A Philosopher's Blog

Should Two Year Colleges be Free?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2015
Tallahassee County Community College Seal

Tallahassee County Community College Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Germany has embraced free four year college education for its citizens, President Obama has made a more modest proposal to make community college free for Americans. He is modeling his plan on that of Republican Governor Bill Haslam. Haslam has made community college free for citizen of Tennessee, regardless of need or merit. Not surprisingly, Obama’s proposal has been attacked by both Democrats and Republicans. Having some experience in education, I will endeavor to assess this proposal in a rational way.

First, there is no such thing as a free college education (in this context). Rather, free education for a student means that the cost is shifted from the student to others. After all, the staff, faculty and administrators will not work for free. The facilities of the schools will not be maintained, improved and constructed for free. And so on, for all the costs of education.

One proposed way to make education free for students is to shift the cost onto “the rich”, a group which is easy to target but somewhat harder to define. As might be suspected, I think this is a good idea. One reason is that I believe that education is the best investment a person can make in herself and in society. This is why I am fine with paying property taxes that go to education, although I have no children of my own. In addition to my moral commitment to education, I also look at it pragmatically: money spent on education (which helps people advance) means having to spend less on prisons and social safety nets. Of course, there is still the question of why the cost should be shifted to the rich.

One obvious answer is that they, unlike the poor and what is left of the middle class, have the money. As economists have noted, an ongoing trend in the economy is that wages are staying stagnant while capital is doing well. This is manifested in the fact that while the stock market has rebounded from the crash, workers are, in general, doing worse than before the crash.

There is also the need to address the problem of income inequality. While one might reject arguments grounded in compassion or fairness, there are some purely practical reasons to shift the cost. One is that the rich need the rest of us to keep the wealth, goods and services flowing to them (they actually need us way more than we need them). Another is the matter of social stability. Maintaining a stable state requires that the citizens believe that they are better off with the way things are then they would be if they engaged in a revolution. While deceit and force can keep citizens in line for quite some time, there does come a point at which these fail. To be blunt, it is in the interest of the rich to help restore the faith of the middle class. One of the nastier alternatives is being put against the wall after the revolution.

Second, the reality of education has changed over the years. In the not so distant past, a high-school education was sufficient to get a decent job. I am from a small town and Maine and remember well that people could get decent jobs with just that high school degree (or even without one). While there are still some decent jobs like that, they are increasingly rare.

While it might be a slight exaggeration, the two-year college degree is now the equivalent of the old high school degree. That is, it is roughly the minimum education needed to have a shot at a decent job. As such, the reasons that justify free (for students) public K-12 education would now justify free (for students) K-14 public education. And, of course, arguments against free (for the student) K-12 education would also apply.

While some might claim that the reason the two-year degree is the new high school degree because education has been in a decline, there is also the obvious reason that the world has changed. While I grew up during the decline of the manufacturing economy, we are now in the information economy (even manufacturing is high tech now) and more education is needed to operate in this new economy.

It could, of course, be argued that a better solution would be to improve K-12 education so that a high school degree would be sufficient for a decent job in the information economy. This would, obviously enough, remove the need to have free two-year college. This is certainly an option worth considering, though it does seem unlikely that it would prove viable.

Third, the cost of college has grown absurdly since I was a student. Rest assured, though, that this has not been because of increased pay for professors. This has been addressed by a complicated and sometimes bewildering system of financial aid and loads. However, free two year college would certainly address this problem in a simple way.

That said, a rather obvious concern is that this would not actually reduce the cost of college—as noted above, it would merely shift the cost. A case can certainly be made that this will actually increase the cost of college (for those who are paying). After all, schools would have less incentive to keep their costs down if the state was paying the bill.

It can be argued that it would be better to focus on reducing the cost of public education in a rational way that focuses on the core mission of colleges, namely education. One major reason for the increase in college tuition is the massive administrative overhead that vastly exceeds what is actually needed to effectively run a school. Unfortunately, since the administrators are the ones who make the financial choices it seems unlikely that they will thin their own numbers. While state legislatures have often applied magnifying glasses to the academic aspects of schools, the administrative aspects seem to somehow get less attention—perhaps because of some interesting connections between the state legislatures and school administrations.

Fourth, while conservative politicians have been critical of the general idea of the state giving away free stuff to regular people rather than corporations and politicians, liberals have also been critical of the proposal. While liberals tend to favor the idea of the state giving people free stuff, some have taken issue with free stuff being given to everyone. After all, the proposal is not to make two-year college free for those who cannot afford it, but to make it free for everyone.

