relationship is one of the most popular paper topics in my Ethics course. As might be suspected, the students tend to condemn this sort of cheating and have always focused on the “traditional” form of cheating—that is, people having “naked time” together when one or more of them is in a committed relationship. With the rise of such things as sexting, virtual worlds and sexbots, I’ve tried to encourage the students to write on what can be called “virtual cheating”-if only to give me something slightly new to grade. Since no student has taken on this matter, it falls to me to write about it.

As just noted, traditional cheating involves people having sexual interactions in person when one or more of them is in a (supposedly) committed relationship. Virtual cheating, by its very nature, is not traditional cheating: the people either do not interact sexually in person (they sext or engage in virtual activities in a virtual world, such as a video game) or a person is engaged in sexual behavior with a non-person (such as a sexbot). While most regard traditional cheating as wrong, it is not clear if the alleged wrongness of traditional cheating applies to virtual cheating. Answering this question requires sorting out what, if anything, makes traditional cheating wrong.

One stock approach to arguing that traditional cheating is wrong is to “mix norms” by going from religion to ethics. For example, my students usually point out that the Ten Commandments forbid adultery and then typically just say this makes it wrong. The problem is, obviously enough, that religion is not the same as ethics. What is needed is a way to transition from religion to ethics. One easy way to do this is to use divine command theory. This is the view that what God commands is good because He command it. Likewise, what he forbids is wrong because He forbids it. Assuming this theory, if God forbids adultery, then it is wrong. In regards to virtual cheating, the question would be whether virtual cheating is adequately similar to traditional adultery. This is a matter that will be addressed in a later essay.

Another stock approach is to engage in more norm mixing by going from law to ethics. While there are excellent reasons not to equate legality and morality, the moral theory of legalism (also known as legal positivism) says that what is legal is moral and what is illegal is immoral. Since some places still consider adultery a crime, this would make cheating immoral in such places. Legalism actually provides the easiest way to address the ethics of virtual cheating: one just needs to consult the law and the answer is there.

A third approach, and one my students almost always use, is the utilitarian option. On this view, the morality of an action is determined by its harmful and beneficial consequences. If more negative value is created by the action, it is morally wrong. If there is more positive value, then it is morally good (or at least acceptable). The moral arguments against traditional cheating focus on the usual negative consequences: emotional damage, physical damage, STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and so on. Interestingly, students almost always mention cars being keyed. Moral arguments for cheating focus on the alleged benefits: pleasure, emotional fulfillment, and so on. The utilitarian approach, interestingly enough, would make it easy to bypass the question of whether virtual cheating is cheating or not. This is because what would matter is whether or not the consequences of the actions created more negative or positive value. Whether the actions are cheating or not would be irrelevant. Unless, of course, the cheating aspect was relevant to the consequences.

A fourth approach is to embrace a rule based approach, such as the deontology of Immanuel Kant. On this view, the action itself is wrong or right—it is not a matter of consequences. The religious arguments that are used to try to show that cheating is wrong tend to also be rule based arguments. The rules, in that case, would be those attributed to God. While deontologists can embrace very different rules about who one should embrace, Kant’s categorical imperative and his view that people are ends rather than means would seem to support the view that cheating would be morally wrong. The question about virtual cheating would be whether it is cheating. Alternatively, rules about the activities I am grouping as virtual cheating would settle the matter without addressing whether they really are cheating or not.

A fifth approach is that of virtue theory—the sort of theory endorsed by the likes of Aristotle and Confucius. On this view, a person should strive to be virtuous and the incentive is usually that virtue will make a person happy. Since cheating would seem to violate such virtues as honesty and loyalty, then it would appear to be morally wrong under virtue theory. In the case of virtual cheating, the concern would be with the effect of such behavior on a person’s virtues.

A final approach is a rights based approach. Ethics that are based on rights purport that people have various rights and it is generally wrong to violate them. In the case of cheating, the usual argument is that people engage into a form of contractual ethics by agreeing to a committed relationship. This gives each party various rights and responsibilities. The usual contract is one of exclusive sexual interaction. Since traditional cheating violates this right of exclusivity, it would be wrong. In the case of virtual cheating, it would also be a question of rights—typically based on an explicit or implicit contract. Naturally, contractual ethics can also be cast in the form of rule based ethics—the contract forms the rules.

In the next essay I will move on to the matter of virtual cheating, beginning with considerations of sexting and “cheating” in virtual worlds such as video games.



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Free Speech & Feeling Unsafe

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 9, 2017

A somewhat recent talking point on the right is that “the liberals” are trying to violate the free speech rights of conservatives. On the one hand, this is a hasty generalization: the left counts among its numbers some of the staunchest advocates of free expression who defend the right of conservatives to engage in free expression. On the other hand, there are those on the left who are actively trying to silence conservative voices. That said, is important to distinguish between attempts to silence people and legitimate acts of protest.

