A Philosopher's Blog

Kim Davis & Rule of Law

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 14, 2015

Those critical of Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and was jailed for being in contempt of court, often appeal to a rule of law principle. The main principle used seems to be that individual belief cannot be used to trump the law.

Some of those who support Davis have made the point that some state and local governments are ignoring federal laws in regards to drugs and immigration. To be more specific, it is pointed out that some states have legalized (or decriminalized) marijuana despite the fact that federal law still defines it as a controlled substance. It is also pointed out that some local governments are ignoring federal immigration law and acting on their own—such as issuing identification to illegal immigrants and providing services.

Some of Davis’ supporters even note that some of the same people who insist that Davis follow the law tolerate or even support state and local governments ignoring the federal drug an immigration laws.

One way to respond to the assertions is to claim that Davis’ defenders are committing the red herring fallacy. This is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. If the issue is whether or not Davis should follow the law, the failure of some states and local governments to enforce federal law is irrelevant. This is like a speeder who has been pulled over and argues that she should not get a ticket because another officer did not ticket someone else for speeding. What some other officer did or did not do to some other speeder is clearly not relevant in this case. As such, this approach would fail to defend Davis.

In regards to the people who say Davis should follow the law, yet are seemingly fine with the federal drug and immigration laws being ignored, to assert that they are wrong about Davis because of what they think about the other laws would be to commit the tu quoque ad hominem. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said. Since fallacies are arguments whose premises fail to logically support the conclusion, this tactic would not logically defend Davis.

Those who wish to defend Davis can, however, make an appeal to consistency and fairness: if it is acceptable for the states and local governments to ignore federal laws without punishment, then it would thus seem acceptable for Kim Davis to also ignore these laws without being punished. Those not interested in defending Davis could also make the point that consistency does require that if Davis is compelled to obey the law regarding same-sex marriage, then the same principle must be applied in regards to the drug and immigration laws. As such, the states and local governments that are not enforcing these laws should be compelled to enforce them and failure to do so should result in legal action against the state officials who fail to do their jobs.

This line of reasoning is certainly plausible, but it can be countered by attempting to show a relevant difference (or differences) between the laws in question. In practice most people do not use this approach—rather, they have the “principle” that the laws they like should be enforced and the laws they oppose should not be enforced. This is, obviously enough, not a legitimate legal or moral principle.  This applies to those who like same-sex marriage (and think the law should be obeyed) and those who dislike it (and think the law should be ignored). It also applies to those who like marijuana (and think the laws should be ignored) and those who dislike it (and think the laws should be obeyed).

In terms of making the relevant difference argument, there are many possible approaches depending on which difference is regarded as relevant. Those who wish to defend Davis might argue that her resistance to the law is based on her religious views and hence her disobedience can be justified on the grounds of religious liberty. Of course, there are those who oppose the immigration laws on religious grounds and even some who oppose the laws against drugs on theological grounds. As such, if the religious liberty argument is used in one case, it can also be applied to the others.

Those who want Davis to follow the law but who oppose the enforcement of certain drug and immigration laws could contend that Davis’ is violating the constitutional rights of citizens and that this is a sufficient difference to justify a difference in enforcement. The challenge is, obviously enough, working out why this difference justifies not enforcing the drug and immigration laws in question.

Another option is to argue that the violation of moral rights suffices to warrant not enforcing a law and protecting rights warrants enforcing a law. The challenge is showing that the rights of the same-sex couples override Davis’ claim to a right to religious liberty and also showing the moral right to use certain drugs and to immigrate even when it is illegal to do so. These things can be done, but go beyond the scope of this essay.

My own view is that consistency requires the enforcement of laws. If the laws are such that they should not be enforced, then they need to be removed from the books. I do, however, recognize the legitimacy of civil disobedience in the face of laws that a person of informed conscience regards as unjust. But, as those who developed the theory of civil disobedience were well aware, there are consequences to such disobedience.


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Voter Apathy

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 7, 2014

The recent midterm election was marked by numerous Republican victories, so apparently the voters believed that the solution to Republican obstructionism in congress was to elect more Republicans. That should work well.  Interestingly, the Republican leadership has asserted how they want to get work done and expressed their willingness to work with Obama. Of course, they also warned him about “poisoning the well” by striking off on his own in regards to immigration reform. I am not sure which well Boehner is referring to; perhaps it is that poison well that has been filling up since 2008.

I am, of course, a Democrat. But, my political views are based on ethical arguments rather than ideology and I took the crushing defeat of the Democratic party in stride. Which is fortunate, because someone had to be in good enough shape to console my friends who are devoted Democrats.

While I would have preferred a Democratic victory, I was reasonably sure what the outcome would be. While some might point to the vast sums spent by Republican backers, one must also point to the vast sums spent by Democratic backers. While some might point to voter suppression, one must also point to voter self-suppression. That is, voters simply deciding not to vote despite it being easy and convenient (in most states you can get a mail-in ballot with almost no effort).

While I do not discuss my own politics in class nor encourage students to support any particular candidate, I do discuss voting in general. While some students have been enthusiastic about voting, most express the same enthusiasm for voting as they do for class (that is, very little). Not surprisingly, students express many of the same reasons as other voters for their apathy. One reason is the belief that elections are settled in the shadows by those with the money and political influence–that is, that elections are essentially shams. The second reason is that people often find the candidates for both parties unappealing and regard them both as politicians who will just serve the interest of whoever paid for their campaign. For example, many folks saw the election in Florida as a matter of picking between the lesser evils. The majority of those who voted, voted for Rick Scott. A third reason is sort of a vague and general apathy about politics that seems fueled by the negative ads and the toxicity of American politics. That is, politics is seen as nasty and awful and people would rather think about something else.

