A Philosopher's Blog

Down With Tyrants?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 4, 2013
"Ruins in Richmond" Damage to Richmo...

“Ruins in Richmond” Damage to Richmond, Virginia from the American Civil War. Albumen print. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the days of my youth, I grew up reading about heroes who brought the villains down and dispensed justice with their fists or guns. While not all of us buy into the American heroic mythology, I suspect that many of us had our views shaped as mine were shaped.

One part of the American heroic mythology is that tyrants are not to be tolerated. It matters not if the tyrant is great or petty, an evil sheriff or wicked king—they are all to be brought to justice (preferably cruel justice) by the hero. Because of the shaping heroes of my youth, I certainly favor taking down tyrants. Ride in. Bang! Bang! Save the day. Hi, ho Silver and away!

Of course, many years have passed since those early days of comic books and silver screens and my view of heroics has been tempered by some measure of wisdom and a larger measure of time. While I do find tyrants morally appalling, I have learned that the world is a complicated place and that attempts to save the day rarely work out as it does in fiction.

In the case of Syria, the Assad government is clearly an evil government—the state is oppressive and has been rather busy killing people to stay in power. As such, this is a classic bad-guy situation, seemingly begging for a bang-bang solution. The same was, of course, supposed to be true of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

In Iraq, the United States and a few allies rode in, shot things up and ousted Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, that movie spawned a seemingly endless series of sequels, each turning out rather badly and having a high body count. We did not ride off into the sunset—we were stuck there for years and, in many ways, are still stuck.

In the case of Afghanistan, we rode in, shot things up, and then stayed. And stayed. And stayed. The sequels, as in Iraq, featured plenty of violence and high body counts. We are still there, despite many sunsets.

Now the United States is considering military action against Syria. On the one hand, it is clear that the regime has done and is doing bad things. As such, it makes sense to consider that there is a moral obligation to prevent the Syrian government from continuing to engage in the killing and perhaps even a moral obligation to oust the current regime.  In an action movie, a rag-tag band of diverse heroes would ride in, defeat Assad (saying something like it “looks like we kicked Ass…ad”) and ride out with some suitable pop rock song jamming in the background. However, this is not an action movie.

So, on the other hand, there is the rather important moral and practical concern about what impact our military actions would have. If our involvement is predicated on a moral imperative, then we would seem morally obligated to consider the ethics of our actions in terms of the consequences. As I have noted before, while the Assad regime is rather bad, it might be the least worst of the practical options. If our attacks have a significant impact and Assad is toppled, then it seems that the likely results would either be continued chaos as the various factions settle who will be the new tyrant or the emergence of a radical state. The chances of having a stable, pro-West (or even neutral), effective state result from United States intervention seem to be incredibly low. While tyranny is bad, one could follow Hobbes and contend that a tyrant is better than chaos.

Also of moral concern is the matter of self-determination. In our own civil war, the United States made it clear that the matter was an internal one—despite the fact that we were rather busy slaughtering each other and destroying our cities. Moral consistency would seem to require that the same policy be adopted for Syria. It could be noted that the Syria government is behaving in a morally relevant difference. That is, the American civil war was a legitimate military struggle that did not morally warrant external intervention while the Syrian civil war does warrant external intervention. Part of the case for the distinction could be the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Another part of the case could be the fact that the Syrian conflict is more indiscriminate than the American civil war.

While tyrants should be brought down, the matter is a rather complicated one. Which is rather unfortunate.

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Syria & Team America

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2013

Syria (Photo credit: ewixx)

As I write this, the United States and our allies are contemplating military action against Syria. While the Syrian government has been busy killing its people for quite some time, it is now claimed that it has crossed the red line by using chemical weapons. Thus, there is apparently a need for a military response.

The United Kingdom, which has often been the Tonto to America’s Lone Ranger, has expressed reluctance to leap into battle. Even the American congress, which rushed to authorize our attack on Iraq, has expressed opposition to Obama taking executive military action. As others have said, memories of the “slam dunk” that led up to the Iraq war are playing a significant role in these responses. Interestingly, the leadership United Kingdom seems mainly concerned with how quickly the attacks will begin as opposed to being concerned about attacking Syria. In the United States congress’s main worry seems to be that the President will rush ahead on his own and deny them what they see as their right to get us into war.