To illustrate, the incident involving Charles Murray at Middlebury College illustrates how some people try to unjustly silence those they disagree with. In contrast, the students at Notre Dame who walked out on Vice President Pence’s speech were engaged in a legitimate protest—they expressed their disagreement without harassing or silencing pence. However, the Pence incident had an interesting twist that is well worth considering.

Two of the students who walked out on Pence’s speech explained their motivation: “The walkout was in response to the fact that members of our own community felt unwelcome, uncomfortable, and even unsafe…” I do understand why having Mike Pence speak would make some people feel unwelcome and uncomfortable—after all, Pence makes no secret of his views on various social and moral issues. No doubt some conservative students would feel just as unwelcome and uncomfortable in the presence of a liberal speaker. While I do think speakers should endeavor to make their audience welcome and comfortable, this is not a moral obligation on the part of speakers—especially on college campuses. A key part of education is being pushed outside of one’s comfort zone in terms of such things as values, beliefs and ideology. Students do, of course, have every right to resist being pushed out of this zone; but this is typically their loss when they succeed. The students might have benefited from enduring Pence’s words; but they did have the right to refuse to listen. After all, the right of free expression means that one should not be silenced, not that one can compel others to pay attention.

What is worrisome is the use of the term “unsafe.” When I first heard some vague details about this episode, I initially thought the students were concerned that there might be violence at the event—as has happened elsewhere. That would, of course, be legitimate grounds for concerns about safety. After all, to feel unsafe is to feel that one is at risk for harm. However, after listening to a discussion of the incident on NPR, I realized that the claim was that Pence’s mere presence as a speaker made people feel unsafe. They did not, obviously, think that Pence would attack them physically.

One way to interpret the matter is that people thought they would be harmed in some meaningful way by Pence’s presence and his words. While people can certainly inflict harm with words, it would seem to be an odd use of “unsafe” in the context of the Vice President giving a speech. But perhaps some people are so lacking in resilience that the expression of ideas they do not like or the presence of someone they disagree with can cause harm to them. In this case, they would thus be wise to leave the area before sustaining such harm. To use an analogy, if someone was so sensitive to noise that a speech would cause them pain, they should not attend the speech. They do not, however, have the right to insist that the speech not be made simply because they would experience pain.

A second, and more plausible way, to interpret this is that “unsafe” is referring to a stronger version of being uncomfortable and not a feeling that meaningful danger is imminent. While words mean what they do as a matter of convention, shifting the meaning of words in this manner is problematic for communication. As noted above, I initially thought the students feared a riot, which caused some confusion. Another potential problem is that using “unsafe” in this context makes the expression of ideas that one does not like seem dangerous. While this might be a rhetorical point the students were trying to make to justify walking out, this is a misuse of the language. To be specific, it is hyperbole that serves to distort the matter by conflating merely being uncomfortable with being in danger. Because of these problems, the term “unsafe” should not be used in such contexts. Instead, it should be used for cases in which there is an actual threat to safety and rights. Such as the push by some against free expression by conservatives.


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Abstinence, Texas and Teen Pregnancy

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 7, 2017

While the United States has seen declining rates of teen pregnancy (along with a very slight reduction in self-reported teen sexual activity), Texas has the slowest rate of decline. In a typical year, 35,000 Texan teenagers and women under 20 get pregnant. Texas also leads the nation in repeat teen pregnancies. As would be suspected, researchers wondered why this was the case and investigated. The finding was hardly surprising. While many states have addressed the problem of unplanned teen pregnancies by education and social services support, Texas has elected to take a different approach. Most Texas schools offer either no sex education or abstinence only sex education. While many states offer contraception counselling to teen mothers, Texas generally does not—hence Texas leads the country in repeat teenage pregnancies. Texas also has rather restrictive policies regarding contraception for teenagers, although the evidence clearly shows that access to contraception reduces unplanned pregnancies (and hence also reduces the number of abortions). Despite the solid evidence linking Texas’ approach to its problem with teen pregnancy, the view of many social conservatives is that abstinence only education is the best approach. This is a rather problematic view.

Looked at in the context of the objective data on teen pregnancy, Texas’ abstinence only (or no sex education at all) approach is clearly not the best. If, of course, the best approach is the one that most effectively reduces unplanned teen pregnancies. To use the obvious analogy, it is as if Texas was trying to reduce automobile accidents, injuries and fatalities involving teenagers by offering them either no driver education or driver education that says not to drive or get in cars. Texas is also doing the equivalent of trying to ensure teens who do get in cars do so without access to seat belts, air bags and other safety equipment. The absurdity of this approach should be evident on the face of it. This, of course, assumes that the best approach is defined in terms of reducing unplanned teen pregnancies. However, there are other ways to evaluate approaches to addressing teen pregnancy.

One alternative approach is to select the method that is regarded as morally best, defined in terms of the moral principles used to make this assessment. For some conservatives, premarital sex is morally wrong. On this view, Texas is taking the right approach because unmarried teenagers should be practicing abstinence and enabling them to understand and access birth control would be to contribute to their immoral deeds. To use an analogy, consider murder. Since murder is wrong, schools should teach an abstinence only approach to murder and not enable people easy access to implements of murder (except guns; this is not only America but Texas).