This apathy seems to be widespread. Voter turnout on 11/4/2014 was about 44% (exact numbers vary). The worst turnout was apparently 36% for a state and the best was about 60% (which was my home state of Maine). Many elections were close (Scott beat Crist 48% to 47%) so many winners were elected by a minority of voters (but a majority of those who actually voted).

The stock view presented by the pundits is that the Democrats are hurt the most by low turnout, primarily because the solid supporters of the Republicans (old  white folks) vote reliably. In contrast, many of those who would probably vote Democrat if they voted, are unreliable and generally do not turn out for midterm elections. Sadly, many of these people still complain very loudly about the results of the election they did not participate in. While they obviously do have the legal right to complain and perhaps even a moral right, they should probably either vote or shut up.

Those who like conspiracy theories do like to claim that the Republicans have long been engaged in manufacturing voter apathy among the key demographics of the Democrats (the young, minorities, and women). People who like the facts do like to point out that gerrymandering has all but locked in most incumbents and that the Republicans have been masters of this.

The cynical view is, of course, that even if this is all true, the Republicans have proven better at politics than the Democrats, at least for now. If the Democrats want to win, they will need to figure out what the Republicans have been doing right and what they have been doing wrong and work out a strategy.

Oddly enough, I am inclined to favor the idea that a Democrat will win the presidential election in 2016. The trend in politics seems to be that people accumulate a negative view of the party in power (no doubt due partially to negativity bias-that the negative is given more weight than the positive) and then vote angry. Or apathetic. But, the Republicans might be able to ride the fall of Obama to victory in 2016.

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The Corruption of Academic Science

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Science, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 5, 2014
Synthetic insulin crystals synthesized using r...

Synthetic insulin crystals synthesized using recombinant DNA technology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields are supposed to be the new darlings of the academy, so I was slightly surprised when I heard an NPR piece on how researchers are struggling for funding. After all, even the politicians devoted to cutting education funding have spoken glowingly of STEM. My own university recently split the venerable College of Arts & Sciences, presumably to allow more money to flow to STEM without risking that professors in the soft sciences and the humanities might inadvertently get some of the cash. As such I was somewhat curious about this problem, but mostly attributed it to a side-effect of the general trend of defunding public education. Then I read “Bad Science” by Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones. This article was originally published in issue 14, 2014 of Jacobin Magazine. I will focus on the ethical aspects of the matters Hinkes-Jones discussed in this article, which is centered on the Bayh-Dole Act.

The Bayh-Dole Act was passed in 1980 and was presented as having very laudable goals. Before the act was passed, universities were limited in regards to what they could do with the fruits of their scientific research. After the act was passes, schools could sell their patents or engage in exclusive licensing deals with private companies (that is, monopolies on the patents). Supporters asserted this act would be beneficial in three main ways. The first is that it would secure more private funding for universities because corporations would provide money in return for the patents or exclusive licenses. The second is that it would bring the power of the profit motive to public research: since researchers and schools could profit, they would be more motivated to engage in research. The third is that the private sector would be motivated to implement the research in the form of profitable products.

On the face of it, the act was a great success. Researchers at Columbia University patented the process of DNA cotransfrormation and added millions to the coffers of the school. A patent on recombinant DNA earned Stanford over $200 million. Companies, in turn, profited greatly. For example, researchers at the University of Utah created Myriad Genetics and took ownership of their patent on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests for breast cancer. The current cost of the test is $4,000 (in comparison a full sequencing of human DNA costs $1,000) and the company has a monopoly on the test.

Given these apparent benefits, it is easy enough to advance a utilitarian argument in favor of the act and its consequences. After all, if allows universities to fund their research and corporations to make profits, then its benefits would seem to be considerable, thus making it morally good. However, a proper calculation requires considering the harmful consequences of the act.

The first harm is that the current situation imposes a triple cost on the public. One cost is that the taxpayers fund the schools that conduct the research. The next is that thanks to the monopolies on patents the taxpayers have to pay whatever prices the companies wish to charge, such as the $4,000 for a test that should cost far less. In an actual free market there would be competition and lower prices—but what we have is a state controlled and regulated market. Ironically, those who are often crying the loudest against government regulation and for the value of competition are quite silent on this point.  The final cost of the three is that the corporations can typically write off their contributions on their taxes, thus leaving other taxpayers to pick up their slack. These costs seem to be clear harms and do much to offset the benefits—at least when looked at from the perspective of the whole society and not just focusing on those reaping the benefits.

The second harm is that, ironically, this system makes research more expensive. Since processes, strains of bacteria and many other things needed for research are protected by monopolistic patents the researchers who do not hold these patents have to pay to use them. The costs are usually quite high, so while the patent holders benefit, research in general suffers. In order to pay for these things, researchers need more funding, thus either imposing more cost on taxpayers or forcing them to turn to private funding (which will typically result in more monopolistic patents).

The third harm is the corruption of researchers. Researchers are literally paid to put their names on positive journal articles that advance the interests of corporations. They are also paid to promote drugs and other products while presenting themselves as researchers rather than paid promoters. If the researchers are not simply bought, the money is clearly a biasing factor. Since we are depending on these researchers to inform the public and policy makers about these products, this is clearly a problem and presents a clear danger to the public good.