Despite the fact that the people of the United States and the United Kingdom seem opposed to attacking Syria, it seems likely that there will be an attack soon. One obvious reason is that Obama played the red line game (which, on the face of it, said to Syria that they could keep killing as long as they did not use weapons of mass destruction). If he fails to make good on his red line talk, the United States will lose credibility. From a moral standpoint, it could be claimed that the United States and the West have already lost some moral credibility by their ineffectual condemnation of the slaughter in Syria.

Assuming that we will be attacking Syria, there is the obvious question of what we should be endeavoring to accomplish and what plan we have for what will follow the attack. Iraq and Afghanistan stand as examples of what happens when we go to war without properly considering the matter and setting clear, attainable and worthwhile objectives.

One approach is a limited, punitive strike. That is, to attack Syrian targets in order to punish the government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. In this case, the obvious questions are whether or not the Syria government actually used chemical weapons and whether or not such a punishment strike would achieve its goal(s). The goal might be simple punishment: they use chemical weapons, then we blow some things up to pay them back for their misdeed. Or the goal might be deterrence via punishment: they use chemical weapons, we blow some things up. And we will keep doing it until they stop.

Morally, the Syrian government has certainly earned punishment and it would be a good thing to deter them from engaging in more killing—or to even deter them from killing with chemical weapons. However, there is the question of whether or not our attacks will be just punishment or adequate deterrence.  If the goal is deterrence, then there is the question of how long we will engage in deterrence attack and what sort of escalation we should engage in should the initial attack fail to deter.

Another approach is to strike in support of the opposition. That is, to attack Syrian targets with the primary goal of improving the opposition’s relative position. This could, of course, also be a punishment attack as well. In this case, the questions would be whether or not such intervention would be effective and whether or not the results would be desirable for the United States.

One obvious concern about the conflict in Syria is that it is not an oppressive government against plucky, freedom-loving rebels. If that was the case, then the matter would be rather easier.  Rather, it is a battle between an oppressive government and a bewildering array of opposition groups (including an Al Qaeda franchise). There are also outside forces involved, such as Iran, Russia and China.

Because of the fragmentary and problematic nature of the opposition, it is important to consider the consequences of attacking in support of the opposition (or, more accurately, the oppositions). While the Syrian government is a morally bad government and an enemy of America, it has imposed order on the state and is, obviously enough, not the worst option. If, for example, the Syrian government were to topple and the area fell into almost complete chaos, that would be worse than the current situation. Even worse for the United States and most other people would be a takeover of the state by radical forces and extremists.

It is also rather important to take into account the possible and likely reactions of the other powers that are involved in the conflict. Iran, China and Russia have a significant stake in the matter and they might actually react to an American attack. Russia, for example, is sending warships to the area. While Russia or Iran most likely would not engage American forces in the region to defend Syria, this is not an impossibility. For example, the conflict could escalate from an accident.

Unfortunately, I do not have a great deal of confidence in any of the leaders involved in this matter. After all, there are rather different skill sets involved in being a politician who wins office and being able to make effective policy and military decisions. That is, playing the political game is rather different than war. That said, I do hope that wise decisions are made. But, no matter what, many more people are going to be killed—it is mainly a question of how many and with what weapons.


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Motives for Terror

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2013
MQ-1L Predator UAV armed with AGM-114 Hellfire...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the evil and senseless bombing in Boston, there was considerable speculation about the motives of the bombers. Not surprisingly, some folks blamed their preferred demons: some on the left leaped to conclusions involving right-wingers while those on the right leaped to conclusions involving Islam.  As it turns out, the alleged murderers have a connection to Islam.

While some hold the view that there is a strong causal connection between being a Muslim and being a terrorist, the connection obviously cannot be that strong. After all, the vast majority of Muslims do not engage in terrorism. As such, beginning and ending the discussion of the motive for terror with Islam is not adequate.

When it comes to terrorist attacks against the United States, the stock explanation is that the terrorists are motivated by a hatred of our freedom. A common variation on that is that they hate democracy. Another explanation is that they simply hate the United States and other countries.