The easy and obvious reply to this approach is to point out that the moral righteousness of those who deny teenagers proper sex education and access to contraceptives comes at the cost of considerable harm to the teenagers and society. Allowing this harm to occur to others simply so one can impose their own values seems to be morally unacceptable on utilitarian grounds.  There is also the moral concern about the rights of the teenagers to make their own informed choices about consensual sexual behavior. The imposition of the values of the social conservatives denies them this right and infringes on their freedom. Naturally, those who value abstinence and oppose contraception are free to act on this view themselves—they have every right to not engage in sex or to not use contraception when they do so. They do not, however, have the right to cause harm to others because of their views of sex.

Interestingly, the Texas approach can be seen as the best approach by considering an alternative set of goals. As noted above, if the goal is reducing unwanted teen pregnancies, then the Texas approach is a poor one. However, if there are different goals, then the approach could be regarded as a success. One possible goal is to ensure that the poor and uneducated remain that way. After all, unplanned pregnancies are most likely to occur among the poor and uneducated and they make it harder for people to rise out of poverty and also to achieve educational goals. Maintaining a poor and uneducated population confers some significant benefits to the upper classes and also meshes with some morally repugnant ideological views. Another possible goal is to “keep women in their place” by making it more likely that they will get pregnant as teenagers. This is a variant of the goal of maintaining an underclass; in this case the specific targets are girls and young women.

While a utilitarian case could, perhaps, be made for using these policies to help maintain the underclasses, the harms caused by them do seem to outweigh the advantages gained by the upper classes. As such, policies aimed at maintaining the underclasses would seem morally wrong.

In light of the above discussion, Texas’ approach to teenage pregnancy is either merely ineffective or immoral (or both). As such, the policies in Texas should be replaced by those that have proven effective elsewhere. Or not. Texas being the worst does have the benefit of allowing other states to look down at Texas and this does have a certain appeal.


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Adult ADHD & Ethics

Posted in Business, Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 2, 2017

In 2017, the World Health Organization released as six question “test” for adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While even proponents of the questions warn that people should not self-diagnose with the “test”, there is the obvious question about the effectiveness of such a diagnostic method. After all, as others have noted, almost every adult seems to exhibit the symptoms that the questions ask about. For example, difficulty in concentrating, unwinding and relaxing seem to be the plight of most people. I first learned of a similar sort of diagnostic tool at a mandatory training session on learning disabilities and another faculty member commented on this tool by saying “by those standards, I think we all have ADHD.” Everyone agreed. Because of these concerns, doctors tend to agree that the simple screening test is not sufficient to diagnose adult ADHD. While using an unreliably method of diagnosing adult ADHD would be problematic, there are also important moral concerns about this matter.

Coincidentally enough, many of the doctors who served on the advisory panel for developing the screening method have enjoyed the financial support of the pharmaceutical companies who produce the drugs used to “treat” adult ADHD. Such payments to doctors by pharmaceutical companies is standard practice and drives much of how treatment works in the United States.  Doctors who are not influenced by pharmaceutical companies as less inclined to prescribe the brand name products of companies, which is hardly surprising.

It is important to note that the fact that doctors are enriched financial by pharmaceutical companies that profit from ADHD drugs does not prove that the questions are not useful nor does it prove that they are wrong in expanding the number of people on ADHD drugs. After all, the possibility that a person making a claim is biased does not entail that the claim is false and to think otherwise would be an error of logic. That said, if a person is an interested party and stands to gain, then the relevant claims should be considered with due skepticism. As such, the doctors who are pushing the agenda of the pharmaceutical companies that enrich them should be regarded as lacking in credibility to the degree they are likely to be influenced by this enrichment. Which, one would infer, would be significant.  As is always the case in such situations, what is needed are more objective sources of information about ADHD. As should not be surprising, those who are not being enriched by the industry are not as enthusiastic about expanding the ADHD drug market. This raises reasonable ethical concerns about whether the industry is profiting at the expense of people who are being pushed to use drugs they do not actually need. Given the general track record of these companies, this sort of unethical behavior does seem to be the case.

Since I am not a medical doctor specializing in ADHD, I lack the expertise to properly assess the matter. However, I can offer some rational consideration of adult ADHD and its treatment with pharmaceuticals. The diagnostic questions focus on such factors as concentration, ability to remain seated, ability to relax, ability to let people finish sentences, ability to not procrastinate, and independence in regards to ordering one’s life. As noted above, these are all things that all humans have difficulty with at one time or another. Of course, even the proponents of medicating people do note that it takes more than the usual problems to make a person a candidate for medication. But, of course, these proponents do have a fairly generous view of who should be medicated.

One reasonable concern is that there are non-pharmaceutical methods of addressing problematic behaviors of this sort. While, as noted above, I am not an ADHD specialist, I do have extensive training in methods of concentration (thanks to running, martial arts and academics). As such, I know that people can be trained to have better focus without the use of profitable chemicals. Since these drugs have side effects and cost money, it would be morally and practically preferable to focus on non-chemical methods of developing positive traits. Aristotle developed just such a method long ago: training in virtue by habituation. But, it can be objected, there are people who cannot or will not use such non-pharmaceutical methods.