A fourth harm is that even the honest researchers who have not been bought are under great pressure to produce “sexy science” that will attract grants and funding. While it has always been “publish or perish” in modern academics, the competition is even fiercer in the sciences now. As such, researchers are under great pressure to crank out publications. The effect has been rather negative as evidenced by the fact that the percentage of scientific articles retracted for fraud is ten times what it was in 1975. Once lauded studies and theories, such as those driving the pushing of antioxidants and omega-3, have been shown to be riddled with inaccuracies.  Far from driving advances in science, the act has served as an engine of corruption, fraud and bad science. This would be bad enough, but there is also the impact on a misled and misinformed public. I must admit that I fell for the antioxidant and omega-3 “research”—I modified my diet to include more antioxidants and omega-3. While this bad science does get debunked, the debunking takes a long time and most people never hear about it. For example, how many people know that the antioxidant and omega-3 “research” is flawed and how many still pop omega-3 “fish oil pills” and drink “antioxidant teas”?

A fifth harm is that universities have rushed to cash in on the research, driven by the success of the research schools that have managed to score with profitable patents. However, setting up research labs aimed at creating million dollar patents is incredibly expensive. In most cases the investment will not yield the hoped for returns, thus leaving many schools with considerable expenses and little revenue.

To help lower costs, schools have turned to employing adjuncts to do the teaching and research, thus creating a situation in which highly educated but very low-paid professionals are toiling away to secure millions for the star researchers, the administrators and their corporate benefactors. It is, in effect, sweat-shop science.

This also shows another dark side to the push for STEM: as the number of STEM graduates increase, the value of the degrees will decrease and wages for the workers will continue to fall. This is great for the elite, but terrible for those hoping that a STEM degree will mean a good job and a bright future.

These harms would seem to outweigh the alleged benefits of the act, thus indicating it is morally wrong. Naturally, it can be countered that the costs are worth it. After all, one might argue, the incredible advances in science since 1980 have been driven by the profit motive and this has been beneficial overall. Without the profit motive, the research might have been conducted, but most of the discoveries would have been left on the shelves. The easy and obvious response is to point to all the advances that occurred due to public university research prior to 1980 as well as the research that began before then and came to fruition.

While solving this problem is a complex matter, there seem to be some easy and obvious steps. The first would be to restore public funding of state schools. In the past, the publicly funded universities drove America’s worldwide dominance in research and helped fuel massive economic growth while also contributing to the public good. The second would be replacing the Bayh-Dole Act with an act that would allow universities to benefit from the research, but prevent the licensing monopolies that have proven so damaging. Naturally, this would not eliminate patents but would restore competition to what is supposed to be a competitive free market by eliminating the creation of monopolies from public university research. The folks who complain about the state regulating business and who praise the competitive free market will surely get behind this proposal.

It might also be objected that the inability to profit massively from research will be a disincentive. The easy and obvious reply is that people conduct research and teach with great passion for very little financial compensation. The folks that run universities and corporations know this—after all, they pay such people very little yet still often get exceptional work. True, there are some people who are solely motivated by profit—but those are typically the folks who are making the massive profit rather than doing the actual research and work that makes it all possible.


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Ebola, Safety & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2014
English: Color-enhanced electron micrograph of...

English: Color-enhanced electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles. Polski: Mikrofotografia elektronowa cząsteczek wirusa Ebola w fałszywych kolorach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kaci Hickox, a nurse from my home state of Maine, returned to the United States after serving as a health care worker in the Ebola outbreak. Rather than being greeted as a hero, she was confined to an unheated tent with a box for a toilet and no shower. She did not have any symptoms and tested negative for Ebola. After threatening a lawsuit, she was released and allowed to return to Maine. After arriving home, she refused to be quarantined again. She did, however, state that she would be following the CDC protocols. Her situation puts a face on a general moral concern, namely the ethics of balancing rights with safety.

While past outbreaks of Ebola in Africa were met largely with indifference from the West (aside from those who went to render aid, of course), the current outbreak has infected the United States with a severe case of fear. Some folks in the media have fanned the flames of this fear knowing that it will attract viewers. Politicians have also contributed to the fear. Some have worked hard to make Ebola into a political game piece that will allow them to bash their opponents and score points by appeasing fears they have helped create. Because of this fear, most Americans have claimed they support a travel ban in regards to Ebola infected countries and some states have started imposing mandatory quarantines. While it is to be expected that politicians will often pander to the fears of the public, the ethics of the matter should be considered rationally.

While Ebola is scary, the basic “formula” for sorting out the matter is rather simple. It is an approach that I use for all situations in which rights (or liberties) are in conflict with safety. The basic idea is this. The first step is sorting out the level of risk. This includes determining the probability that the harm will occur as well as the severity of the harm (both in quantity and quality). In the case of Ebola, the probability that someone will get it in the United States is extremely low. As the actual experts have pointed out, infection requires direct contact with bodily fluids while a person is infectious. Even then, the infection rate seems relatively low, at least in the United States. In terms of the harm, Ebola can be fatal. However, timely treatment in a well-equipped facility has been shown to be very effective. In terms of the things that are likely to harm or kill an American in the United States, Ebola is near the bottom of the list. As such, a rational assessment of the threat is that it is a small one in the United States.