The explanation that terrorists are motivated by a hatred of our freedom (or democracy) does two main things. The first is that it casts the terrorists as enemies of freedom and democracy, thus presenting them as having evil motives. The second is that it casts the United States and its allies as being attacked because of their virtues. Crudely put, the bad guys are attacking us because they hate what is good.

The explanation that the terrorists simply hate the United States and its allies also does two main things. The first is that it casts the terrorists as simply being haters without any justification for their hate. The second is that it casts the United States and its allies as innocent targets. Crudely put, the haters are attacking us because they are haters.

In both of these approaches, the United States and its allies are presented as innocent victims who are being attacked for wicked or irrational reasons. What certainly helps support this narrative is that the terrorists engage in acts that are wicked and certainly seem irrational. After all, the people who are killed and injured are usually just random innocents who simply happen to be in the blast area at the time. Because of this, it is correct to condemn such terrorists as morally wicked on the grounds that they engage in indiscriminate violence. However, the fact that the direct victims of the terrorists are generally innocent victims of wicked deeds does not entail that the terrorists are motivated to attack innocent countries because they hate us, our freedom or our democracy.

One significant source of evidence regarding the motivation of terrorists is the statements terrorists make regarding their own reasons. In the case of the alleged Boston bomber, he claims that he was motivated by the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In the case of other terrorists, they have generally claimed they are motivated by the actions of the United States and its allies.

My point here is not to justify the actions of the terrorists. Rather, the point is that the terrorists do not claim to be motivated by the reasons that have been attributed to them. That is, they do not regard themselves as being driven to attack us because they hate our freedom or democracy. They do often claim to hate us, but for rather specific reasons involving our foreign policy. As such, these stock explanations seem to be in error.

It might be countered that the terrorists are lying about their motivations. That is, that they are really driven by a hatred of our freedom or democracy and are just claiming that they are motivated by our foreign policy and associated actions (like invading countries and assassinating people with drones) for some devious reason.

The obvious reply to this is that if terrorists were motivated by a hatred of freedom or democracy, they would presumably attack countries based on their degree of freedom or democracy. Also, a non-stupid terrorist would take into account the ease of attacking a country and what the country could and would do in response. Hitting the United States to strike against freedom or democracy would thus be a poor choice, given our capabilities and how we respond to such attacks (invasions, drone strikes and so on).  To use an analogy, if someone hated athletes, it would not be very sensible to get into a fist fight with a professional mixed martial artist when one could go beat up a marathon runner (who is not also a martial artist).

It might be countered that the United States is the symbol for freedom and democracy, hence the terrorists want to attack the United States even though they know that this will result in retaliation of the sort that many other democratic states cannot or would not engage in.

While this is not impossible, the more plausible explanation is that the terrorists are motivated by their hatred of our foreign policy. After all, invasions, assassinations and such tend to motivate people to engage in violence far more so than some sort of hatred of freedom or democracy.

It might, of course, be wondered why the motivation of terrorists matter. What matters is not why they try to murder people at a marathon but that they try to do such things.

While what they do obviously matters, why they do it also matters. While I obviously believe that terrorism of the sort that took place in Boston is evil, this does not entail that there are no legitimate grievances against the United States and its allies in regards to our foreign policies. To use an analogy, if Bob blows up Sam’s whole family because Sam killed Bob’s son, then Bob has acted wrongly. But this does not prove that Sam acted rightly in killing Bob’s son. In the case of the United States, the fact that we have been attacked by terrorists does not thus make our invasions or drone assassinations right. Now, it might turn out that our actions are right, but we cannot infer that they are just because terrorists do terrible things.

Sorting out what motivates terrorists is also rather useful in trying to prevent terrorism. If we assume they are motivated by their hatred of our freedom or democracy, then we would have to abandon our freedom or democracy to remove their motivation. This is obviously something that should not be done.

However, if some terrorists are motivated by specific aspects of our foreign policy (such as drone strikes that kill civilians), then it seems well worth considering whether we should change these policies. To use an analogy, if someone keeps trying to attack me because I am virtuous, then I obviously should not abandon my virtues just to stop these attacks. But if someone keeps trying to attack me because I keep provoking him, then I should consider whether or not I should be doing those things. It might turn out that I am in the right, but it might turn out that I am in the wrong. If I am in the wrong, then I should change. But if he is in the wrong, then I would be warranted in not changing (but I would need to be honest about why he is attacking me). For example, if he goes after me because I am stealing his newspaper and dumping leaves in his yard, then I should probably stop doing that. As another example, if he is going after me because I run past his house, then he should stop doing that.