This is a reasonable reply. After all, while many medical conditions can be addressed without drugs, there are times when drugs are the only viable options—such as in cases of severe bacterial infections. However, there is still an important concern: are the drugs merely masking the symptoms of an underlying problem?

In the United States, most adults do not get enough sleep and are under considerable stress. This is due, largely, to the economic system that we accept and tolerate. It is well known that lack of sleep and stress cause exactly the sort of woes that are seen as symptoms of adult ADHD. As such, it seems reasonable to think that problematic adult ADHD is largely the result of the American way of life. While the drugs mask the real problems, they do not solve them. In fact, these drugs can be seen as analogous to the soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. If this is true, then the treatment of ADHD with drugs is morally problematic in at least two ways. First, it does not really treat the problems—it merely masks them and leaves the real causes in place. Second, drugging people in this manner makes it easier for them to tolerate a political, social and economic system that is destroying them which is morally wrong. In light of the above discussion, the pushing of ADHD drugs on adults is morally wrong.



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Punching Reporters

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2017

While American conservatives have long put forth the talking point that the media suffers from a crippling liberal bias, the rise of Trump saw a notable change in the approach of Republicans to reporters. Most recently, Republican Greg Gianforte attacked a journalist by grabbing him by the neck and throwing him to the floor. Somewhat ironically, the attack on the liberal media was witnessed by a Fox News team. Gianforte has been charged with a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of a $500 fine or six months in jail. It is unlikely that Gianforte, who was just elected to the House of Representatives, will serve any time.

After the attack, Gianforte’s campaign (apparently following the path of lies paved by President Trump) released a statement containing untrue claims (or, more accurately, lies): “After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.” As the Fox News team noted, Jacobs did none of these things and was simply attacked by Gianforte after trying to ask him questions. Gianforte later issued an apology for his actions which seems to have rescinded the original set of untrue claims about the incident. While attacking a reporter and lying seem to be obviously wrong, this incident is certainly morally interesting.

As should be expected, some people approved of Gianforte’s response, seeing it as a manly blow against the effeminate liberal media. While it is tempting to dismiss the endorsement of violence out of hand, a case can be made in favor of physically attacking the press. The gist of the argument is as follows.

If the press is liberally biased and engages in unwarranted attacks against conservatives, then the conservatives have the right of self-defense against these unwarranted attacks. Since the liberal media controls the media, the conservatives have no viable means of self-defense via the media. However, this does not entail that they thus lose the right to self-defense. They still have the option of resorting to a physical defense by grabbing and punching members of the liberal media when they attack.

It could be countered that Jacobs was merely questioning Gianforte about his position on the Republican health care proposal and not engaged in an attack at all. However, it could be claimed that aggressively asking such questions constitutes an attack that warrants a physical response. But, being asked questions does not put a person in danger that warrants the use of physical force—a person can merely decline to answer the questions.

It is certainly worth pointing out that the notion that the media is liberal is countered by the existence of Fox News and other conservative media outlets. Because of this, conservatives do have a non-violent option of self-defense: they can turn to Fox News and others.

Even if conservatives lacked the venues of Fox News and similar media outlets, it would still be difficult to justify the use of physical violence as a defense against the liberal media. After all, the moral notion of self-defense includes a proportionality factor. If, for example, someone throws a water balloon at me and threatens me with another drenching, I have no moral right to use lethal force to stop them. After all, the danger they present does not warrant a lethal response. Likewise, even if the liberal media is cruelly attacking conservatives, this does not warrant a physical response. Verbal attacks warrant verbal defenses, not punches. As such, this sort of attack should be condemned.

While most people do not approve of this sort of violence, the Republican leadership has offered but a half-hearted and tepid condemnation of the attack, as exemplified by Paul Ryan’s response. Given the importance of the freedom of the press in particular and the importance of avoiding senseless violence in a civilized society, this lukewarm response is certainly problematic. However, it is indicative of how some conservatives now regard core American values. That is, they do not value them.

While the physical violence was the most worrisome, there is also the use of lies to try to spin the incident. The physical attack on the reporter thus serves as a blunt metaphor for the systematic attack on the truth that has become a standard practice in politics. This is especially hypocritical when it comes from people who profess to hold to traditional values and religious ideals.

It could be said that this concern is an overreaction, that is it merely a member of Congress punching a reporter. However, this incident has broader implications about how we, as a people, look at the press, truth and violence. As it stands, lies and violence have been rewarded with high office. Presumably this is the lesson that we wish to teach our children so that they might live down to our lack of principles and ideals.

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Illegal Immigrants & Law Enforcement

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on May 26, 2017

While Trump has kept his promise to crack down on illegal immigrants, this increased enforcement has apparently made life easier for criminals and more difficult for police. This is because illegal immigrants are now far less likely to report crimes to the police or assist in police investigations.