It is certainly tempting to be critical of this aspect of the proposal. While it would make sense to assist those in need, it seems unreasonable to expend resources on people who can pay for college on their own. That money, it could be argued, could be used to help people in need pay for four-year colleges. It can also be objected that the well-off would exploit the system.

One easy and obvious reply is that the same could be said of free (for the student) K-12 education. As such, the reasons that exist for free public K-12 education (even for the well-off) would apply to the two-year college plan.

In regards to the well-off, they can already elect to go to lower cost state schools. However, the wealthy tend to pick the more expensive schools and usually opt for four-year colleges. As such, I suspect that there would not be an influx of rich students into two-year programs trying to “game the system.” Rather, they will tend to continue to go to the most prestigious four year schools their money can buy.

Finally, while the proposal is for the rich to bear the cost of “free” college, it should be looked at as an investment. The rich “job creators” will benefit from having educated “job fillers.” Also, the college educated will tend to get better jobs which will grow the economy (most of which will go to the rich) and increase tax-revenues (which can help offset the taxes on the rich). As such, the rich might find that their involuntary investment will provide an excellent return.

Overall, the proposal for “free” two-year college seems to be a good idea, although one that will require proper implementation (which will be very easy to screw up).

 

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Gun Violence & Mental Illness, Again

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 24, 2014
Rethink Mental Illness

Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On November 20, 2014 Myron May allegedly shot three people on the FSU campus in Tallahassee, Florida. He was shot to death after allegedly firing at the police. I did not know May, but I do know people who did—that is the sort of place Tallahassee is: if you don’t know someone, you know someone who does.

While the wounding of the three people was terrible, May can be seen as the fourth victim. I did know that May had been a cross-country runner, that he had graduated from FSU and then had gone on to law school. During most of his life, May seemed to be the last person who would hurt anyone else—he was well regarded and interested in doing good for the community. But, at some point, his mind apparently spiraled down into the darkness—he showed signs of mental illness that culminated in his death on the campus he loved.

Due to the terrible regularity of gun violence in the United States, I have nothing new to say about the usual issues relating to guns. However, I will address some important issues relating to mental illness in the United States.

As I learned many shootings ago, a person can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when he presents an imminent danger. One practical impact of this high threshold is that authorities often cannot act until someone has actually acted and then it can be too late.

It can be argued that the threshold should be lower so that a person can be helped before he engages in violence. The practical challenge is determining the extent to which a person presents a danger to himself or others. The moral challenge is justifying lowering the threshold.

A plausible way to justify this is by use of a utilitarian argument: helping someone with mental issues before he commits violence will help prevent such acts of violence. That said, there is a moral concern with allowing authorities to use its compulsive power on someone because he might do something despite a lack of adequate evidence that he intends to take a harmful actions.

It could be countered that certain mental issues are adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in harmful behavior, even though she has done nothing to reach the imminent danger threshold.

This is certainly appealing. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of an illness arising, then it is sensible to treat 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.

An obvious objection is that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. A reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is usually 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. To use another analogy, some forms of mental illness can be seen as analogous to highly infectious diseases. The analogy would not be to claim that mental illness can be caught, but that an infected person presents a serious risk to others and, likewise, a person with a certain sort of mental illness can also present a serious risk to others. Provided that there is adequate evidence of the danger, then the state can be warranted in acting against the individual’s will. The practical challenge is determining what conditions warrant acting.

One practical concern is that mental health science is behind the physical health sciences and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. Because of this, predictions made using mental health science will tend to be of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state on such a tenuous foundation would be morally problematic. 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.

A counter to this is to argue that preventing another mass shooting is worth the price of denying people their freedom. An obvious worry is that without clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could 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 a certain sort of mental issue. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.

However, it seems that normal people would have reason to worry. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression). There is also the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in people being subject to coercion without real justification.

In light of these considerations, I do recommend that we reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. However, this reconsideration needs to involve carefully considered guidelines and should be focused on helping people rather than merely locking them away in the hopes of protecting others.

The situation at FSU also illustrated another point of moral concern: while May was apparently justly shot by the police after allegedly firing on them, the officers only viable response was lethal in nature. While police do have some less-than-lethal options like Tasers and nightsticks, these options are usually not viable against a person actively shooting at an officer from a distance. There have been some efforts to produce less-than-lethal options that are as or nearly effective as guns, but these options have not proven successful and police have generally not adopted them.

