A Philosopher's Blog

Police Body Cameras

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 8, 2017

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Intuitively, police body cameras should improve the conduct of both the police and the public. After all, if an officer knows that his actions are being filmed for later review, then they are less likely to engage in bad or illegal behavior. There can be, of course, some notable exceptions. In the case of the public, it would also make sense that people would behave somewhat better when interacting with the police if they know they are being filmed. Because of these reasons and others, I was in favor of the deployment of police body cameras. This was, I must admit, in the absence of actual evidence regarding their effectiveness. Fortunately, a large scale and rigorous study has been conducted on the use of such cameras.

Somewhat surprisingly, the study showed that the cameras had no significant effect on the use of force by the police or citizen complaints. The study was conducted from June 2015 to December 2016 in Washington, D.C. using the 2,600 officers of the force. Based on the description of the study, it seems to have been properly conducted and thus presumably avoided the usual suspects when it comes to poor studies and fallacious causal reasoning. As such, it is reasonable to accept its results (assuming no new information emerges).

While tiny HD cameras and storage are absurdly cheap these days, police body cameras tend to be relatively expensive. Part of the cost is certainly legitimate—camera and data storage integrity need to be assured. Part of the cost is, no doubt, made up of the usual dubious and sketchy additions whenever the state is buying anything. Whatever the reason for the cost, the fact that the study shows that the cameras do not impact use of force or citizen complaints should certainly cause police departments to reconsider spending budget money on this technology. After all, putting the money in hiring more officers or better training would seem to be preferable ways to improve law enforcement. There are also concerns that video could be misused by the police, such as when writing incident reports. That said, there are still reasons to use the body cameras.

One reason, as noted by the police in D.C., is that the video from the cameras can be important in addressing public concern. For example, public doubts about an incident can be addressed with video—such as this one in which it is clearly shown that the suspect was armed with a knife. If proper use of the cameras can help establish and maintain public trust, they can be worth using. This, of course, should be the subject of another study—if cameras do not have this effect, then this would obviously not justify the expense. A second reason is that the camera footage is, presumably, useful in court. While video evidence is not always decisive, it can be very valuable. This, of course, would also require a study to confirm.

While the study seems to have been conducted quite well, there is the obvious concern as to whether the D.C. Police differ in important ways from other police departments. As noted by NPR, there was about ten years of federal oversight aimed at improving the department. Since the department had been doing things right, it would hardly be surprising that adding cameras would not have a significant impact.

To use an analogy, suppose it was wondered whether making videos of a course available to students would improve their grades in that course. Imagine that the study was conducted using honors classes of the best students. It would not be surprising if the effect of videos was statistically insignificant. After all, top students are already doing very well and almost any change aimed at improving their already excellent performances will tend to not move the needle in any significant way. The same sort of analogy could be drawn using top athletes and a relatively minor change to their already very good workouts or already good diets.

While such a study would show that the use of videos would not really benefit top students, it does not prove that the use of videos would not provide a significant benefit to other students. For example, lower performing students who do poorly because they miss class could benefit significantly from such videos. The same would apply in the athletics example. While a small diet change (say some extra B vitamin rich foods) in an already good diet would not impact a top athlete, such a diet change for someone who has a poor diet could have a significant impact.

The same reasoning would seem to apply to the police body cameras—a department that is having significant problems with use of force and citizen complaints might benefit significantly from the use of body cameras. This, of course, should not something that should be just assumed. Rather, studies need to be conducted of the effect of body cameras on police forces that are currently having problems. If it turns out that they have no impact on addressing the woes they are supposed to address, then it would be reasonable to reconsider their deployment and focus more on alternative solutions.

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The Machinery of Sexual Harassment

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2017

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One thing that seems to unify the political right and left in the United States is sexual harassment. On the right, Roger Ailes, Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly have grabbed headlines for the misdeeds. Bill O’Reilly has even brought the classic problem of evil into the matter by being mad at God over the allegations against him. On the left, Hollywood has been (unsurprisingly) seen high profile cases. Harvey Weinstein has ironically transformed Fox News into a champion against sexual harassment. Director James Toback has also been accused of harassment by almost 40 women (at current count). Even former Presidents have been accused. While Bill Clinton’s activities are now legendary, H.W. Bush has been accused of groping women.