While Trump and others have claimed that immigrants come here to commit crimes (and steal jobs), the evidence shows that native citizens commit crimes at a higher rate than immigrants. Immigrants are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators, which is one reason why some police departments are reluctant to serve as agents of federal immigration policy. After all, they need the cooperation of victims and witnesses to investigate crimes. This is not to say that illegal immigrants do not commit crimes; they do and this is a matter of legitimate concern. While the legal issues of immigration are obviously a matter of law, there are important moral issues here as well.

As noted above, one compelling reason for the local police and officials to not work as enforcers for federal immigration policy is that illegal immigrants who are victims or witnesses of crimes will be far less likely to cooperate with the police. From a utilitarian standpoint, this would morally problematic because it would result in more harm than good by allowing criminals to remain at large. As an example, illegal immigrants have been picked up at courthouses after serving as witnesses for the prosecution. This practice will certainly deter illegal immigrants from coming forward as witnesses. As such, this would seem to provide a moral justification for local governments to ignore the immigration status of people who have otherwise not broken any laws.

The easy and obvious counter to this line of reasoning is to point out that illegal immigrants are, by definition, all criminals. As such, ignoring their immigration status would allow criminals to remain in the community engaging in criminal activities. To add in a utilitarian element, it can be argued that while tolerating illegals who do not engage in other crimes would be a small thing, the damage to the rule of law would be significant in its harms.

One reply to this is to point out that lesser criminals are often given immunity to encourage them to testify against more important criminals. This same sort of justification could be applied here: the extremely minor crime of being an illegal immigrant can be justly ignored to ensure that the illegal immigrants are able to report serious crimes and serve as witnesses in prosecutions of such crimes. The obvious problem with this reply is that it justifies ongoing criminal activity. To use an analogy, it would be like allowing people to continuously violate minor traffic laws in the hopes that they would be more amenable to cooperating with the police regarding more significant crimes. The absurdity of this would seem to show that allowing one crime in the hopes of getting more cooperation combating other crimes is not a reasonable idea.

Another reply is that the illegal immigrants are only criminals because of bad immigration law and a defective immigration system. The gist of this approach is to argue that the immigrants who do not commit other crimes should not be classified as criminals in the first place and that enforcing such bad laws is morally wrong. It could be argued that there is a crude integrity in mindlessly obeying the law, but history has shown that “just following orders” is not an adequate moral defense. The challenge here is, of course, working out whether the immigration laws are bad laws. On the face of it, there does seem to be considerable agreement that they are not very good laws. However, it is still reasonable to consider whether the laws are bad enough to warrant regarding them as unjust laws. My own view is that the laws are bad laws but that by leaving them on the books and not enforcing them, we encourage a disrespect for the law. As such, I favor changing the laws so that they are just laws that are right to enforce.

One way to look at the matter is to consider the history of the United States: European immigrants simply showed up on the shores and started expanding into already inhabited lands. Almost any argument advanced in defense of European immigration into the New World could be dusted off and refurbished into arguments justifying the new illegal immigrants. Of course, the new illegal immigrants have a stronger moral case: they mostly coming here just to work rather than to kill the current inhabitants and take their land.

There is also the practical argument regarding law enforcement. As others have noted, the police have limited resources and it makes more sense to use those on serious crimes rather than on people who are merely here illegally and otherwise law-abiding. The moral aspect of this argument is that focusing on the more serious crimes will create more benefits than using resources to go after illegal immigrants.

My own view is that the current laws and practices regarding illegal immigration are morally unacceptable. The obvious solution involves changing the laws to match the ethics and reality of the situation and for politicians to stop making excuses and, worse, to stop exploiting the matter for short term political advantages at the expense of both the illegals and the local communities.

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Panhandling & Free Expression

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2017

Many local officials tend to believe that panhandlers are detrimental to local businesses and tourism and, as such, it is no surprise that there have been many efforts to ban begging. While local governments keep trying to craft laws to pass constitutional muster, their efforts have generally proven futile in the face of the First Amendment. While the legal questions are addressed by courts, there remains the moral question of whether the banning of panhandling can be morally justified.

The obvious starting point for a moral argument for banning panhandling is a utilitarian approach. As noted above, local officials generally want to have such bans because they believe panhandlers can be bad for local businesses and tourism in general. For example, if potential customers are accosted by scruffy and unwashed panhandlers on the streets around businesses, then they are less likely to patronize those businesses. As another example, if a city gets a reputation for being awash in beggars who annoy tourists with their pleas for cash, then tourism is likely to decline. From the perspective of the business owners and the local officials, these effects would have negative value that would outweigh the benefits to the panhandlers of being able to ask for money. There is presumably also utility in encouraging panhandlers to move away to other locations, thus removing the financial and social cost of having panhandlers. If this utilitarian calculation is accurate, then banning panhandling would be morally acceptable. Of course, if the calculation is not correct and such a ban would do more harm than good, then the ban would be morally wrong.