From a moral perspective, it would clearly be preferable if officers had better less-than-lethal options. In the case of May’s situation, if he had been rendered unable to act rather than shot to death, he might have been able to benefit from medical help and return to a normal life. In the case of criminals who are not suffering from mental illness, it would still seem morally preferable to be able to effective subdue them without shooting them. As such, there is a good moral reason to develop an effective less-than-lethal weapon.

It is also important to note that such a weapon would need to be effective enough to morally justify its use in place of a gun. After all, the police should not be expected to use a weapon that is not adequately effective—this would put them and the public in unjustified danger. Such a weapon could be less effective than a gun and still be acceptable, but there is clearly an important question in regards to how effective the weapon would need to be. In practical terms, of course, there is the question of whether or not such a weapon is even possible. After all, while something like the stun setting on a Star Trek phaser would be ideal, it is likely to always just be science fiction.

 

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kNOwMORE, Sexual Violence & Brands

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 22, 2014

Florida State University College of Motion Pic...

Florida State UniversityPhoto credit: Wikipedia)

Florida State University, which is across the tracks from my own Florida A&M University, has had some serious problems with sexual violence involving students. One response to this has been the creation of a student driven campaign to address the problem with a brand and marketing:

 

Students developed the “kNOw More” brand to highlight the dual message of Florida State’s no tolerance stance on sexual violence and education efforts focused on prevention. Students also are leading marketing efforts for a campaign, “Ask. Respect. Don’t Expect,” aimed at raising awareness among their peers about obtaining clear consent for sexual activity and bystander intervention to prevent sexual assault or misconduct.

As an ethical person and a university professor, I certainly support efforts to reduce sexual violence on campuses (and anywhere). However, I found the use of the terms “brand” and “marketing efforts” somewhat disconcerting.

The main reason for this is that I associate the term “brand” with things like sodas, snack chips and smart phones rather than with efforts to combat sexual violence in the context of higher education. This sort of association creates, as I see it, some concerns.

The first is that the use of “brand” and “marketing efforts” in the context of sexual violence has the potential to trivialize the matter. Words, as the feminists rightly say, do matter. Speaking in terms of brands and marketing efforts makes it sound like Florida State sees the matter as on par with a new brand of FSU college products that will be promoted by marketing efforts. It would not seem too much to expect that the matter would be treated with more respect in terms of the language used.

The second concern ties back to a piece I wrote in 2011, “The University as a Business.” This essay was written in response to the reaction of Florida A&M University’s president to the tragic death of Florida A&M University student Robert Champion in a suspected hazing incident. The president, who has since resigned, wrote that “preserving the image and the FAMU brand is of paramount importance to me.” The general problem is that thinking of higher education in business terms is a damaging mistake that is harmful to the true mission of higher education, namely education. The specific problem is that addressing terrible things like killing and sexual violence in terms of brands and marketing is morally inappropriate. The brand and marketing view involve the ideas that moral problems are to be addressed in the same manner that one would address a sales decline in chips and this suggests that the problems are mainly a matter of public relations. That is, the creation of an appearance of action rather than effective action.

One obvious reply to my concerns is that terms such as “brand” and “marketing effort” are now the correct terms to use. That is, they are acceptable because of common use and I am thus reading too much into the matter.

On the one hand, that is a reasonable reply—I might be behind the times in terms of the terms. On the other hand, the casual acceptance of business terms in such a context would seem to support my view.

Another reply to my concerns is that the branding and marketing are aimed at addressing the problem of sexual violence and hence my criticism of the terminology is off the mark. This does have some appeal. After all, as people so often say, if the branding and marketing has some positive impact, then that would be good. However, this does not show that my concerns about the terminology and apparent underlying world-view are mistaken.

 

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Performance Based Funding

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 19, 2014

Florida A&M University from State Capitol, Tal...

As a professor at Florida A&M University, I am rather familiar with performance based funding in higher education. While performance based funding is being considered or applied in numerous states, I will focus on my adopted state of Florida (it is also present in my home state of Maine).

On the face of it, performance based funding can sound like a good idea: state universities are funded based on performance, so that good performance is rewarded and poor performance is not (or punished). As a competitive athlete (though less so with each passing year), I am accustomed to a similar model in running: those who run better at races get rewarded and those who run poorly typically go home with nothing (other than the usual race t-shirt and perhaps some bagel chunks). This model seems fair—at least in sports. Whether or not it is right or sensible to apply it to education funding is another matter.