While it is tempting to see such incidents as isolated cases of powerful men using their positions to exploit and abuse women, the reality is that there is an entire system of social, political, legal and economic machinery in place to enable and defend such evil. To illustrate, I will present various examples of these machines. But first I will note that my reference to machinery is metaphorical and that I am not denying that the individuals who harassed, assaulted and even raped women are somehow not fully responsible for their misdeeds. Rather, they made conscious use of their ecosystem to engage in their predation.

One key part of the machinery is, obviously, the vast disparities in power and wealth in American society. While the United States is supposed to be classless, this is an obvious lie—the United States is highly stratified and the less powerful can be easily exploited by the more powerful. This power disparity applies across the board—it is obviously not just those at the Weinstein and O’Reilly level that harass.

While such power disparities are inherent to our political and economic system, the laws are supposed to address them and mitigate the amount of abuse and exploitation the weaker must endure at the hands of the stronger. Unfortunately, the legal system has been crafted to provide considerable protection for harassers.

One example of this is the nondisclosure agreement. While the NDA does have some value to those who sign them, they have become well known for their role in allowing serial harassers to keep on harassing. For example, some of the women Weinstein allegedly victimized had signed NDAs that forbid them from speaking out about what had happened to them. Bill O’Reilly paid $32 million to settle a sexual harassment claim, something that would have remained a secret thanks to the NDA that was part of the settlement. Because of this, the way nondisclosure works in the case of harassment should be carefully reconsidered. Otherwise, the system allows harassers to simply buy secrecy for their misdeeds and to continue to operate under the protective shadow of money.  There is also the concern that employees are often compelled to sign such agreements as a condition of employment (which goes back to how the more powerful can easily coerce the less powerful) or need to sign them to get any sort of justice.

An obvious objection is to point out that the system does work: O’Reilly and Weinstein were ousted. While it is true that people do sometimes eventually face the consequences of their actions, it is rather important to remember that they were able to engage in harassment over an extended period and there are, presumably, many others out there who are getting away with it. It is surely small consolation to the victims that after a decade or three the harasser might get in trouble.

Another vital part of the machinery is the cooperation of those who are aware of the harassment and take no action against it. In the cases of Weinstein and O’Reilly, the stories indicate that their behavior was well-known, yet no one seems to have acted to stop them or protect their victims. In fact, harassers of their influence are actively protected—often at great expense. To be fair, the power disparity that enables people to victimize others enables them to silence potential critics and neutralize those who would oppose their misdeeds.

It can be objected that people have acted, that some women have gotten very lucrative settlements. Some even suggest that the women are the real villains, shaking down men for settlements. While such concerns should be addressed in proportion to the evidence, in most cases those getting the settlement are the real victims and the harassers are buying silence—so that they can keep on harassing (and making money for the company). As far as the effectiveness of the settlements; they probably have some deterrent value—presumably companies are not eager to cut checks to silence victims. However, there is a significant volume of incidents and, as such, it seems evident that the current system is not solving the problem of systematic harassment.

While it is easy to see people like O’Reilly and Weinstein as the problem; they are merely the visible part of the iceberg of harassment. Beneath them is a vast edifice that enabled them to engage in their predatory behavior for years. Simply ousting them merely leaves niches for new predators and real change requires modifying all the underlying enabling machinery and the ecosystem of the sexual predator.

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Bump Stocks

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 6, 2017

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Listening to audio from the shooting in Las Vegas, many people concluded the gunman had used automatic weapons. However, it turned out that he had used legally purchased semi-automatic rifles that had been legally modified with bump stocks. Normal semi-automatic weapons fire as fast as the user can pull the trigger, but only one shot is fired per trigger pull. A bump stock does not change the way the gun fires, rather it speeds up the rate of fire by using the recoil of the gun to push the trigger against the user’s trigger finger. If a person could manually pull the trigger as fast, the result would be the same—but such rapid pull is not something people are generally capable of doing.

While a bump stock boosts the rate of fire of a semiautomatic weapon, it does so at the cost of accuracy—the weapon bumping makes it considerably harder to aim properly. When used at a gun range, the usual point of the bump stock is to have the thrill of firing an “automatic” weapon and, as such, accuracy is not a major concern. This high rate of inaccurate fire also allows such a weapon to be devastating when it is fired into a crowd of people—the high volume of fire means that people are likely to be hit. In the case of Las Vegas, the shooter had a dense crowd to fire into and accuracy was irrelevant—he was clearly not after a specific target but rather endeavoring to maximize death and injury. For this, the bump stock was very effective. While bump stocks do not seem to have been employed in other mass shootings, the fact that they were used in such a horrific event means that the attention of the media, pundits and politicians is upon them. And, of course, the attention of bloggers. As would be suspected, those on the left are calling for legislation against bump stocks. Interestingly, some conservatives are also willing to consider the matter. Somewhat shockingly, even the NRA seems willing to discuss the subject.