The second step is determining key facts about the proposals to create safety. One obvious concern is the effectiveness of the proposed method. As an example, the 21-day mandatory quarantine would be effective at containing Ebola. If someone shows no symptoms during that time, then she is almost certainly Ebola free and can be released. If a person shows symptoms, then she can be treated immediately. An alternative, namely tracking and monitoring people rather than locking them up would also be fairly effective—it has worked so far. However, there are the worries that this method could fail—bureaucratic failures might happen or people might refuse to cooperate. A second concern is the cost of the method in terms of both practical costs and other consequences. In the case of the 21-day quarantine, there are the obvious economic and psychological costs to the person being quarantined. After all, most people will not be able to work from quarantine and the person will be isolated from others. There is also the cost of the quarantine itself. In terms of other consequences, it has been argued that imposing this quarantine will discourage volunteers from going to help out and this will be worse for the United States. This is because it is best for the rest of the world if Ebola is stopped in Africa and this will require volunteers from around the world. In the case of the tracking and monitoring approach, there would be a cost—but far less than a mandatory quarantine.

From a practical standpoint, assessing a proposed method of safety is a utilitarian calculation: does the risk warrant the cost of the method? To use some non-Ebola examples, every aircraft could be made as safe as Air-Force One, every car could be made as safe as a NASCAR vehicle, and all guns could be taken away to prevent gun accidents and homicides. However, we have decided that the cost of such safety would be too high and hence we are willing to allow some number of people to die. In the case of Ebola, the calculation is a question of considering the risk presented against the effectiveness and cost of the proposed method. Since I am not a medical expert, I am reluctant to make a definite claim. However, the medical experts do seem to hold that the quarantine approach is not warranted in the case of people who lack symptoms and test negative.

The third concern is the moral concern. Sorting out the moral aspect involves weighing the practical concerns (risk, effectiveness and cost) against the right (or liberty) in question. Some also include the legal aspects of the matter here as well, although law and morality are distinct (except, obviously, for those who are legalists and regard the law as determining morality). Since I am not a lawyer, I will leave the legal aspects to experts in that area and focus on the ethics of the matter.

When working through the moral aspect of the matter, the challenge is determining whether or not the practical concerns morally justify restricting or even eliminating rights (or liberties) in the name of safety. This should, obviously enough, be based on consistent principles in regards to balancing safety and rights. Unfortunately, people tend to be wildly inconsistent in this matter. In the case of Ebola, some people have expressed the “better safe than sorry” view and have elected to impose or support mandatory quarantines at the expense of the rights and liberties of those being quarantined. In the case of gun rights, these are often taken as trumping concerns about safety. The same holds true of the “right” or liberty to operate automobiles: tens of thousands of people die each year on the roads, yet any proposal to deny people this right would be rejected. In general, people assess these matters based on feelings, prejudices, biases, ideology and other non-rational factors—this explains the lack of consistency. So, people are wiling to impose on basic rights for little or no gain to safety, while also being content to refuse even modest infringements in matters that result in great harm. However, there are also legitimate grounds for differences: people can, after due consideration, assess the weight of rights against safety very differently.

Turning back to Ebola, the main moral question is whether or not the safety gained by imposing the quarantine (or travel ban) would justify denying people their rights. In the case of someone who is infectious, the answer would seem to be “yes.” After all, the harm done to the person (being quarantined) is greatly exceeded by the harm that would be inflicted on others by his putting them at risk of infection. In the case of people who are showing no symptoms, who test negative and who are relatively low risk (no known specific exposure to infection), then a mandatory quarantine would not be justified. Naturally, some would argue that “it is better to be safe than sorry” and hence the mandatory quarantine should be imposed. However, if it was justified in the case of Ebola, it would also be justified in other cases in which imposing on rights has even a slight chance of preventing harm. This would seem to justify taking away private vehicles and guns: these kill more people than Ebola. It might also justify imposing mandatory diets and exercise on people to protect them from harm. After all, poor health habits are major causes of health issues and premature deaths. To be consistent, if imposing a mandatory quarantine is warranted on the grounds that rights can be set aside even when the risk is incredibly slight, then this same principle must be applied across the board. This seems rather unreasonable and hence the mandatory quarantine of people who are not infectious is also unreasonable and not morally acceptable.


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Lawful Good

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 6, 2014
Paladin II

Paladin II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I have written in other posts on alignments, it is often useful to look at the actual world in terms of the D&D alignment system. In this essay, I will look at the alignment that many players find the most annoying: lawful good (or, as some call it, “awful good”).

Pathfinder, which is a version of the D20 D&D system, presents the alignment as follows:

 A lawful good character believes in honor. A code or faith that she has unshakable belief in likely guides her. She would rather die than betray that faith, and the most extreme followers of this alignment are willing (sometimes even happy) to become martyrs.

A lawful good character at the extreme end of the lawful-chaotic spectrum can seem pitiless. She may become obsessive about delivering justice, thinking nothing of dedicating herself to chasing a wicked dragon across the world or pursuing a devil into Hell. She can come across as a taskmaster, bent upon her aims without swerving, and may see others who are less committed as weak. Though she may seem austere, even harsh, she is always consistent, working from her doctrine or faith. Hers is a world of order, and she obeys superiors and finds it almost impossible to believe there’s any bad in them. She may be more easily duped by such impostors, but in the end she will see justice is done—by her own hand if necessary.