The same would seem to apply to terrorists. If we are engaged in unjust actions that provoke people, then we should stop those actions. If, however, we are acting justly and this provokes people, then we should continue to the degree those actions are warranted and necessary. But we should be honest about why they area attacking us.

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Racism, Sexism & Military Service

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 6, 2013
Gen. Ann Dunwoody meets with Rear Adm. Liz You...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous essay I discussed the matter of women in combat. While the decision has been made to permit women to serve in combat (which mainly just makes policy reflect reality), there are still those who argue against allowing women in these roles.

Obviously, this is not the first time that there has been a dispute regarding whether or not certain types of people are fit for certain types of military service (if at all). Equally obviously, this rather long history of exclusion and later inclusion provides a means of assessing the potential impact of allowing women to serve in combat roles.

While blacks served in American military conflicts since the Revolution, the official policy until 1948 was that blacks would serve in their own units (usually commanded by white officers). There were also arguments that blacks were simply unfit to serve in the military because of alleged defects in their abilities and character (this method of appealing to stereotypes has become a stock method in this context). Even after blacks had served with distinction in wars, this view still held. After all, prejudice is generally never defeated by clear and obvious evidence against it.

While the idea that blacks could serve in the military was eventually accepted, the idea of integrating the armed forces was resisted. One argument given against integration rested on the claim that allowing blacks to serve with whites would be harmful to moral and damage unit cohesion. Some even claimed that it would destroy the military (and perhaps America). This argument from cohesion, like the appeal to stereotypes, also became a stock tool.

The United States Navy started integrating crews in 1946 and President Truman ordered integration in 1948. In the 1950s the Korean War forced the ground forces to integrate because of casualties: all-white units needed replacements and black soldiers were on hand.

Despite the dire predictions, the integration of whites and blacks in the military went fairly smoothly and the military’s effectiveness was not (as some feared) damaged by this.

In more recent history, there was considerable uproar over the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuals in the military. Although soldiers could be expelled for being homosexuals, this policy of intentional deceit did allow homosexuals to serve as long as no one asked and no one told (although people generally knew).

Even more recently, the decision was made to allow homosexuals to serve openly. Naturally, the stock arguments involving stereotypes and unit cohesion were brought into play and doom was predicted once more.

Interestingly enough, this doom did not come to pass. Unit cohesion seemed to remain unaffected by the change of policy and the efficacy of the military remained intact.

Most recently, the hue and cry has been over the decision to allow women to serve in combat positions. As noted in my previous essay on the matter, the classic arguments were modified slightly to apply to women. To be specific, stereotypes of women were used to “argue” against allowing women in these roles and claims were made that women would destroy morale and unit cohesion.

Given what happened when blacks were allowed to serve and  then integrated and what happened in the case of homosexuals, it would be reasonable to infer that the prediction that allowing women to serve in combat roles will prove just as erroneous. After all, the “reasoning” seems to be the same, only the exact target of the stereotypes and prejudices have changed.

Of course, those who argue against allowing women in combat roles can make the claim that they are not arguing from mere prejudice. After all, they can point to legitimate and established evidence that women are generally less physically capable than men.  This is, of course, in contrast with the usual racist “arguments” about one race being inferior to another.

This line of reasoning does have some merit. After all, if a combat position legitimately requires abilities that women lack, then it would be wrong (practically and morally) to allow women into those positions. After all, this would truly impair the effectiveness of the unit and could result in mission failures and deaths.

However, accepting this does not require that one accepts that women should be subject to a blanket exclusion from combat positions. Individual women (and individual men) should be excluded from positions that they fail to legitimately qualify for and allowed in positions that they legitimately qualify for. Women have clearly shown that they can serve effectively in various combat roles (see Afghanistan and Iraq for recent examples). To simply exclude all women from all combat roles because some (or even all) women cannot qualify for some combat roles would certainly seem to be a mistake, both moral and practical (after all, with so many wars going we need soldiers).