Before thinking that the NRA is acting out of character, it must be noted that while the NRA did seem to endorse new regulations on bump stocks, it opposes new legislation. Somewhat ironically, the NRA also blamed Obama for allowing the sale of bump stocks. Unsurprisingly, the NRA also made the stock assertions that more gun control would do nothing to prevent attacks and that such shooting are due to the mental illness of the shooter. Even the NRA’s endorsement of another review of bump stocks by the ATF amounts to little: the ATF already reviewed the bump stock and determined that it falls within the law. Roughly put, the bump stock does not modify a gun to be fully-automatic, it merely enables an increase in the rate of fire. As such, any change in the regulation of bump stocks would presumably require legislation—something the NRA opposes. This does, of course, raise the question of whether bump stocks should be controlled or even banned.

The easy and obvious argument for legislation controlling bump stocks is that the harm argument: the use of a bump stock allows a semi-automatic weapon to fire at near automatic rates, thus enabling the sort of carnage that occurred in Las Vegas. Bump stocks are clearly not needed for hunting and have dubious value for self-defense. In fact, the inaccuracy and high rate of fire would make them a danger to any innocents in the area where they might be used in self-defense. Their main legitimate use, like that of beer, is to have fun. However, allowing such a dangerous modification to be legal just so that people can have some fun at the range would be comparable to allowing something else that is deadly, but fun for some, to be uncontrolled. As such, controlling bump stocks is both sensible and ethical. Naturally, this principle would need to be applied consistently to anything that is enjoyable yet potentially deadly.

An argument against new legislation is that this move would pave the way for more gun legislation and this road leads to the Second Amendment being eroded or even repealed. This threat to a basic constitutional right is unacceptable, so the bump stocks should remain as they are. The counter to this is that it is clearly possible to have gun legislation while also maintaining constitutional rights—after all, automatic weapons are banned and this is consistent with gun rights. Another counter is to see this path towards more control as a good thing—a feature rather than a bug.

Another concern is that the creation of legislation in the heat of the moment and directed against some aspect of a terrible event could easily result in bad laws. Going along with this is the concern about the actual risk posed by bump stocks. While they do allow a higher rate of fire, there is the question of how much of a difference they make over unmodified semi-automatic weapons. After all, mass shootings have had high casualty rates when the attacker used only semi-automatic weapons. If the bump stocks do not make a significant difference, then legislation would be unnecessary. Since having laws that are ineffective is a bad idea, these bump stocks should not be controlled.

It can be replied that sensible legislation can be crafted if it turns out that a rational and calm analysis of bump stocks shows that they do make a significant difference regarding mass shootings. This principle would, of course, need to be applied consistently—that weapons and weapon modifications that make mass shootings more lethal should be better controlled. It needs to be noted that this principle could be extended to all firearms—but to assume that this must happen would be to fall into the slippery slope fallacy.

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When is it Time to Talk About Gun Violence?

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 2, 2017

On October 1st, 2017 over fifty people were shot to death in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock. Hundreds more were wounded. While such slaughter can cause despair, the heroism of those who risked or sacrificed their lives to save others should give us hope. For each person who would strike down the innocent, there are many who would courageously stand in their way. So, do not weigh the evil greater than the good or the villains more than the heroes. But, it would be better if there were no need of such heroes—better that there was less slaughter.

There have, of course, been efforts to pass laws aimed at reducing deaths from gun violence. While many laws have passed, there is an entrenched and well-funded resistance to such efforts. As such, such mass shootings are followed by an eminently predictable pattern. Part of this pattern is an immediate admonishment from many conservatives that there should be no talk of solving gun violence before the blood of the victims is completely dried. For example, White House press secretary Sanders gave the standard line that there is “a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country.” She also added that “it would be premature for us to discuss policy when we don’t fully know all the facts or what took place last night,” and the administration wants to avoid “laws that won’t stop these types of things from happening.” Sanders did, rightly, praise the courage of the brave and express sympathy for the dead and wounded. However, the question remains as to when it is time to talk about gun violence. I’ll begin by considering the stock position that such discussions should not take place too soon after the incident.