One obvious point of concern is whether or not the standards used to judge performance are fair and reasonable. In Florida, the main standards include the percentage of graduates who have jobs, the average wages of those graduates, the cost of getting the degree, the graduation rate within six years, the number of students getting STEM degrees (STEM is hot now), and some other factors.

On the face of it, some of these standards are reasonable. After all, a university would seem to be performing well to the degree that the students are graduating after paying a reasonable cost and getting well-paying jobs. This, of course, assumes that a primary function of a university is to create job-fillers for the job creators (and some job creators). In the past, the main factors for determining funding included such things as the size of the student population and what resources would be needed to provide quality education. Universities were also valued because they educated people and prepared people to be citizens of a democratic state. But, now that America appears to be an oligarchy, these values might be obsolete.

Another point of concern is that the competitive system in Florida, like most competitive systems, means that there must be losers. To be specific, Florida has nine state universities competing in regards to performance based funding. The bottom three schools will lose roughly 1% of their funding while the top six will receive more money. This means that no matter how well the nine schools are doing, three of them will always be losers.

This might be seen as reasonable or even good: after all, competition (as noted above) means that there will be winners and losers. This can be seen as a good thing because, it might be argued, the schools will be competing with each other to improve and thus all will get better—even the losers. This, obviously enough, seems to bring a competitive market approach (or Darwinian selection) to education.

The obvious question is whether or not this is a proper approach to higher education. The idea of public universities fighting over limited funding certainly seems harsh—rather like parents making their nine children fight over which six gets extra food and which three will be hungry. Presumably just as responsible parents would not want some of their children to go hungry because they could not beat their siblings, the state should also not want to deprive universities of funding because they could not beat their fellows.

It might be contended that just as children could be expected to battle for food in times of scarcity, universities should do the same. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures and not everyone can thrive. Besides, the competition will make everyone stronger.

It is true that higher education faces a scarcity of funding—in Florida, the past four years under Rick Scott and a Republican legislature have seen a 41% cut in funding. Other states have fared even worse. While some scarcity was due to the economic meltdown inflicted by the financial sector, the scarcity is also due to conscious choice in regards to taxing and spending. So, going with the analogy, the parents have cut the food supply and now want the children to battle to see who gets a larger slice of what is left. Will this battle make the schools stronger?

Given the above, a rather important point of concern is whether or not such performance based funding actually works. That is, does it actually achieve the professed goal of increasing performance?

Since I serve on various relevant committees, I can say that my university is very concerned about this funding and great effort is being made to try to keep the school out of the bottom three. This is the same sort of motivation that the threat of having one’s food cut provides—the motivation of fear. While this sort of scenario might appeal to those who idealize the competitive model of natural selection, one obvious consequence is that the schools that fall into the bottom three will lose money and hence become even less able to compete. To use the food analogy, the children that lose the competition in the first round will have less food and thus be weaker for the next battle and so on. So, while “going hungry” might be said to motivate, being hungry also weakens. So, if the true goal is to weaken the bottom three schools (and perhaps ultimately destroy them), this would work quite well. If the goal is to improve education, things might be rather different.

It might be countered that the performance based funding is justified because, despite my argument, it will work. While academics are often accused of not being “practical” or in “the real world”, we do tend to do a reasonably good at figuring out whether or not something will work. After all, studying things and analyzing them is sort of what we do. In contrast, politicians seem to be more inclined to operate in “realities” of their own ideologies.

David Tandberg of Florida State University and Nicholas W. Hillman of University of Wisconsin-Madison recently published a study assessing the effectiveness of performance based funding. They concluded that performance based funding “more often than not” failed to effect the completion of degrees. Of considerable concern is that when it did have an effect it tended to lower graduation rates. Assuming this study is accurate, performance based funding (at least as implemented) is ineffective at best and likely to actually negatively impact the professed goals.

It should be noted that Florida State University is very safely in the top six schools, so Tandberg is presumably not motivated by worries that FSU will fall to the bottom. The study, can, of course, be challenged on the usual grounds for critically assessing a study—but mere accusations that professors must be biased or that academics are incompetent hold no water.