When the next group is being targeted for exclusion from the military (perhaps non-humans) I am sure that the tired old arguments will be revived for yet another battle.  I am also sure that someone will use the inclusion of women in combat roles as an example of how the dire sexist predictions turned out just as mistaken as the dire predictions fueled by racism.


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Women in Combat

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 30, 2013


Photograph of two female american soldiers.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In January 2013 it was decided that women could serve in combat roles in the United States military. Obviously enough, American women in the military have been involved in combat—being wounded, earning combat medals and being killed. As such, the change simply makes policy match the reality of the situation on the ground (and in the air). Of course, there is a rather important change because of the policy: women can now serve in the positions that provide the best opportunities for career advancement and promotion—positions that had previously been the exclusive domain of men.

On the face of it, this policy change seems perfectly reasonable. As was noted, women have already served in combat situations and have performed at a level comparable to that of their male colleagues. Other nations have long employed female soldiers effectively in combat roles. While people can, of course, find cases in which individual women performed poorly in combat, this no more disqualifies women in general than the poor performance of individual men.

Despite the fact that this change seems sensible, there has been some very loud opposition, primarily from certain conservatives. Other conservatives, such as John McCain, have publicly supported this policy.

Not surprisingly, the old arguments against allowing women in combat have been trotted out in response to this change. Some of these arguments are refurbished versions of those used to argue against allowing women into the military at all and some are sexist retreads of old racist arguments. That is, there is really nothing new being presented as arguments against women serving in combat roles. However, it does seem worthwhile to consider some of these arguments and give them a fair assessment.

One stock argument, which was used to argue against racially integrated units, is based on the claim that the presence of women would destroy unit cohesion. This is a point of concern since unit cohesion is rather important in combat. In the case of women, a variety of reasons are presented as to why they would damage unit cohesion. The first is that men and women would be sexually attracted to each other and this would undermine cohesion. While it is true that men and women generally find each other sexually attractive, the empirical evidence shows that professionals are capable of functioning as professionals—even in combat (as shown in Afghanistan and Iraq). Naturally, some individuals are not capable of acting professionally, but the failures of specific individuals should no more preclude women from serving in combat than it should preclude men.

The second is that male soldiers will be distracted by trying to protect the women soldiers and this would impair the effectiveness of the unit. Since men do often try to protect women (and this is often regarded as heroic), this is a point of reasonable concern. However, the evidence seems to be that trained men and women can function together without this becoming a special problem. Also, the fact that soldiers look out for each other is generally presented as a positive factor—a male soldier who risks his life to save his male buddies is seen as heroic, so why should a willingness to protect female soldiers be regarded as a problem? If a soldier is incapable of acting professionally, then that would be his (or her) individual defect, not grounds for denying women the opportunity to serve in combat roles.

A second stock argument is based on the claim that women soldiers will be subject to sexual assault (either by enemy forces or by fellow Americans). Given the amount of sexual assault that occurs within the American military, this is a matter of concern. However, allowing women in combat roles would not seem to increase the chances of their being assaulted by American soldiers. There is still, however, the concern that sexual assault will be inflicted by enemy forces—after all, rape has often been employed as a tool of war against civilian women, so it makes sense that it could also be employed against female soldiers.

Women enlisting - England (LOC)

(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

In reply, it must be noted that we have long been willing to send young men into battle where they can be mutilated and killed. They can also be taken prisoner and subject to terrible tortures (as happened to McCain). If the concern that women soldiers might be sexually assaulted is grounds for keeping them out of combat roles, then it would seem that the concern that men might be wounded, killed or tortured should suffice as grounds to keep men out of combat as well. That is, if we are really worried about terrible things happening, then we should not have wars at all. But, if are going to have wars, then we need to recognize that horrible things are going to happen to people regardless of their sex.

A third stock argument is based on the claim that there will be quotas set for women in combat roles, thus displacing men. There is, of course, usually the assumption that the women will be unqualified and will be displacing qualified men—thus wronging the men and also making the military weaker. Arguments of this sort were given in the context of race rather than sex.