As Sanders and so many before her have contended, the immediate focus should be on dealing with the aftermath of the event. This view does have considerable appeal. To use an analogy, the time to debate fire safety is not while cleaning up after a fire and tending to the burned. That time should be used for cleaning up and tending the injured. The easy and obvious reply here is that while those actively involved in responding to event should not set aside their tasks to debate,  there are millions of people who have no such tasks and can engage in the debate. So, while the surgeons should not stop their surgeries to engage in the debate, the lawmakers certainly have the free time to do so.

Sanders, like her predecessors, also called for uniting as a country now rather than engaging in the debate about gun laws. This also has considerable appeal: the debate over gun laws will call attention to political divisions and serve to push people apart when they should be pulling together. After such a terrible event, people have a psychological need to feel united—this is key to restoring the feeling of safety (or complacency, if one wants to be cynical). I certainly agree that there should be a pause in partisan rancor and battles after such terrible events (and that these pauses should grow)—if only in the form of a brief silence to honor the dead. But, to return to the analogy of the fire, to refuse to discuss fire safety after a serious fire would be to invite yet another fire.

Sander’s assertion that it would be premature to discuss policy without knowing the facts does seem sensible on the face of it. After all, to simply propose policies aimed at preventing such shootings without knowing what problems in the system allowed it to occur would be like trying to decide how to repair a car without knowing why it will not start. That said, there is an obvious reply to this claim: there have been so many mass shootings that the facts about such things are already well known. It seems rather unlikely that the facts of this latest case will involve a shocking revelation that will revolutionize gun safety. It would be wonderful, of course, if the Trump administration looked at the facts and was able to truly say, “eureka, we see the problem and the fix is obvious!” This, however, seems unlikely. To go back to the car analogy, if the car that won’t start is acting exactly like a car with a bad battery, then there is not really a need to wait for an in-depth investigation before considering the battery is probably the problem.

There is, however, a very good argument for not legislating in the heat of the moment: making decisions when emotions are at their peak often results in poor decisions, so this is a bad idea. As has been argued by Radley Balko, “laws named after crime victims and dead people are usually a bad idea.” While Balko was not directly discussing gun laws, he does make the reasonable case that laws forged in anger or hysteria tend to be poorly conceived and can have serious unintended consequences. The torrent of laws slammed through after 9/11 also show the bad decision making that arises from jumping to legislate without due and calm consideration. It also shows how emotions can be exploited by lawmakers, which is also a matter of concern. We would not, after all, want gun control laws slammed through congress like the multitude of bad laws that have been pushed through congress by the power of emotions.

As such, it does make sense not to rush legislation about guns through without due consideration and calm reflection. However, this does not preclude starting the discussion now. There is also the obvious fact that we have had plenty of time since the last shooting to reflect on this matter. And the shooting before that. And so on. The point is, we have had a long time to reflect on many mass shootings.

While it might be countered that considerable time is needed to calm down after such events, the obvious problem is that they happen with such frequency that we might never have long enough to cool down.  There is also the reasonable consideration that if people do cool down, they can grow cold and fall back into complacency—until the next mass slaughter. To use an analogy, while talking about diet and exercise with a sedentary person whose parent just died of a lifestyle inflicted heart attack would be insensitive if done while the corpse was still warm, the person’s motivation will certainly fade quickly. As such, soon after the death is, harshly, the time the person will be the most motivated to change their habits and fend off their own impending heart attack. Likewise, the time to get people to support taking action against gun violence is when they clearly remember the horror of slaughter.

 

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Illegal Immigrants & Law Enforcement

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on May 26, 2017
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While Trump has kept his promise to crack down on illegal immigrants, this increased enforcement has apparently made life easier for criminals and more difficult for police. This is because illegal immigrants are now far less likely to report crimes to the police or assist in police investigations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The State & Health Care

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 13, 2017
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One way to argue that the state is obligated to provide health care (in some manner) to its citizens is to draw an analogy to the obligation of the state to defend its citizens from “enemies foreign and domestic.” While thinkers disagree about the obligations of the state, almost everyone except the anarchists hold that the state is required to provide military defense against foreign threats and police against domestic threats. This seems to be at least reasonable, though it can be debated. So, just as the United States is obligated to defend its citizens from the Taliban, it is also obligated to defend them against tuberculous.