In the fantasy worlds of role-playing games, the exemplar of the lawful good alignment is the paladin. Played properly, a paladin character is a paragon of virtue, a word of righteousness, a defender of the innocent and a pain in the party’s collective ass. This is because the paladin and, to a somewhat lesser extent, all lawful good characters are very strict about being good. They are usually quite willing to impose their goodness on the party, even when doing so means that the party must take more risks, do things the hard way, or give up some gain. For example, lawful good characters always insist on destroying unholy magical items, even when they could be cashed in for stacks of gold.

In terms of actual world moral theories, lawful good tends to closely match virtue theory: the objective is to be a paragon of virtue and all that entails. In actual game play, players tend to (knowingly or unknowingly) embrace the sort of deontology (rules based ethics) made famous by our good dead friend Immanuel Kant. On this sort of view, morality is about duty and obligations, the innate worth of people, and the need to take action because it is right (rather than expedient or prudent). Like Kant, lawful good types tend to be absolutists—there is one and only one correct solution to any moral problem and there are no exceptions. The lawful good types also tend to reject consequentialism—while the consequences of actions are not ignored (except by the most fanatical of the lawful good), what ultimately matters is whether the act is good in and of itself or not.

In the actual world, a significant number of people purport to be lawful good—that is, they claim to be devoted to honor, goodness, and order. Politicians, not surprisingly, often try to cast themselves, their causes and their countries in these terms. As might be suspected, most of those who purport to be good are endeavoring to deceive others or themselves—they mistake their prejudices for goodness and their love of power for a devotion to a just order. While those skilled at deceiving others are dangerous, those who have convinced themselves of their own goodness can be far more dangerous: they are willing to destroy all who oppose them for they believe that those people must be evil.

Fortunately, there are actually some lawful good types in the world. These are the people who sincerely work for just, fair and honorable systems of order, be they nations, legal systems, faiths or organizations. While they can seem a bit fanatical at times, they do not cross over into the evil that serves as a key component of true fanaticism.

Neutral good types tend to see the lawful good types as being too worried about order and obedience. The chaotic good types respect the goodness of the lawful good types, but find their obsession with hierarchy, order and rules oppressive. However, good creatures never willingly and knowingly seriously harm other good creatures. So, while a chaotic good person might be critical of a lawful good organization, she would not try to destroy it.

Chaotic evil types are the antithesis of the lawful good types and they are devoted enemies. The chaotic evil folks hate the order and goodness of the lawful good, although they certainly delight in destroying them.

Neutral evil types are opposed to the goodness of the lawful good, but can be adept at exploiting both the lawful and good aspects of the lawful good. Of course, the selfishly evil need to avoid exposure, since the good will not willingly suffer their presence.

Lawful evil types can often get along with the lawful good types in regards to the cause of order. Both types respect tradition, authority and order—although they do so for very different reasons. Lawful evil types often have compunctions that can make them seem to have some goodness and the lawful good are sometimes willing to see such compunctions as signs of the possibility of redemption. In general, the lawful good and lawful evil are most likely to be willing to work together at the societal level. For example, they might form an alliance against a chaotic evil threat to their nation. Inevitably, though, the lawful good and lawful evil must end up in conflict. Which is as it should be.


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Chaotic Evil

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 5, 2014

As I have written in two other essays, the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system is surprisingly useful for categorizing people in the real world. In my previous two essays, I looked at lawful evil and neutral evil. This time I will look at chaotic evil.

In the realm of fantasy, players often encounter chaotic evil foes—these include many of the classic enemies ranging from the lowly goblin to the terrifyingly powerful demon lord. Chaotic evil foes are generally good choices for those who write adventures—no matter what alignment the party happens to be, no one has a problem with killing chaotic evil creatures. Most especially other chaotic evil creatures. Fortunately, chaotic evil is not as common in the actual world. In the game system, chaotic evil is defined as follows:

A chaotic evil character is driven entirely by her own anger and needs. She is thoughtless in her actions and acts on whims, regardless of the suffering it causes others.

In many ways, a chaotic evil character is pinned down by her inherent nature to be unpredictable. She is like a spreading fire, a coming storm, an untested sword blade. An extreme chaotic evil character tends to find similarly minded individuals to be with—not out of any need for company, but because there is a familiarity in this chaos, and she relishes the opportunity to be true to her nature with others who share that delight.

The chaotic evil person differs from the lawful evil person in regards to the matter of law. While they are both evil, the lawful evil person is committed to order, tradition and hierarchy. As such, lawful evil types can create, lead and live in organized states (and all states have lawful evil aspects). They can even get along with others—provided that doing so is required for the preservation of order. In contrast, chaotic evil types have no commitment to order, tradition or hierarchy. They can, of course, be compelled to act as if they do. For example, as long as the threat of punishment or death is close at hand, a chaotic evil type will obey those with greater power. Chaotic evil types do like order, tradition and hierarchy in the same way that arsonists like things that burn—without these things, the chaotic evil type would have that much less to destroy.

Lawful evil types do often find chaotic evil types useful for specific tasks, although those wise about evil are aware of the dangers of using such tools. For example, a well-organized terrorist group will tend to be lawful evil in regards to its leadership. However, such a group will find many uses for the chaotic evil types. A lawful evil type is generally not likely to strap on an explosive vest and run into a crowd, but a chaotic evil person might very well consider this to be a good way to go out. Lawful evil types also sometimes need people to create chaos so that they can then impose more order—the chaotic evil are just the people to bring in. But, as noted, the chaotic evil can get out of hand—they are not constrained by order or even rational selfishness. This is why the smart lawful evil types do their best to see to it that the chaotic evil types do not outlive their usefulness.