Since I am a professor at Florida A&M University, I might also be accused of bias here.  FAMU is an HBCU (one of the historically black colleges and universities) and has long had a mission of providing educational opportunities to students who have faced severe disadvantages. While overt racism is largely a thing of the past, FAMU students rather often face serious economic and preparatory challenges (thanks largely to poverty and segregation) that students from other backgrounds do not face. Some of my best students face the serious challenge of balancing part or even full-time work with their academic lives and this can be very challenging indeed. Because of this, students often take longer to graduate than students at other state universities—especially those whose students tend to come from more affluent families. These economic disparities also impact the chances of students getting jobs when they graduate as well as affecting the salary paid in such jobs. Roughly put, the effects of long-standing racism in America still remain and impact my university. While FAMU is working hard to meet the performance standards, we are struggling against factors that do not impact other schools—which means that our performance in regards to these chosen standards might be seen as lacking.

As might be imagined, some will claim that the impact of past racism is a thing of the past and that FAMU should be able to compete just fine against the other schools. This would be ignoring the reality of the situation in America.

Performance based funding of the sort that currently exists fails to achieve its professed goals and is proving harmful to higher education and students. As such, it is a bad idea. Sadly, it is the reality.

 

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Chance, Success & Failure

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 10, 2014

“The amazing, the unforgivable thing was that all his life he had watched the march of ruined men into the oblivion of poverty and disgrace—and blamed them.”

-The Weapon Shops of Isher, A.E. van Vogt

 

Dice for various games, especially for rolepla...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous essay, I discussed the role of chance in artistic success using Matthew Salganik’s virtual world experiment as a focus. In his discussion of this experiment, Salganik noted that it was likely to have implications for success (and failure) in a much broader context. Sorting out the role of chance in success and failure seems both interesting and rather important.

One obvious reason why it is important to sort out the role of chance is to provide a rational basis for assigning praise and blame (and the possible accompanying reward and punishment). After all, success or failure by pure chance would not (in general) seem to merit praise or blame. If I win a lottery by pure chance, I have done nothing that would warrant being praised—aside from acquiring a ticket, I had no substantial role in the process. Likewise, if I do not win the lottery, I do not warrant being accused of a failure.

This also, obviously enough, ties into morality: chance can mitigate moral responsibility. If the properly maintained brakes on my truck fail as I approach a stop sign at a reasonable speed and I thus crash into an innocent pedestrian, I am not to blame—this was a matter of chance. Likewise, if my truck were to crash into a person attempting murder in the street, I am also not responsible for this fortuitous outcome.

Somewhat less obvious is the tie this matter has to setting rational public policy and laws. After all, to set public policy on such matters as unemployment benefits and food stamps without properly assessing the role of chance in success and failure would be a grave moral error. Suppose that, as some claim, people end up unemployed or in need of food stamps because of factors that are within their control—that is, they essentially decide their way into unemployment or need. If this is the case, then it would be reasonable to set public policy to reflect this alleged reality. The general idea would seem to be that there should not be such support. To use an analogy, if someone throws her money away foolishly, I have no obligation to give her more money. Her poor decision making does not constitute my obligation.

However, if chance (or other factors beyond the control of the individual) play a significant role in success and failure, then it would seem reasonable to shape policy to match this alleged reality. Suppose, as some claim, people do often end up unemployed or in need of food stamps because of chance. In this case, public policy should reflect this alleged reality and such aid should be available to help offset chance.  To use an analogy, if someone stumbles across some muggers and is robbed of the money she needs to buy food for herself and her children, then her situation does obligate me—if can help her at reasonable cost to myself, I should certainly do so.

Thus, it would seem that sorting out the role of chance in success and failure is a rather important matter. Unfortunately, it is also a very complex matter. However, I think it would be helpful to use an example to show that chance does seem to be a major factor in success in factor. Since I am most familiar with my own life, I will do a short sketch of the role of chance in my success and failure.

As I mentioned in the previous essay on this matter, I have been accused of believing in choice because I want to get credit for my successes. As might be imagined, people who are successful tend to want to believe that their success is due largely to their own decisions and efforts—that they have earned success. Likewise, people who are failures often tend to blame chance (and other factors) as the cause of their failures. Both sets of people tend to also apply their view to the opposite of their situations: the successful also attribute the failure of the failures to the decisions of those who have failed while those who are failures attribute the success of others to chance. People do, quite clearly, embrace the narrative that pleases them most. However, what pleases need not be true. As such, while I like to believe that my success is earned, I am willing to carefully consider the role of chance.