There are some reasonable grounds for concern here—after all, if it were true that unqualified women were displacing qualified men just to meet some sort of diversity metric, then that would be both unjust and harmful. Naturally, it would need to be shown that this would occur.

There are, however, compelling reasons for initially having some quotas. After all, the existing system excludes women and without some compulsion to admit women into these circles, the tendency would be to simply find all women unqualified and thus keep the boy’s club intact. This would, of course, unjustly deny qualified women the opportunities they deserve. There is also the obvious analogy to the civilian world: women were long excluded from traditional male professions but, once they had the opportunity to do so, they proved as capable as men. There seems to be no reason to think that the same would not apply here as well.

The final argument I will consider is the one that I believe has the most merit, namely the concern about the physical capabilities of women. Obviously enough, men are generally larger, stronger and faster than women. Men also seem more inclined towards traits that serve well in combat—although perhaps some of these are the result of socialization rather than nature. Because of this, it would seem that women would be a poor choice for combat roles since men would be better suited in such roles.

Critics of the idea that women should allowed in combat roles often point to the fact that the military has two sets of physical standards: one for men and one for women. Not surprisingly, the standards for women are considerably lower than those for men. While it could be argued that the lower standards are needed to allow women a chance to qualify, the obvious concern is that if women are held to lower standards then they will be thus less physically qualified than men. While this would not matter if one is filling out requisition forms, it certainly would matter in combat. There is also the obvious moral concern—a man who would meet the qualifications set for women but not those for men would be denied a job simply because he is a man. That seems to be clearly wrong.

It is well worth noting that the general differences between men and women as groups obviously need not hold true between individual men and women. Being a runner and a martial artist, I know many women who are considerably stronger and tougher than the average man. They would easily exceed the requirements set for men. Being an academic and gamer nerd, I also know plenty of men who could not meet the physical qualifications that women have to meet to be in the military.

Because of this, I contend that the military should either differentiate physical standards solely by role (rather than by sex) or that there should be just one general set of physical standards. This would allow women who are qualified to legitimately qualify without there being unjust double standards. It would also respond to the charge that the women in combat roles would not be qualified because they “qualified” by meeting watered down standards.

Because I believe in fairness, I believe that women who qualify for combat roles should have every right to serve in the roles that they earn. I also believe that the sex-based standards should be eliminated and replaced with either role-based standards or a bar that everyone must meet. That is, no more sexism.

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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2011
Coat of arms of Libya -- the "Hawk of Qur...

Image via Wikipedia

Since being at war seems to be our natural state it is hardly surprising that our three main wars have drifted in and out of media focus. Our most recent war, Libya, seems to be going the best. While we are providing critical air power and support, the actual ground fighting is not dominated by American forces. Also, this war has been rather cheap as far as wars go-mainly because others are involved and we are not (at least not yet) dumping truckloads of cash in an attempt at “nation building.”

At this point, the rebel forces seem to be well on the path to victory. The obvious questions now are “what happens next?” and “what will the role of the United States be?” As far as what happens next, the most likely scenario is that Gadhafi will come to a bad end and the rebels will be faced with sorting out who will run the show. This might lead to another round of fighting or there might be  a more peaceful solution.

The role of the United States hinges, obviously enough, on how things pan out with the rebels. So far we have followed a a fairly limited engagement strategy and have not gone the invasion route that has proved rather costly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though the situation might change, I see little advantage in having yet another invasion. Given our economy and our involvement in two other wars it would make sense to keep our involvement in Libya limited.

That said, there is the concern that the  post-Gadhafi Libya might be such that the United States will need to step up its level of involvement. After all, Libya has oil and has some strategic importance. We certainly would not want, for example, the Chinese to gain too much influence in the region. Ideally, of course, the rebels will create a stable and pro-Western government. Failing that, perhaps we can get the French to take this one.

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$360 Million

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 19, 2011
Various Federal Reserve Notes, c.1995. Only th...

Have you seen this lost money?

I recently heard that the US military lost about $360 million in Afghanistan. My first thought was, of course, “at least it wasn’t billions, like in Iraq.” The money was not misplaced or left in a bathroom like a wayward umbrella. Rather it seems that it ended up being funneled through whatever passes as legitimate businesses in Afghanistan into the criminal world. Some of the money seems to have ended up in the coffers of our enemies, thus continuing our long standing tradition of funding folks who are trying to harm us (yes, I am looking at you Pakistan).