The chaotic evil person differs from the neutral evil person in regards to the matter of chaos. While the chaotic evil and neutral evil are both selfish and care nothing for others, the neutral evil person tends to be more rational and calculating in her selfishness. A neutral evil person can have excellent self-control and conceal her true nature in order to achieve her selfish and evil ends. Chaotic evil types lack that self-control and find it hard to conceal their true nature—that takes a discipline that the chaotic, by their nature, lack. The neutral evil see society as having instrumental value for them—but their selfishness means that they will take actions that can destroy society. The chaotic evil see no value in society other than as presenting a target rich environment for their evil. In our world, chaotic evil types tend to be those who commit horrific crimes or acts of terror.

While chaotic evil types are chaotic and evil, they often take up the mantle of some cause and purport to be acting for some greater good. However, their actions disprove their claims about their alleged commitment to anything good. They typically take up a religious or political cause to assuage whatever shreds of conscience they might still retain—or do so as part of their chaotic game.

In an orderly society that does not need the chaotic evil, smarter chaotic evil types try to hide from the authorities—though their nature drives them to commit crimes. Those that are less clever commit their misdeeds and are quickly caught. The cleverer might never be caught and become legends. Fortunately for the chaotic evil (and unfortunately for everyone else), they have plenty of opportunities to act on their alignment. There are always organizations that are happy to have them and there are always conflict areas where they can act in accord with their true natures—often with the support and blessings of the authority. In the end, though many are willing to make use of their morality, no one really wants the chaotic evil around.


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Campbell Brown, Protests & Transparency

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 6, 2014
Colbert Super PAC

Colbert Super PAC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Campbell Brown appeared on the July 31, 2014 episode of the Colbert Report to promote the fact that her Partnership for Educational Justice had filed a legal complaint in Albany aimed at eliminating New York’s teacher tenure laws.  In my previous essay, I discussed the main topic, namely that of the points made in the legal complaint. In this essay, I will discuss some interesting points from Brown’s appearance on the Colbert Report.

When Brown went to the show, she encountered some protestors outside the building. Interestingly, she described them as trying to silence her and was rather critical of their presence. Colbert responded by noting that the protestors were exercising their First Amendment rights.

On the face of it, Brown was using a common tactic—accusing critics of wanting to silence those expressing opposing viewpoints and using this as grounds for rejecting, dismissing or ignoring the actual criticisms. To be fair, in some cases critics do explicitly state that their opponent should be silenced—perhaps silencing themselves or being silenced by others. Because I accept the right to freedom of expression, I am against the silencing of critics (I have written on this in other essays). As such, I would oppose those who would wish to silence Brown and prevent her from making her claims.

However, it is important to distinguish between protests/criticism and attempts to silence a person. To protest against someone or something is to express a negative view and this is rather different from endeavoring to silence someone. For example, someone might protest against Brown’s lawsuit by making a sign and standing by the entrance to the building where the Colbert Report is shot. This is expressing a stance against Brown, but unless the person tells Brown to stop expressing her views or tries to shout her down, the person is not trying to silence Brown. Even if the person would be happy if Brown shut up.

To criticize something is to assess and evaluate it, which is clearly different from trying to silence a person. My essay about Brown’s lawsuit was critical—I assessed her claims. However, at no point did I endeavor to silence her.  She has every right to keep making her claims and expressing her views, just as I have the same right to express my own—even when my claims are critical of her claims. To assess is to not to silence. Even to claim someone is wrong is not to silence them. Saying “you are mistaken” is not the same as saying “shut up.”

That said, the tactic of accusing protestors/critics of trying to silence one does have some rhetorical value. First, it allows a person to dismiss or reject protestors/critics with a lazy ad homimen: “they are just trying to silence me, so their claims have no merit.” Second, it has an emotional appeal in that it casts the protestors/critics as being opposed to freedom of speech. The irony, of course, is that this is an attempt to silence the critics.

Another interesting aspect of the discussion was when Colbert asked Brown about who was funding her group and lawsuit. As Colbert, the owner of his own super PAC noted, it is perfectly legal to keep the names of those funding such an organization secret—even when such a group is actively involved in politics. When pressed a bit, Brown used another common tactic—she claimed that anonymity protects the donors from being harassed. This, of course, ties into the previously discussed tactic in which protestors and critics are cast as villains who are trying to silence a person. In this case, the opponents of her views are presumably being presented as the sort of people who would cruelly harass those they disagree with. This would, of course, cast Brown as a brave hero—she is facing the harassment so that the anonymous donors do not have to.

As Colbert noted, not revealing her donors is her legal right. However, the claim that she is keeping them anonymous to protect them from harassment seems rather dubious. While Brown has been subject to criticism and has been protested against, she does not seem to have been subjected to onerous abuse. The anonymous donors would presumably also not be cruelly abused—though they might be criticized.

Those more cynical than I might claim that the donors are being concealed for nefarious reasons and there has been considerable speculation about who is the money behind the mouth. Those on the left, naturally enough, tend to suspect a right wing cabal aimed at destroying unions and privatizing education for the profit of themselves and their cronies. Those of more moderate views might suspect a bi-partisan group that is aimed at privatizing education for the profit of themselves and their cronies. Some might even take Brown at face value: they are people who are concerned with education reform. But, for some reason, they do not want anyone else to know.