One blindingly obvious factor that is entirely a matter of chance is the matter of birth: it is, if there is chance, a matter of chance that I was born in the United States to a middle-class family and that I was healthy and normal. It is also largely a matter of chance, from my standpoint, that I had a family that took care of me and that I was in a society that provided stability, healthcare and education. If I had been born in some war and poverty ravaged part of the world and had horrible health issues, things would obviously be much different.

The rest of my life was also heavy with chance. For example, I almost ended up a Marine, but budget cuts ended up preventing that and instead I ended up at Ohio State. I ended up meeting a woman there who went to Florida State University and thus I ended up in Tallahassee by chance. This allowed me to get the job I have—which was also largely chance (Florida A&M University needed a philosophy professor right away and I just happened to be there). I could, easily enough, go through all the matters of chance that resulted in success: meeting the right people, being in the right place at the right time, avoiding the wrong people, and so on.

Of course, my desire to take credit for success drives me to add that I surely had a role to play in my success. While chance put me in the United States with a healthy body and mind, it was my decisions and actions that got me through school and into college. While chance had a major role to play in my getting a job as a professor, surely it was my actions and decisions that allowed me to keep the job. While chance has surely played a role in my book sales, surely the quality of my work is what wins people over. Roughly put, chance put me into various situations, but it was still up to me to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid dangers.

While my pride drives me to seize a large share of the credit for my success, honesty compels me to admit that I owe a great deal to pure chance—starting with day zero. Presumably the same is true of everyone else as well. As such, I think it wise to always temper praise and condemnation with the knowledge that chance played a major role in success and failure.

 

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Tobacco Free

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 22, 2014
Florida State University

Florida State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I teach at Florida A&M University, I regularly run through the Florida State University campus. In December, I noticed that the campus had been plastered with signs announcing that on January 1, 2014 the entire campus would be tobacco free (presumably enforced by killer drones). I was impressed by the extent of the plastering—there were plastic signs adhered to the sidewalks and many surfaces to ensure that all knew of the new decree.

While running does sometimes cause flashbacks, seeing those signs flashed me back to my freshman English class at Marietta College. For one writing assignment I argued in favor of various anti-smoking proposals, including some very draconian ones. I did include area bans on smoking. My motivation was, to be honest, somewhat selfish: I hate the smell of tobacco smoke (except certain pipe tobacco and certain cigars) and react rather badly to it (my eyelids swell and I have trouble breathing). As such, like a properly political person of any leaning, I thought it good and just to recast the rest of the world according to my desires and beliefs.

I thought the paper was well argued and rational. However, the professor (an avowed liberal) assigned it a grade of .62 (I am still not sure if that was out of 1, 4 or 100…). She also put a frowning face on it. And she called me a fascist. Interestingly, almost all that I proposed in the paper has come to pass (the campus wide ban being the latest). On the one hand, I do feel vindicated—if only in regards to my prophetic powers. On the other hand, I wobbled between anarchism and fascism in those days and that paper was clearly written during a fascist swing. Now that I am older and marginally wiser, I think it is worth reconsidering the ethics of the area ban.

While there are various grounds used to warrant area bans on certain behavior, three common justifications include claiming that the behavior is unpleasant, offensive or harmful. Or some combination of the three. In terms of how the justification works, the typical model is to ban behavior based on its impact on the rights others. That is, the behavior is unpleasant, offensive or harmful to others and thus violates their rights to not be exposed to unpleasant, offensive or harmful behavior.

While I have no desire to observe behavior that is unpleasant I do question the idea that I have a right to not be exposed to the merely unpleasant. After all, what is unpleasant is highly subjective and area bans on the merely unpleasant could easily result in absurdity. For example, I would find someone wearing a puke green sweater with neon pink goats unpleasant to view, but it would be rather unreasonable to have an area ban on unpleasant fashion. Roughly put, the merely unpleasant does not impose enough on others to warrant banning it (providing that the unpleasant acts do not cross over into harassment, etc.). As such, the mere fact that many people find smoking unpleasant would not warrant an area ban on smoking,

Obviously, I have no desire to be exposed to behavior that I find offensive. However, I also question the idea that I have a right to not be exposed to what is merely offensive. Even it is very offensive. While the offensive might be a bit less subjective than the unpleasant, it still is very much a subjective matter. As such, as with the merely unpleasant, an area ban on merely offensive behavior would seem to lead to absurdity. For example, if the neon goats on the sweater mentioned above spelled out the words “philosophers are goat f@ckers”, I would find the sweater both unpleasant and offensive. However, the merely offensive does not seem to impose enough on my rights to warrant imposing on the right of the offender. Naturally, offensive behavior can cross over into an actual violation of my rights and that would warrant imposing on the offender. For example, if the sweater wearer insisted on following me and screaming “goat f@cker” into my face all day, then that would go from being merely offensive to harassment. Thus, there mere fact that many people find smoking offensive would not warrant an area ban on smoking. Interestingly, it would also not warrant bans on public nudity.