Another approach is to forgo the analogy and argue that the basis of the obligation to provide military defense and police services also extends to providing health care. The general principle at hand is that the state is obligated to protect its citizens. Since anthrax and heart failure can kill a person just as dead as a bullet or a bomb, then the state would seem to be obligated to provide medical protection in addition to police and military protection. Otherwise, the citizens are left unguarded from a massive threat and the state would fail in its duty as a protector. While these lines of reasoning are appealing, they can certainly be countered. This could be done by arguing that there are relevant differences between providing health care and providing armed defenses.

One way to do this is to argue that the state is only obligated to protect its citizens from threats presented by humans and not from other threats to life and health, such as disease, accidents or congenital defects. So, the state is under no obligation to protect citizens from the ravages of Alzheimer’s. But, if ISIS or criminals developed a weapon that inflicted Alzheimer’s on citizens, then the state would be obligated to protect the citizens.

On the face of it, this seems odd. After all, from the standpoint of the victim it does not seem to matter whether their Alzheimer’s is “natural” or inflicted—the effect on them is the same. What seems to matter is the harm being inflicted on the citizen. To use an obvious analogy, it would be like the police being willing to stop a human from trying to kill another human, but shrugging and walking away if they see a wild animal tearing apart a human. As such, it does not matter whether the cause is a human or, for example, a virus—the state’s obligation to protect citizens would still apply.

Another approach is to argue that while the state is obligated to protect its citizens, it is only obligated to provide a certain type of defense. The psychology behind this approach can be made clear by the rhetoric those who favor strong state funding for the military and police while being against state funding for medical care. The military is spoken of in terms of its importance in “degrading and destroying” the enemy and the police are spoken of in terms of their role in imposing “law and order.” These are very aggressive roles and very manly. One can swagger while speaking about funding submarines, torpedoes, bullets and missiles.

In contrast, the rhetoric against state funding of health care speaks of “the nanny state” and how providing such support will make people “weak” and “dependent.” This is caring rather than clubbing, curing rather than killing. One cannot swagger about while speaking about funding preventative care and wellness initiatives.

What lies behind this psychology and rhetoric is the principle that the state’s role in protecting its citizens is one of force and violence, not one of caring and curing. This does provide a potential relevant difference; but the challenge is showing that this difference warrants providing armed defense while precluding providing medical care.

One way to argue against it is to use an analogy to a family. Family members are generally obligated to protect one another, but if it were claimed that this obligation was limited only to using force and not with caring for family members, then this would be rightfully regarded as absurd.

Another approach is to embrace the military and police metaphors. Just as the state should thrust its force against enemies within and without, it should use its medical might to crush foes that are literally within—within the citizens. So, the state could wage war on viruses, disease and such and thus make it more manly and less nanny. This should have some rhetorical appeal to those who love military and police spending but loath funding healthcare. Also to those who are motivated by phallic metaphors.

As far as the argument that health care should not be provided by the state because it will make people dependent and weak, the obvious reply is that providing military and police protection would have the same impact. As such, if the dependency argument works against health care, it would also work against having state military and police. If people should go it on their own in regards to health care, then they should do the same when it comes to their armed defense. If private health coverage would suffice, then citizens should just arm themselves and provide their own defense and policing. This, obviously enough, would be a return to the anarchy of the state of nature and that seems rather problematic. If accepting military and police protection from the state does not make citizens weak and dependent, then the same should also hold true for accepting health care from the state.

As a final point, an easy way to counter the obligation argument for state health care is to argue that the state is not obligated to provide military and police protection to the citizens. Rather, the military and the military, it could be argued, exists to protect and advance the interests of the elites. Since the elites have excellent health care thanks to their wealth and power, there is no need for the state to provide it to them. Other than the elites in government, like Paul Ryan and Trump, who get their health care from the state, of course. On this view, support for using public money for the military and police and not health care makes perfect sense.

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The Gun and I: Backstory

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 24, 2016

English: Various donuts from the Dunkin' Donut...

Like everyone else, how I look at the world is shaped by my psychological backstory. While, as a professional philosopher, I have an excellent logical toolkit, my use of these tools is shaped by how I feel about things. Since the matter of guns is a rather emotional issue, I need to sort out how my backstory influences how I assess arguments regarding guns.