Given her current commitment to secrecy, it is somewhat ironic that in 2013 Brown created the Parents’ Transparency Project which was claimed to be aimed at bringing transparency to the negotiation process involving teachers’ unions.

This situation does raise the larger issue of such secret funding. On the one hand, it could be argued that people have a right to privacy when it comes to engaging in legal and political machinations. On the other hand, secret money has at least two negative impacts. The first is that it seems to have a corrosive effect on the openness that is supposed to the hallmark of democratic systems. The second is that it keeps the public in ignorance—knowing who is backing which candidates, causes and law suits seems to be a rather important part of making informed decisions. Of course, it can be countered that the public does not need to know this, that it should not matter who is really funding something, hiding behind patriotic or positive sounding fronts.

I am, not surprisingly, for transparency in such funding. First, I agree that such secret money is contrary to the openness that is so critical to a real democratic system. Secret money deals are appropriate for oligarchies and corrupt states, but hardly suitable for what is supposed to be an open democracy. Second, I believe that people should take responsibility for their beliefs and actions—being able to influence without accountability is morally unacceptable. Third, there is the matter of courage—only a coward hides behind anonymity when there is no real danger beyond people knowing what a person is backing.

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Trigger Point

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 22, 2013
M1911A1 by Springfield Armory, Inc. (contempor...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One rather important matter is determining the appropriate trigger point for regulation and law. The basic challenge is determining the level at which a problem is such that it warrants the creation and enforcement of regulations and laws.

While it would be unreasonable to expect that an exact line can be drawn in all or even any cases (to require such an exact line would be to fall into the line-drawing fallacy, a variation on the false dilemma fallacy), a general level can presumably be set in regards to tolerance of harm.

Naturally, the level of reasonable tolerance would involve many variables, such as the number of cases of harm, the severity of the harm, the cost of regulation/laws, and so on. For example, paying a cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes no harms would seem to be unreasonable and wasteful.  As such, the various “morality” laws that regulate consensual sex between adults would be unreasonable and wasteful. As another example, paying a modest cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes considerable harm in both numbers and severity would seem reasonable. Thus, the regulation of alcohol and tobacco seems reasonable.

While the specifics will vary from case to case, there should be a consistent approach to these determinations based on general principles regarding costs, number of incidents, severity of the harm and so on. In general, a utilitarian approach would be sensible—weighing out the likely benefits and harms for the various approaches to determine the most reasonable approach.

Not surprisingly, people tend to approach the trigger point of law and regulation very inconsistently. As with most matters of law and regulation, people tend to assess matters based on what they like and dislike rather than rationally assessing the relevant factors.

As a matter of comparison, consider the gun related deaths of children and voter fraud. While there is some dispute about the exact number of children who die from accidental gunshot wounds children obviously do die in this manner.  Not surprisingly, some people have endeavored to strengthen the regulation of guns and pass laws that are aimed at preventing the accidental death of children from gunshots. It is also not surprising that the National Rifle Association (and other similar organizations) have lobbied against such efforts and have argued about the statistics regarding the gun related deaths of children. While the N.R.A. is obviously not in favor of the death of children, the approach taken has also included the standard method of contending that the problem is not at the trigger point at which new regulation or laws should be created and enforced. The general idea is that the harm being done is not significant enough to warrant new regulation or laws regarding guns, such as rules for the safe storage of weapons. In support of this, the N.R.A argues that the death rate from accidental shootings is less than falls, poison or “environmental factors.” That is, not enough children are dying to warrant new laws or regulation (I will assume that the death of a child is regarded as being a serious harm).

There is also considerable dispute about voter fraud, although even those who regard voter fraud as a serious problem admit that the number of incidents is tiny. However, after the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding the Voting Right Act several states enacted laws alleged to be aimed at addressing voter fraud. These laws include those requiring voters to have the proper ID (which former Speaker of the House Jim Wright was not able to get) and those aimed at reducing or eliminating such things as early voting. In general, these laws seem to be ineffective in regards to actual fraud and the existing laws seem to be adequate for catching fraud. For example, eliminating early voting would not seem to have any capacity to deter fraud. While the voter ID laws might seem to have the potential to be effective, actual voter fraud typically does not involve a person voting in person as someone else. Even if it did have some value in preventing voter fraud, it would do so at a great cost, namely disenfranchising many voters. Overall, the main impact of these laws is to not reduce voter fraud (which is miniscule already) but to disenfranchise people. In some cases politicians and pundits admit that these laws are intended to do just that and in some cases they get in trouble for this.

Given the low number of incidents of voter fraud and the considerable harm that is done by the laws allegedly created to counter it, it would seem that such laws would be rather unjustified when using a rational approach to setting a trigger point for new laws or regulations. It could, of course, be argued that the harm done by allowing a miniscule amount of voter fraud is so serious that it warrants disenfranchising people—that is, trying to prevent a few fraudulent votes is worth preventing many legitimate votes from being cast.

Interestingly enough, some of the folks who are pushing hard for new laws to “prevent” voter fraud are the same folks who push hard to prevent new laws to reduce the deaths of children. This presents an interesting look at how people actually make decisions about trigger points.