Having become cynical about such matters, I was not at all surprised by this. As noted above, I actually thought that it would be more than a mere $360 million. I do try not to think about what this wasted money could do in the United States. For example, I try not to imagine that even a modest chunk of it could have helped FAMU and FSU with their budget woes. I am accustomed to the folks “in charge” throwing away money. I resent it and use my limited capabilities to rail against it, but in the end the government folks seem incapable of preventing this sort of thing.

To be fair, perhaps this is just how things work. In the United States we have modest corruption, mainly because of our laws and traditions. Some other countries lack such laws or, if they have them, they still lack a tradition of integrity. In some cases, bribery, corruption and other criminal activities are the tradition. I would like to think better of Afghanistan, but perhaps it is essentially a criminal culture-or at least the people that we have unwisely elected to do business with are part of a criminal culture. I suspect the latter over the former.

The United States has an unfortunate history of supporting the wrong people (like the Shah of Iran) and of failing to properly control the millions and billions that we dump in other countries. While this money is tiny compared to our massive debt, these tiny drops do add to that ocean of debt. Apparently we are also bad at learning from past mistakes and seen incapable of avoiding being duped by financial criminals-our own and those in other countries. It is, to say the least, embarrassing to read about our financial idiocy.


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News of the World

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 8, 2011
Rupert Murdoch

Image via Wikipedia

Journalists are, of course, expected to dig into things. That is an accepted part of the profession. However, there are legal and moral limits regarding how far they should go when doing such digging. The 168 year old British News of the World seems to have exceeded those limits and is being shut down by its owner, Rupert Murdoch.

To be specific, reporters who worked for the News of the World allegedly “hacked” the voice mails of around 4,000 people. What has really outraged the public is that those hacked are not just celebrities, but the families of people who have been killed by terrorists and of British soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps the most egregious violation is that reporters allegedly hacked the voice mail of a 13 year old girl who had been murdered. The reporters apparently even deleted voice mail messages, giving the family hope that the girl was still alive when it was not known she had been killed.

This situation, obviously enough, raises some serious ethical issues.

As noted above, journalists are expected to dig into things and this aspect of the profession can be seen as potentially justifying intrusions into privacy. The key issue is, of course, how far journalists can go in such intrusions before they are acting unethically.

One factor that can be used to assess the ethics of the intrusions is the nature of the activities being investigated. If the activities are illegal or unethical, then this would seem to justify investigation on the part of reporters, even when doing so might involves means that could be regarded as violating privacy. The moral argument here is, of course, easy and obvious: people generally have no moral or legal right to conceal their misdeeds and hence they would have little grounds to claim that they have been wronged by being exposed. To use an example, if Ted is using slaves on his Florida farm and Sally, who suspects this,  sneaks onto his land to gather evidence of this, then Ted certainly has not been wronged. After all, he has no moral right to expect his keeping of slaves to go unexposed and people would seem to have a right to expose such activities.

Of course, there can be cases in which misdeeds are exposed in ways that would seem to involve unethical behavior. For example, if a reporter is snooping around a celebrity and hacks into her computer to steal private photos, then he has acted wrongly-even if his snooping reveals that she has been cheating on her taxes. Though his actions revealed a crime, his intent was not to expose such a misdeed nor did he have any reason to suspect that something illegal or immoral was occurring. As such, the reporter’s intent and justification are clearly relevant.

In the case of the News of the World, the alleged hacking does not seem to fall into the realm of ethical behavior. After all, the intent does not seem to have been to expose misdeeds or crimes. This is especially evident in the alleged hacking of the families of victims and the hacking of the murdered girl’s phone. Presumably, the reporters were looking for things to print that they could not have gotten simply by interviewing the people involved and it seems rather likely that these things were such that the reporters had no right to acquire.  After all, the goal seems to have been not the revelation of misdeeds but the creation of sensational headlines and content calculated to appeal to readers. This, however, backfired and instead caused righteous indignation at these alleged violations.