A second utilitarian argument is the safety argument. While panhandlers generally do not engage in violence (they, after all, are asking for money and not trying to rob people), it has been claimed that they do present a safety risk. The standard concern is that by panhandling in or near traffic, they put themselves and others in danger. If this is true, then banning panhandling would be the right thing to do.  If, however, the alleged harm does not justify the ban, then it would be morally unacceptable.

There is also the obvious reply that any safety concerns could be addressed by having laws that forbid people from obstructing the flow of traffic and being a danger to themselves and others. Presumably many such laws exist in various localities. There is also the concern that the safety argument would need to be applied consistently to all such allegedly risky behavior around traffic, such as people engaging in political campaigns or street side advertising.

It is also easy enough to advance a utilitarian argument in favor of panhandling that is based on the harm that could be done by restricting the panhandlers’ freedom of expression and activity. Following Mill’s classic argument, as long as panhandlers are not harming people with their panhandling, then it would be wrong to limit their freedom to engage in this behavior. This is on the condition that the panhandling is, at worst, merely annoying and does not involve threatening behavior or harassment.

It could be objected that panhandling does cause harm—as noted above, the presence of panhandlers could harm local businesses. People can also regard panhandling as an infringement on their freedom to not be bothered in public. While this does have some appeal, this justification of a panhandling ban would also justify banning any public behavior people found annoying or that had some perceived impact on local businesses. This could include public displays of expression, political campaigning, preaching in public and many other behaviors that should not be banned. In short, the problem is that there is not something distinct enough to panhandling that would allow it to be banned without also justifying the ban of other activities. To simply ban it because it is panhandling would seem to solve this problem, but would not. After all, if an activity can be justly banned because it is that activity, then this would apply to any activity. After all, every activity is the activity it is.

Those who prefer an alternative to utilitarian calculations can easily defend panhandling against proposed bans by appealing to a right of free expression and behavior that is not based on utility. If people do have the moral right to free expression, then reasons would need to be advanced that would be strong enough to warrant violating this right. As noted above, an appeal could be made to the rights of businesses and the rights of other people to avoid being annoyed. However, the right to not be annoyed does not seem to trump the right of expression until the annoyance becomes significant. As such, a panhandler does have the right to annoy a person by asking for money, but if it crosses over into actual harassment, then this would be handled by the fact that people do not have a right to harassment.

In the case of businesses, while they do have a right to engage in free commerce, they do not have a right to expect people to behave in ways that are conducive to their business. If, for example, people found it offensive to have runners running downtown and decided to take their business elsewhere, this would not warrant a runner ban. But, if runners were blocking access to the businesses by running around the entrances, then the owners’ rights would be being violated. Likewise, if panhandlers are disliked by people and they decide to take their business elsewhere, this does not violate the rights of the businesses. But, if panhandlers started harassing people and blocking access to the businesses, then this would violate the rights of the owners.

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The Ethics of Stockpiling Vulnerabilities

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 17, 2017

In May of 2017 the Wannacry Ransomware swept across the world, impacting thousands of computers. The attack affected hospitals, businesses, and universities and the damage has yet to be fully calculated. While any such large-scale attack is a matter of concern, the Wannacry incident is especially interesting. This is because the foundation of the attack was stolen from the National Security Agency of the United States. This raises an important moral issue, namely whether states should stockpile knowledge of software vulnerabilities and the software to exploit them.

A stock argument for states maintaining such stockpiles is the same as the argument used to justify stockpiling weapons such as tanks and aircraft. The general idea is that such stockpiles are needed for national security: to protect and advance the interests of the state. In the case of exploiting vulnerabilities for spying, the security argument can be tweaked a bit by drawing an analogy to other methods of spying. As should be evident, to the degree that states have the right to stockpile physical weapons and engage in spying for their security, they also would seem to have the right to stockpile software weapons and knowledge of vulnerabilities.

The obvious moral counter argument can be built on utilitarian grounds: the harm done when such software and information is stolen and distributed exceeds the benefits accrued by states having such software and information. The Wannacry incident serves as an excellent example of this. While the NSA might have had a brief period of advantage when it had exclusive ownership of the software and information, the damage done by the ransomware to the world certainly exceeds this small, temporary advantage. Given the large-scale damage that can be done, it seems likely that the harm caused by stolen software and information will generally exceed the benefits to states. As such, stockpiling such software and knowledge of vulnerabilities is morally wrong.

This can be countered by arguing that states just need to secure their weaponized software and information. Just as a state is morally obligated to ensure that no one steals its missiles to use in criminal or terrorist endeavors, a state is obligated to ensure that its software and vulnerability information is not stolen. If a state can do this, then it would be just as morally acceptable for a state to have these cyberweapons as it would be for it to have conventional weapons.