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Super Secret Free Trade Agreement

Posted in Business, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 4, 2013

Presumably in response to the secrecy of the Bush administration, Obama made the promise that his administration would be transparent. Those who have Obama derangement syndrome claim that Obama is a Communist while those with a milder form of the affliction claim that he is a Socialist. His secret Free Trade Agreement seems to take a hammer to his own claim and the fearful fantasies of his foes.

While some information about the Free Trade Agreement has been leaked, there was considerable effort to keep its details hidden from not only the voters but also the Congress of the United States. Conveniently enough, some of the top corporations were in the know and presumably involved in laying out the details of the agreement.

Not surprisingly, this agreement seems to be incredibly beneficial to multinational corporations at the expense of sovereign nations and their citizens. For example, the agreement seems to include provisions that allow corporations to sue sovereign states if their laws (such as environmental laws against fracking in certain areas) would impede their profits. These lawsuits would apparently be brought in an international court with authority over sovereign states.

As might be imagined, some of the folks on the left (including people who are real communists and socialists) find this agreement to be of considerable concern. After all, it seems that it is tailored to grant corporations considerable advantages and to infringe on the usual rights of states.

Interestingly, this agreement should also bother many of the folks on the right. While there is obviously a strong pro-corporate camp among conservatives, there is also a strong element that has long been opposed to the notion of world-government and strongly opposed to the idea of the United States being subject to international courts. These people, if they are consistent, would presumably be as opposed to this agreement as they were to other proposals to limit American sovereignty.

That said, there does seem to be a difference between the past cases and the proposed agreement. In the past, those who opposed impositions on American sovereignty were generally imposing attempts to limit what the United States could do. For example, attempts to get the United States to accept internationally based limits in regards to environmental issues were strongly opposed. The rhetoric used included appeals to national sovereignty. Of course, this appeal to sovereignty was beneficial to corporations—they could exempt themselves from laws imposed by other nations behind the shield of United States sovereignty.

In contrast, the proposed agreement removes the shield of sovereignty in ways that are beneficial to the corporations. Obviously, it is rather useful to corporations to be able to hide behind the shield of a sovereign nation when they want to do things they would otherwise be prevented from doing and have that shield set aside when they want to do things to a sovereign nation.

It will be interesting to see how those who influence the conservative base will sell the proposed agreement to those they have long trained to cry out against world government and impositions on sovereignty. My guess is that they will make use of the magic words “free trade” and “free market” to sell the imposition on sovereignty. I also suspect they will make use of the notion that they have been pushing for quite some time, namely the idea that government is a bad thing.

Those who get the notion of consistency will, of course, note that the only consistent principle in use here is the idea that what is good for the profits of the few is good, whether what is good for profits defending national sovereignty in one case or ignoring that sovereignty in another.

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Gun Violence, Once More

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 20, 2013
The most common type of gun confiscated by pol...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mass murders, defined as four or more people killed, occur with unfortunate regularity in the United States. These murders typically involve guns—most likely for the obvious reason that guns make killing much easier. The latest incident to grab the public’s attention was a shooting in a Washington Navy yard in which twelve people were murdered. As with each such horrible event, the gun cycle has been restarted.

As always, some people demand that “something be done” while others rush to head off any attempts to actually do something that might involve guns. As with each previous cycle, this one will slowly spin down and lose the eye of the public. Until the next shooting.

I have written so many times about guns and violence that I suspect that I do not have anything new to say about the matter. From what I have heard, seen and read, it seems like the same is true of other people.

In defense of guns, people trot out the usual line about it being people that kill rather than guns. This is, obviously enough, a true claim: guns are tools that people sometimes use to kill other people. Guns do not engage in murder by themselves. Another way to look at it is that it is true that guns do not commit gun crimes—people do. Of course, the same is true about drug crimes: drugs do not commit drug crimes—people do.

While muttering about guns not killing sounds callous when bullet ridden corpses so recently lay on the ground, this approach does have some merit. After all, when people do kill people with guns, there is some reason (a causal chain) behind it and this reason is not simply that the person had a gun. Rather, they have the gun and use it for reasons (in the sense of there being causes).

In the case of the latest alleged shooter, there seems to be evidence of mental health issues, such as his allegedly telling the police about voices and attempts to beam messages to him with microwaves. He also had a police record that included “minor” gun incidents, such as shooting a coworker’s tire and discharging a firearm through his ceiling into the apartment above. Despite all this, he was still able to legally purchase a gun and even keep his security access to military bases.

Looking back at other shootings, some of them are similar in that the shooter had mental issues that were known but did not reach a level at which legal action could be taken. This, of course, suggests that changing the laws would be a potential solution. However, the obvious concern is that the majority of people who fall below the level at which legal action can be taken to deny them guns never engage in violence. I have written extensively about this before and hold to the same position, namely that denying people their rights requires more than just the mere possibility that they might do something.

It is interesting and disturbing to note that it is worth considering that our entire society is mentally deranged. This point was made quite some time ago by Emma Goldman in her essay on anarchism. She noted that we are like animals in captivity and our behavior is deranged by the conditions that are imposed on us by those who hold power. We face a society with grotesque inequalities, ethical problems, drug abuse (which is both a cause and effect), little social support and great stress. Most people who are ground down by this situation break down in non-violent ways, but it is hardly a shock that some people respond with violence. If this is the case, then the violence is a symptom of a greater disease and gun laws would fail to address the disease itself—although they could make gun violence less likely.

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