Obviously, I have no desire to be harmed by the behavior of others. Equally obviously, I do believe that I have a right to not be harmed (although there are cases in which I can be justly harmed). For those who prefer to not talk of rights, I am also fine with the idea that it would be wrong to harm me (at least in most cases). As such, it should be no surprise that I would find area bans on behavior that harms others to be acceptable. The grounds would be Mill’s argument about liberty: what concerns only me and does not harm others is my own business and not their business. But, actions that harm others become the business of those that are harmed.

While the basic idea that it is acceptable to limit behavior that harms others is appealing, one clear challenge is sorting out the sort of harm that warrants imposing on others. Going back to offensive behavior, it could be claimed that offensive behavior does cause harm. For example, someone might believe that his children would be terribly harmed if they saw an unmarried couple kissing in public and thus claim that this should be banned from all public areas. As another example, a person might contend that seeing people catching fish would damage him emotionally because of the suffering of the fish and thus fishing should be banned from public areas. While these two examples are a bit silly, there are clearly some legitimate grey areas between the offensive and the clearly harmful.

Fortunately, the situation with smoking is clear cut. Tobacco smoke is known to be physically harmful to those who breathe it in (whether they are smoking or not). As such, when someone is smoking in a public area, she is imposing an unchosen health risk on everyone else in the area of effect. Since the area is public, she clearly has no right to do this. To use analogy, while a person has a right to wear the “goat f@cker” sweater mentioned above, she does not have a right to wear one that sprays out poison or has been powdered with uranium. To use a less silly analogy, a person in a public area does not have the right to spit on people who get close to her. While they could avoid this by staying away from her, she has no right to “control” the space around her with something that can harm others (spit can, obviously, transmit disease). As such, it is morally acceptable to impose an area ban on smoking.

I would, however, contend that behavior that does not harm others should not be subject to such bans. For example, drinking alcohol in public. Provided that the person is not engaging in otherwise harmful behavior, there seems to be no compelling moral reason to impose such a ban. After all, drinking a beer near people in public causes them no harm. Likewise, campus dress codes would also seem to lack a moral justification—provided that the attire does not actually inflict harm. Merely being offensive or even distracting does not seem enough to warrant an area ban on moral grounds.

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FSU & Charles Koch

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 21, 2011
Florida State University in Tallahassee

For Sale?

Because of the financial crisis (and other factors), public universities are having a harder time with their finances. As businesses often do, some schools have addressed their financial woes by cutting employees. The cuts often begin with adjunct and visiting faculty and then move on to full time staff and even regular faculty. In truly dire circumstances, some administrators even find their bonuses being trimmed.

While cutting positions often appeals to some folks, perhaps because it gives them that business feel, there are also attempts to increase revenue in various ways. Tuition has, of course, been increasing steadily. However, that somehow never seems to keep up with the financial needs of the schools. Schools also seek outside money, often in the form of grants and gifts. However, even these sources are often not enough.

Florida State University  hit on on interesting method of securing funds. A while ago, the FSU economics department entered into a contract with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. In this contract, FSU received $1.5 million to create two endowed chairs to “promote political economy and free enterprise.” While this all seems rather good, one concern is that the contract specifies that Koch’s representatives have the right to reject candidates selected by the faculty hiring committee. In short, the representatives have veto power over hires.

One practical concern is, obviously enough, that FSU seems to have sold out for relatively little. While $1.5 million seems like a substantial sum, it actually amounts to very little when considering the budget of FSU. At the very least, they should have asked for more in return for granting this level of influence. To be rather crude (and perhaps  unfair), if one is going to be a whore, at least be a well paid whore.

More importantly, there is also the matter of ethics. Having served on a few hiring committees I am well aware about how they are supposed to function. As one might expect, candidates are supposed to be assessed based on their academic merits rather than their ideological views (and based on private conversations, it appears that a specific ideology was used to assess the candidates).  Since universities are supposed to operate on the basis of academic integrity and academic freedom,  granting such decision making power in return for a cash payment seems to be questionable, at best.