The easy and obvious reply to this counter is to point out that there are relevant differences between conventional weapons and cyberweapons that make it very difficult to properly secure them from unauthorized use. One difference is that stealing software and information is generally much easier and safer than stealing traditional weapons. For example, a hacker can get into the NSA from anywhere in the world, but a person who wanted to steal a missile would typically need to break into and out of a military base. As such, securing cyberweapons can be more difficult that securing other weapons. Another difference is that almost everyone in the world has access to the deployment system for software weapons—a device connected to the internet. In contrast, someone who stole, for example, a missile would also need a launching platform. A third difference is that software weapons are generally easier to use than traditional weapons. Because of these factors, cyberweapons are far harder to secure and this makes their stockpiling very risky. As such, the potential for serious harm combined with the difficulty of securing such weapons would seem to make them morally unacceptable.

But, suppose that such weapons and vulnerability information could be securely stored—this would seem to answer the counter. However, it only addresses the stockpiling of weaponized software and does not justify stockpiling vulnerabilities. While adequate storage would prevent the theft of the software and the acquisition of vulnerability information from the secure storage, the vulnerability would remain to be exploited by others. While a state that has such vulnerability information would not be directly responsible for others finding the vulnerabilities, the state would still be responsible for knowingly allowing the vulnerability to remain, thus potentially putting the rest of the world at risk. In the case of serious vulnerabilities, the potential harm of allowing such vulnerabilities to remain unfixed would seem to exceed the advantages a state would gain in keeping the information to itself. As such, states should not stockpile knowledge of such critical vulnerabilities, but should inform the relevant companies.

The interconnected web of computers that forms the nervous system of the modern world is far too important to everyone to put it risk for the relatively minor and short-term gains that could be had by states creating malware and stockpiling vulnerabilities. I would use an obvious analogy to the environment; but people are all too willing to inflict massive environmental damage for relatively small short term gains. This, of course, suggests that the people running states might prove as wicked and unwise regarding the virtual environment as they are regarding the physical environment.


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Truth, Loyalty & Trump

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 12, 2017

While the first hundred (or so) days of a president’s reign is something of an arbitrary mark, Trump seems to have ignited more controversy and firestorms than most presidents. Since Lincoln’s election lead to the Civil War, he still leads here—but Trump is, perhaps, just getting warmed up.

The most recent incident in the Trump reign is the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The narrative of why Comey was fired has served as yet another paradigm example of the nature of the Trump reign. The initial reason given was that Comey was fired for how he handled the Clinton email scandal. This story would convince only the most deluded—Trump and his fellows had praised Comey for his role in crashing Hillary’s chance of being elected. Trump’s minions also deployed to assert that Comey was fired because he had lost the confidence of the people at the FBI. This, like most assertions originating from the Trump regime, seems to be untrue. Trump himself seems to have presented what might be a real reason for Comey being fired: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ” These claims are contrary to the reasons advanced by his minions; the claim that he decided to “just do it” is contrary to the earlier narrative that Trump had acted on the advice of others.

There is also reason to believe that Comey’s refusal to pledge personal loyalty to Trump at a dinner. Public officials, at least in the ideal, pledge their loyalty to the Constitution and not to specific individuals. Comey did promise to always be honest, apparently leading Trump to ask him to pledge “honest loyalty” which could be something that just emerged from Trump’s mouth rather than an actual thing. Trump seems rather worried that Comey might have recorded conversations with him; at least Trump is threatening Comey about such hypothetical tapes on Twitter.

When writing about the Trump reign, I feel as if I am writing about a fictional universe—what happens in Trump space seems to be stuff of bad alternative reality fiction. However, it is quite real—and thus needs to be addressed.

Starting on the surface, the Comey episode provides (more) objective evidence that the Trump regime engages in the untrue. As noted above, Trump’s minions presented one narrative about the firing that was quickly contradicted by Trump. Since all these claims cannot be true, a plausible explanation is that either Trump’s minions were lying or Trump was. Alternatively, those involved might have believed what they were saying. In this case, they would not be lying—although at least some of them would have said untrue things. This is because a lie requires that the liar be aware that what they are asserting is not true; merely being in error about the facts is not sufficient to make a person a liar.

Digging a bit deeper, Trump’s request for a pledge of loyalty seems to reveal his view of how the government should work—loyalty should be to Trump rather than to the Constitution. This is consistent with how Trump operates in the business world and the value he places on loyalty is well known.

While loyalty is generally a virtue, the United States professes to be a country that follows the rule of law and that places the constitution on the metaphorical throne. That is, public officials pledge their loyalty (as public officials) to the constitution and not to the person who happens to be president. This principle of loyalty to the constitution is critical to the rule of law in the United States. If Trump did, in fact, expect Comey to pledge loyalty to him, Trump was attacking a basic foundation of American democracy and our core political philosophy.

This is not to say that officials should lack all personal loyalty; just that their loyalty as public officials should be first and foremost to the Constitution. It could be argued that Trump was merely asking for an acceptable level of professional loyalty or that he was asking Comey to pledge his loyalty to the Constitution. While not impossible, it seems unlikely that Trump would ask for either of those things.

Comey’s unwillingness to pledge loyalty to Trump points to another likely reason for his firing. Trump presumably hoped that a loyal Comey would drop the investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump campaign. It seems likely that when it became clear that Comey was not going to let the matter go away, Trump fired him. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov engaged in a bit of wit about the Comey firing, asking reporters if Comey was fired and then responding with “You’re kidding, you’re kidding,” when the answer was given.