Academics, especially philosophers, are often cast as latte sipping effeminate liberals who would get the vapors if they so much as caught sight of a piece of manly steel. The positive version of this stereotype is that an academic is far too civil to have any truck with something as barbarous as guns and far too intelligent to believe that guns have any value. A true intellectual, or so the stereotype goes, should dismiss all pro-gun prattle with the wave of a hand, a bemused smile and a remark about people clinging to God and guns. This slides nicely into a rather negative stereotype of gun owners.

Gun owners are all too often stereotyped as slack jawed ignoramuses, upper lips sweaty with thoughts of killing God’s creatures and who secretly stroke their shooting iron to fantasies of mass murder. The positive reverse of this negative stereotype is that gun owners are practical folks who believe in God, guns and country and want nothing to do with those ivory tower intellectuals and their bemused smiles.

Being a gun toting philosopher, I have been subject to these stereotypes. If an academic colleague or a fellow intellectual learns that I am a gun person (and especially that I have hunted), they tend to react with shock and dismay. Surely, they say, I am too smart and too decent to have anything to do with monstrous guns. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my gun history as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person.

Gun folks who find out I am an academic are often surprised by this—especially when they learn I am a philosopher. They often think of academics as elitist liberals who swoon at the sight of…well, you get the picture. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my being a philosopher as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person. As is true of everyone else, I am who I am today because of who I was. So, on to my gun related backstory.

Like many American boys of my time, my first gun was a BB gun. It was a Daisy BB gun, but not a Red Ryder. It would, however, put an eye out. As boys, we would shoot the hell out of each other with our guns, so it is a wonder that we all made it out of childhood with both eyes. This was the gun I used for my first kill.

While the mists of time have obscured many memories, I clearly recall taking aim at a songbird perched on a powerline by what we called “the frog pond.” Carelessly I shot, not thinking I would hit it. The bird fell, striking the ground as a corpse. Though I was a kid, I knew I had done something terrible—a needless, senseless killing. I had straight up murdered that bird. I was not protecting myself (obviously) and I did not need it for food. That callous and careless murder shaped my view of guns for the rest of my life—my young mind grasped that it is all too easy to silence a song forever.

Eventually I got my first real guns—a Marlin .22 and a single shot .410-gauge shotgun. My father made sure that I knew all the safety rules and he taught me two of the great truths about guns. The first is that a gun is always loaded. The second is that you never point a gun at anything or anyone unless you mean to kill them. The safety lessons stuck—I have never been injured by my own gun and I have never harmed another being without intending to do so.

Once I was old enough, I went hunting with my father. I had to get up at some ungodly hour of the day—I remember feeling very cold. We’d then drive down to the land we owned in Lamoine. On the way we’d get Dunkin Donuts—my favorite part. Sometimes we’d cook up bacon and eggs by the ocean. Sometimes we’d go down the night before—that meant Dinty Moore Beef Stew from the can. These are all positive memories—no one got hurt. Well, no one but the ducks.

While hunters are sometimes cast as bloodthirsty, callous or trophy lusting egomaniacs, nothing could be further from my experiences. My father taught me to respect the animals we hunted and also the natural world. He also taught me a lesson that has shaped my character ever since.

While a duck usually drops immediately when hit, sometimes they just catch enough pellets to badly wound them. These birds are sometimes able to fly some distance before being forced down. They are, no doubt, terrified and in great pain while they struggle to escape. While it might be thought that the right thing to do would be to let such a bird escape, the truth is that it will most likely suffer from an infection and die horribly and slowly. Once, when we were hunting, this happened—the bird made it a good distance, then plummeted into the water, wounded but not dead. My father got the boat into the water and went after the duck, shooting it and retrieving it. The reason was not to avoid losing the duck. The reason was a moral responsibility to that duck. To leave it to suffer and die would be wrong; the duck was his responsibility. This reinforced my belief in the responsibility that comes from using a gun and the moral necessity of being fully accountable for one’s actions.

Some might say that this tale is all well and good, but that the real lesson is that a person should not be out there shooting animals in the first place. As a philosopher, I do agree there are excellent moral arguments against harming animals (I have, of course, read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation-which is why I no longer eat veal). However, to hunt for the sake of food and to do so with respect for the animal is to accept that I am part of the natural world. That is, I am a hunter and the duck is prey. Someday, I too shall pass and my mortal shell will be consumed. As I see it, it is morally acceptable to kill the duck for food, provided that the kill is clean and that if it is not the matter is set right.