There is also, of course, the fact that the reporters were hacking into voice mails, although using the default PIN hardly counts as serious hacking. While a moral argument could be made for such hacking in cases in which something truly dire was occurring, even in such cases this sort of behavior would be morally questionable (not to mention illegal). However, since the reporters were allegedly hacking for sensational information rather than engaged in exposing wickedness, they have no moral ground on which to stand. Those who directed them to such behavior and concealed their misdeeds over the years also lack such ground. After all, enabling and concealing misdeeds are themselves misdeeds.





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Republicans Going Dove?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 2, 2011
P dove

The new Republican icon?

I remember when we got into Afghanistan and Iraq. The Republicans were stoked about the wars and defended them all through the Bush years.When liberals cried out against the war, conservatives smeared them with the “cut and run” label and accused them of being weak on terror. Argument after argument was presented as to why the wars were just and why we had to remain.

Now that they have become Obama’s wars, the Republicans seem to have shed their hawk feathers for the gentle raiment of the dove. To be fair, the Republican’s love for the wars had begun to fade towards the end of the Bush era, but many pundits still defended them (if only from reflex).

On the face of it, the switch can be seen as politics as usual: the wars are Obama’s now and the Republicans must oppose him on all things, even the wars they started and defended for years. As such, the principle they are operating on is the principle of opposing Obama, rather than the principle of what is best for America. After all, they were for the wars when they belonged to George.

Of course, the situation has changed and perhaps the Republican shift is based on actual changes in these wars, rather than the change in who sits in the oval office. If so, perhaps we should head the Republican call and give peace a chance. If a Republican gets elected in 2012 and then owns the wars, it will be interesting to see if the Republican dove remains a dove or tears away the false plumage to reveal the classic hawk.

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The Post Bin Laden World

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 8, 2011
osama bin laden t-shirt (1)

Image by Paul Keller via Flickr

Now that Bin Laden is dead it is natural to wonder what impact this will have on the world.

The pundits have, of course, speculated on what effect this will have on Obama’s chances in 2012. Obviously, this will have some positive influence on his chances. Equally obviously, the election is still a long way off and much can happen between now and then. At the very least, memory of this event will fade away (although it will be brought up again in 2012) and its influence on the American psyche will diminish with each passing day. As such, the obvious conclusion is that this will help Obama a bit, but will not be a major factor in 2012.

It is, of course, interesting to do a bit of counter-factual history. While killing Bin Laden won’t be a huge plus for Obama, if the mission had failed, then it could very well have been a major loss for him. While a failed mission would not have been as bad as the failure of Carter’s mission to rescue the hostages in Iran, it would certainly have made America look bad and would have given Bin Laden a nice piece of propaganda. Obama probably could have recovered from such a disaster, but it would have been a significant problem.

Another point of concern is what impact this death will have on terror. On the face of it, the impact would seem to be fairly minimal. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were not particularly active or impressive in recent years. After all Al Qaeda’s most famous attack in recent years (at least in America) was the underwear bomber. While Bin Laden no doubt served to inspire others, his influence and the influence of Al Qaeda seemed to have already been waning. As such, while killing Bin Laden was clearly important, the impact seems to be primarily symbolic rather than one that will radically change the world.

To engage in some more counter-factual history, if Bin Laden had been killed shortly after 9/11, then that would have most likely had a major impact. It could even be argued that his timely death might have resulted in the United States not going to Afghanistan or Iraq.

Returning to the actual world, his death might serve to remove some of the justification for our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. After all one of the reasons given for our presence in Afghanistan was to fight Al Qaeda and find Bin Laden. Since Bin Laden is dead, there is no reason to keep looking for him. Since the remains of Al Qaeda seem to be in Pakistan, there seems to be little compelling reason to stay in Afghanistan to fight Al Qaeda. Of course, we seem to be stuck in Afghanistan which is a fate that history should have warned us against. After all, we actually used Afghanistan to grind the Soviets and hence we should have known better.

A third impact is that his death has enabled people to jump  on the Bin Laden funeral wagon and make a buck. Some of this is honest buck making: people are already pushing books and movie deals are in the works. Cyber criminal have also been busy exploiting his death by trying to sucker people into exposing themselves to malware by promises of photos of the dead Bin Laden.

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