While some have claimed that Trump has created a constitutional crisis, this is clearly not the case. As others have pointed out, Trump has the authority to fire the director of the FBI for any reason or no reason. As such, Trump has not exceeded his constitutional powers in this matter. At the very least, the firing created “bad optics” and certainly created the impression that Trump fired Comey because Trump has something to hide. Since the Republican controlled congress seems to be generally unconcerned with the matter, Trump might be able to ride out the current storm and get an FBI director confirmed who will pledge loyalty to him and do to the investigation what Putin allegedly does to his political opponents. However, there are some Republicans who are concerned about the matter and they might be willing to work with Democrats and keep the investigation alive. It might turn out that Trump is innocent of all wrongdoing and that his angry blundering about was just that—angry blundering about rather than an effort to conceal the truth. Only a proper investigation will reveal the answer; unless the Russians decide to spill the vodka.

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Free Speech, Coulter & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 26, 2017

Ann Coulter’s appearance at the Berkeley was cancelled in response to threats made by anarchist groups. While some conservatives argue that concerns about security should often trump concerns about rights (such as infringing on religious liberty or privacy to “make us safer”), two conservative organizations have started a lawsuit against the university. The claim that the school is endeavoring “to restrict conservative speech” on campus. Since Berkeley is a public school, the First Amendment does apply and hence the case can make an appeal to this constitutional right. While well-paid lawyers will hash out the legal matters, this does raise an interesting moral concern.

As I have shown in numerous other essays, I hold to a view of freedom of expression that goes far beyond the limited legal protection laid out in the First Amendment. I also hold to the freedom of consumption—that people have a right to, for example, hear whatever views they wish to hear. As such, Coulter has a right to express herself and the student organizations have the right to invite her so they can listen to whatever wicked or foolish things she might elect to spew forth.

Like many classic liberals, my go-to justification of these liberties is based on J.S. Mill’s arguments. The gist is that allowing people the liberty of expression and the liberty of consumption creates more happiness than restricting these liberties. Being a fan of natural rights, I also find the idea that these rights have additional grounding beyond mere utility appealing. I do, however, admit that such rights are certainly metaphysically suspect and difficult to properly ground in reality. In short, while I think that Coulter will say nothing worth hearing, she has every right to speak before the student groups that invited her.

I should note that my view of Coulter is not based on any notion that conservative political theory lacks merit; it is based on my view that she lacks merit. Unfortunately, thoughtful conservative political theorists seem to be out of vogue. This is unfortunate; the past saw many excellent conservative thinkers and they made significant contributions to political and philosophical thought. These days, there seem to be mostly just empty pundits spewing emptiness on Fox News. Or, worse, racists and sexists purporting to represent conservative thought. Then again, perhaps abandoning the intellectual aspects of politics was a smart tactical move: the left might have its intellectuals, but the right holds the power in most states. But, back to the matter at hand.

While I do accept the rights of expression and consumption, these rights are not absolute. If the justification for rights and liberties is taken to be utilitarian, then these rights can be limited on the same grounds. As such, if the harm created by allowing the freedoms of expression and consumption would create more harm, then they can be justly limited. The stock example is, of course, the restriction on people yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.

If a natural rights view is accepted, the restriction of a right can be justified by appealing to other rights. In the case of speech, the right to life would warrant preventing people from yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The challenge is, of course, working out a hierarchy of rights. However, it does seem reasonable to make the right to life a rather important right, if only because being alive is generally a necessary condition for the other rights.

If having a person speak could put that person and others in danger, then this can justify postponing a speech until proper security arrangements can be made or even cancelling it if such arrangements cannot be made. This can be done by appealing to a utilitarian justification or by arguing that the right not to be harmed trumps the rights of free expression and free consumption. This is analogous to other cases in which liberty must be weighed against safety.

This does lead to the obvious concern that free expression and free consumption could thus be thwarted simply by threatening violence; thus giving individuals and groups willing to make threats considerable powers of censorship. One limiting factor is that making such threats is a crime. Unfortunately, the internet provides so many anonymous ways of making threats that the police face considerable challenge in dealing with them.

Deciding how to respond to credible threats of violence requires weighing the rights of expression and consumption against the harms that are likely to arise. As a general principle, it seems reasonable to accept that a speech should be postponed in the face of a credible threat that cannot be addressed in time. Such a credible threat should be dealt with by law enforcement and then the speech can be made. If the threat can be addressed so that an acceptable level of public safety is possible (within the available budget), then the speech should proceed normally. This approach can be easily justified on utilitarian grounds: people are kept reasonably safe while at the same time threats are prevented from becoming an effective tool of censorship. This does require that the state take such threats seriously and take appropriate action.

There is, of course, also the moral responsibility of those who make such threats: they are wrong to do this. If they do not like, for example, Coulter’s views, they should ask a campus group to invite them to speak out against her views on campus.


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