One obvious reply is that the idea of academic integrity and freedom are little but pleasant myths. After all, it is well known that people are often hired based on having the right connections and the right ideology.  The deal with Koch merely puts things in writing and puts cash on the table. As such, to single out this situation for special condemnation would be an error, given that the basis of criticism has no real substance.

To counter this reply, while it is true that some people do not take the matters of integrity and freedom seriously, it is not true that no one does so. To use an obvious example, the search committees I have served on have been above board and run with integrity and respect for academic freedom. There is also the obvious fact that appealing to a common practice does not show that the practice is right or correct. That is, of course, why there is a fallacy called “common practice.” Naturally enough, if the Koch Foundation is wrong for what it has done, those who do the same sort of things (be they left or right leaning) would also be in the wrong.

Another obvious reply is that schools need to relax their concerns over these principles in the face of the economic woes. Just as an individual might do things that /she might not otherwise do for money when in dire straights, universities also have to swallow their pride and set aside what principles they might have left so as to secure they money they need. To make this into a properly ethical argument, an appeal can be made on utilitarian grounds. While allowing people to purchase veto power over endowed faculty positions might have some negative consequences (like allowing people with money to ensure that certain ideologies are pushed), the positive consequences could outweigh the negative. After all, accepting such money can allow schools to address their budgetary woes and continue to provide students with educations. While this education might be of a different sort than what would be offered if the money was not needed, it is still an education.

The counter to this reply is that the negative consequences could very well end up outweighing the positive consequences. Using the analogy of the individual, doing questionable things for money can have a corrupting effect on the character and can damage one’s reputation.  If it turns out that the cost exceeds the benefits, then accepting such money would not be a good thing.

As I see it, accepting money in return for such veto power is a violation of professional hiring ethics. Naturally, I do agree that if money is offered with conditions and accepted, then there is (on the face of it) an obligation to stick to that agreement. As such, by taking the money, FSU has obligated itself to the terms of the contract. However, they should not have entered into that agreement.

Naturally, it might be wondered if I would still hold this view if my continued employment was contingent on my university accepting such a deal.

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Extremism in Defense of Liberty

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 19, 2011

While running on the Florida State University campus I ran over a chalked advertisement for the Young Republicans. The ad began with a paraphrase of Goldwater’s famous quote: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

After seeing this, I thought about it for the next six miles. Like most runners, I find that I think I think best when running. This blog post will provide an interesting test of that thought.

On the face of it, the claims made in the quote seem to be in error by definition. After all, extremism seems to entail going beyond what is actually needed to defend something and that justice, by its very nature, requires a balance between excess and deficiency.

To use an analogy, imagine a doctor who said “I would remind you that excessive medication in the defense of health is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of well being is no virtue!”

Obviously, excessive medication would be (by definition) too much and hence injurious rather than beneficial to health. As such, this claim would be in error. In the case of well being Aristotle seems to have established quite well that moderation (avoiding excess and deficiency) are the key to well being.

As such, while the claims might have a rhetorical o dramatic appeal they seem to be fundamentally in error.

It could, of course, be replied that I am begging the question against Goldwater by taking “extremism” as being on par with “excessive” and taking moderation to be the mean between excess and deficiency. It could be contended that Goldwater means something else by these terms. To be specific, the extremism he is referring to could be taken as what is seen as being extreme but is, in fact, just what is needed to defend liberty. In the case of moderation, he is not talking about the mean but rather by being a political moderate and willing to compromise and take a middle ground.

Interpreted in this way, what he would seem to be saying is something like “I would remind you that doing what it really takes to defend liberty, even though it might seem extreme to some, is no vice! And let me remind you also that taking the middle ground and compromising too much in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” This seems reasonable enough.

Interestingly, if the quote is taken literally, then he seems to be simply wrong. Extremism is going beyond what is needed and moderation (neither excess nor deficiency) is what is required by justice (otherwise it is not just). If the quote is taken less literally, then it merely amounts to a rhetorical way of saying something that is true but not particularly controversial or interesting.

As a final point, I have noticed that people often use this quote in an “argument by quote/slogan” in an attempt to justify what actually are extreme and immoderate policies and rhetoric. Of course, merely quoting someone hardly serves to prove a claim (although it can be taken as an argument from authority)-though some folks seem to think that this does so with finality.

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