Those who embrace vegetarianism can raise very reasonable moral objections against killing even for food—why kill an animal that can suffer instead of eating a plant that (supposedly) cannot? I do find considerable merit in these arguments and accept that killing animals for food is morally worse than killing plants. However, I accept the moral weight of my actions and this makes me reluctant to kill. In fact, I would so only for defense or true hunger.

When I went to college and then to graduate school, I learned a great deal about ethics. It is, in fact, a subject I teach. Interestingly, what I learned about ethics did not radically change my views of guns (or hunting). Mainly it gave me a better theoretical framework in which to discuss the issues.

While I have not been hunting in many years, I still engage in target shooting with friends. We go to a gun range, follow all the safety protocols (and watch out for the fools who do not) and usually get lunch afterwards. We get, I think, the same enjoyment from this that people get from playing golf. While there is some risk of injury, that is true of many activities—so I have never regarded target shooting as immoral.

While assault rifles are the big news these days, the hottest field in guns is concealed carry. Some states allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon while others require a license. When I got my first permit in Maine, the process was very easy and was handled by the local police. When I got a permit in Florida, I had to take a safety course (which was a bit weird, since I had been shooting for almost 40 years) and pass a fairly thorough background check.

When I was in Maine, I had the permit mainly as a matter of convenience—so I could carry my .357 under my jacket while hunting (it was a backup in case my rifle malfunctioned and I had to finish off a wounded deer (a fellow I know once had to finish off a deer with a small knife, which was horrifying) and to go to target shoot. I got the permit in Florida mainly for convenience in taking a gun to the range and also to be legally safe in regards to carrying a knife (being from Maine, I always have a knife—pretty sure that is some sort of natural law).

Some people get permits because of fear of being attacked. While I am aware that this could happen, I am not particularly afraid that I will be attacked—I understand how statistics work. I also understand how being afraid actually creates more danger—a person whose mind is shaped by fear is far more likely to overreact violently. I practice a casual alertness: I know that some people I encounter will be friendly, the vast majority will be neutral and the odds of encountering an attacker are incredibly low. But, it is unwise to be unaware. I have been in a few situations that could have gone very badly, but my preferred resolution is talking—that has worked so far.

I do, however, believe that a person has a moral obligation to be capable of self-defense. To expect others to bear the burden of defense is moral selfishness, worse than expecting someone else to do one’s cooking and cleaning. After all, defending a person can result in death. Naturally, I do accept that the helpless and those who are less capable should be protected; but being willfully helpless is a moral failing. I am not, however, claiming that everyone should get a gun. A gun is a great responsibility and should, as a matter of ethics, only be entrusted with those of the right character who are willing to learn to use the weapon properly and responsibly. I think the same way about all dangerous machines, including automobiles. While there is the right to be armed, not everyone is up to exercising that right properly. This is, of course, distinct from the legality of the matter. To use an analogy, I think there are people who should not have children because they are awful parents. However, they have every legal right to do so—until they cross certain boundaries. The same applies to guns.

That, then, is my gun backstory that shapes the lens through which I see gun issues. Naturally, I expect people to have moral criticisms of my backstory as well as the position I take as the result of reasoning colored by this backstory. But, those who disagree with me should consider their own backstories and how they impact their views. As should those who agree with me.

 

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The Gun and I: Feeling & Thinking

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2016

After each eruption of gun violence, there is also a corresponding eruption in the debates over gun issues. As with all highly charged issues, people are primarily driven by their emotions rather than by reason. Being a philosopher, I like to delude myself with the thought that it is possible to approach an issue with pure reason. Like many other philosophers, I am irritated when people say things like “I feel that there should be more gun control” or “I feel that gun rights are important. Because of this, when I read student papers I strike through all “inappropriate” uses of “feel” and replace them with “think.” This is, of course, done with a subconscious sense of smug superiority. Or so it was before I started reflecting on emotions in the context of gun issues. In this essay I will endeavor a journey through the treacherous landscape of feeling and thinking in relation to gun issues. I’ll begin with arguments.

As any competent philosopher can tell you, an argument consists of a claim, the conclusion, that is supposed to be supported by the evidence or reasons, the premises, that are given. In the context of logic, as opposed to that of persuasion, there are two standards for assessing an argument. The first is an assessment of the quality of the logic: determining how well the premises support the conclusion. The second is an assessment of the plausibility of the premises: determining the quality of the evidence.

On the face of it, assessing the quality of the logic should be a matter of perfect objectivity. For deductive arguments (arguments whose premises are supposed to guarantee the truth of the conclusion), this is the case. Deductive arguments, as anyone who has had some basic logic knows, can be checked for validity using such things as Venn diagrams, truth tables and proofs. As long as a person knows what she is doing, she can confirm beyond all doubt whether a deductive argument is valid or not. A valid argument is, of course, an argument such that if its premises were true, then its conclusion must be true. While a person might stubbornly refuse to accept a valid argument as valid, this would be as foolish as stubbornly refusing to accept that 2+2= 4 or that triangles have three sides. As an example, consider the following valid argument:

 

Premise 1: If an assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence, then congress should pass an assault weapon ban.

Premise 2: An assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence.

Conclusion: Congress should pass an assault weapon ban.

 

This argument is valid; in fact, it is an example of the classic deductive argument known as modus ponens (also known as affirming the antecedent). As such, questioning the logic of the argument would just reveal one’s ignorance of logic. Before anyone gets outraged, it is important to note that an argument being valid does not entail that any of its content is actually true. While this endlessly confuses students, though a valid argument that has all true premises must have a true conclusion, a valid argument need not have true premises or a true conclusion. Because of this, while the validity of the above argument is beyond question, one could take issue with the premises. They could, along with the conclusion, be false—although the argument is unquestionably valid. For those who might be interested, an argument that is valid and has all true premises is a sound argument. An argument that does not meet these conditions is unsound.

Unfortunately, the assessment of premises does not (in general) admit of a perfectly objective test on par with the tests for validity. In general, premises are assessed in terms of how well they match observations, background information and credible claims from credible sources (which leads right to concerns about determining credibility). As should be expected, people tend to accept premises that are in accord with how they feel rather than based on a cold assessment of the facts. This is true for everyone, be that person the head of the NRA or a latte sipping liberal academic who shivers at the thought of even seeing a gun. Because of this, a person who wants to fairly and justly assess the premises of any argument has to be willing to understand her own feelings and work out how they influence her judgment. Since people, as John Locke noted in his classic essay on enthusiasm, tend to evaluate claims based on the strength of their feelings, doing this is exceptionally difficult. People think they are right because they feel strongly about something and are least likely to engage in critical assessment when they feel strongly.

While deductive logic allows for perfectly objective assessment, it is not the logic that is commonly used in debates over political issues or in general. The most commonly used logic is inductive logic.

Inductive arguments are arguments, so an inductive argument will have one or more premises that are supposed to support a conclusion. Unlike deductive arguments, inductive arguments do not offer certainty—they deal in likelihood. A logically good inductive argument is called a strong argument: one whose premises, if true, would probably make the conclusion true. A bad inductive argument is a weak one. Unlike the case of validity, the strength of an inductive argument is judged by applying the standards specific to that sort of inductive argument to the argument in question. Consider, as an example, the following argument:

 

Premise 1: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of automobiles.

Premise 2: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of guns.

Premise 3: The tens of thousands of deaths by automobiles are morally acceptable.

Conclusion: The tens of thousands of deaths by gun are also morally acceptable.

 

This is a simple argument by analogy in which it is argued that since cars and guns are alike, if we accept automobile fatalities then we should also accept gun fatalities. Being an inductive argument, there is no perfect, objective test to determine whether the argument is strong or not. Rather, the argument is assessed in terms of how well it meets the standards of an argument by analogy. The gist of these standards is that the more alike the two things (guns and cars) are alike, the stronger the argument. Likewise, the less alike they are, the weaker the argument.

While the standards are reasonably objective, their application admits of considerable subjectivity. In the case of guns and cars, people will differ greatly in terms of how they see them in regards to similarities and differences. As would be suspected, the lenses people see this matter will be deeply colored by their emotions and psychological backstory. As such, rationally assessing inductive arguments is especially challenging: a person must sort through the influence of emotions and psychology on her evaluation of both the premises and the reasoning. Since arguments about guns are generally inductive, it is no wonder it is a mess—even on the rare occasions when people are sincerely trying to be rational and objective.

The lesson here is that a person needs to think about how she feels before she can think about what she thinks. Since this also applies to me, my next essay will be about exploring my psychological backstory in regards to guns.

 

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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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