A Philosopher's Blog

Flint’s Water

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2016

Like all too many American cities and towns, the Michigan city of Flint faces dire financial woes. To address these woes, the state stepped in and bypassed local officials with the goal of cutting the budget of the city. One aspect of the solution was to switch Flint’s water supply to a cheaper source, specifically a polluted river. Another aspect seems to have been to decline to pay the $100 per day cost of treating the water in accord with federal regulations. The result was that the corrosive water started dissolving the pipes. Since many of the pipes in the city are made of lead, this resulted in citizens getting lead poisoning. This includes children, who are especially vulnerable to the damage caused by this toxin.

More troubling, it has been claimed that the state was aware of the problem and officials decided to cover it up. The state also apparently tried to discredit the research conducted by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha before finally admitting to the truth.

There have been various attempts to explain why this occurred, with filmmaker Michael Moore presenting the hypothesis that it was an attempt at “racist genocide.” This claim does have a certain appeal, given that the poor and minorities have been impacted by the corrosive water. Apparently the corrosive water has far less effect on newer infrastructure, which tends to be in areas that are better off economically. It is also appealing in that it is consistent with the fact of institutional racism that still plagues America. However, before rushing to accept the genocide hypothesis, it is worth considering alternative explanations.

One alternative is that the initial problem arose from political ideology. There is the view that the most important objective is reducing the spending of the state (typically to also lower taxes). Going along with this is also an opposition to federal regulations. Switching to the corrosive water and not treating it was initially cheaper and certainly evaded the regulations governing drinking water treatment. That said, the approach taken by the state did go against some professed conservative values, namely favoring local control and being opposed to government overreach. However, these values have been shown to be extremely flexible. For example, many state legislatures have passed laws forbidden local governments from banning fracking. As such, the initial action was consistent with the ideology.

In regards to the fact that the impact has been heaviest on the poor and minorities, this need not be driven by racism. An alternative explanation is that the policy was aimed not on the basis of race, but on the basis of power and influence. It is, of course, the case that the poor lack power and minorities are often poor. Since the poor lack the resources to resist harm and to buy influence, they are the most common target of budget cuts. Because of this, racism might not be the main factor.

In regards to the ensuing cover up, it might have begun with wishful thinking: the state officials did not want to believe that there was a problem. As such, they refused to accept that it existed. People are very good at denial, even when doing so is harmful to themselves. For example, many who do not take good care of themselves engage in wishful thinking in regards to the consequences their unhealthy behavior. It is, obviously, even easier to engage in wishful thinking when the harm is being suffered by others. Once the cover up progressed, the explanation is rather easy: people engage in a cover-up in the hopes of avoiding the consequences of their actions. However, as is so often the case, the cover-up has resulted in far more damage than a quick and honest admission.

This ongoing incident in Flint does show some important things. First, it does indicate that some traditional conservative claims are true: government can be the problem and local authorities can be better at decision making. Of course, government was the problem in this case because the focus was on saving a little money rather than ensuring the safety of the citizens.

Second, it serves as yet another example of poor assessment of consequences resulting from a shortsighted commitment to savings. This attempt at saving has done irreparable harm to many citizens (including children) and will cost millions of dollars to address. As such, this ill-considered attempt to save money has instead resulted in massive costs.

Third, it serves as yet another lesson in the fact that government regulations can be good. If the state had spent the $100 a day to treat the water in accord with federal regulations, then this problem would have not occurred. This is certainly something that people should consider when politicians condemn and call for eliminating regulations. This is not to claim that all regulations are good—but it is to claim that a blanket opposition to regulations is shortsighted and unwise.

I would like to say that the Flint disaster will result in significant changes. I do think it will have some impact—cities and towns are, no doubt, checking their water and assessing their infrastructure. However, the lessons will soon fade until it is time for a new disaster.

 

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Is Baking a Gay Wedding Cake an Endorsement of Same Sex Marriage?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on April 10, 2015

Indiana’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act set off a firestorm of controversy. Opponents of the law contended that it would legalize discrimination while some proponents argued that it would do no such thing. Some proponents contended that it would allow people and businesses to refuse certain services to homosexuals, but that this should not be considered discrimination but a matter of freedom of expression. This approach is both interesting and well worth considering.

In the United States, freedom of expression is a legally protected right. More importantly, from a philosophical perspective, it is also a well-supported moral right. As such, an appeal to freedom of expression can be a useful defense.

In the case of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the argument from freedom of expression would certainly not work in regards to justifying general discrimination in regards to goods and services. For example, the owner of a pizzeria would be hard pressed to claim that not being allowed to refuse service to a person just because she is gay violates his freedom of expression. However, freedom of expression might be applicable in certain cases.

While the freedom of expression is typically presented as a right against being silenced, it also provides the right not to be compelled to express views (specifically views that one does not hold or that one opposes). The right to not be compelled in one’s expression would thus seem to give a person a moral (and a legal) right to refuse certain services.

This line of reasoning does have considerable appeal. For example, I operate a writing business—I write books to be sold and I do freelance work. I obviously have no moral right to refuse business from someone just because she is gay, Jewish, Christian, or a non-runner. However, my writing is clearly an act of expression. As such, my freedom of expression grants me a clear moral right to refuse to write a tract endorsing Nazism or one advocating hatred of Christians. I also design book covers and do some graphic work (graphic as in visual, not as in adult content). Since these are clearly expressions, I would have the moral right to refuse to do a book cover for book expressing ideas I regard as morally wrong, such as eliminating religious freedom in favor of enforced atheism. This is because the creation of such work entails a clear endorsement and expression of the ideas. If I write a tract in favor of white supremacy, I am unambiguously expressing my support of the idea. If I knowingly do a cover for a book on white supremacy, then it would be reasonable to infer I agreed with the ideas. In such cases, an appeal to freedom of expression would seem quite relevant and reasonable.

Obviously, an author or cover designer who believes that her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness would also be protected by the freedom of expression from being required to express views she does not hold. If a LGBT group approached her and offered her a fat stack of cash to pen a piece in favor of gay marriage, she would have the moral right to reject their offer. After all, they have no moral right to expect her to express views she does not hold, even for fat stacks of cash.

In contrast, I could not use freedom of expression as a reason to not sell one of my books or works to a person. For example, freedom of expression does not grant me the right to forbid Amazon from selling my books to Nazis, racists, intolerant atheists, or non-runners. After all, selling a book to a person is not an endorsement of that person’s ideas. I do not endorse intolerant atheism just because an intolerant atheist can buy my book.

Likewise, the author who believes her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness could not use freedom of expression to demand that Amazon not sell her books to homosexuals. While buying a book might suggest agreement with the author (but it obviously does not entail it—I have plenty of philosophy books whose contents I regard as being in error), it does not suggest that the author is endorsing the purchaser. So, if a gay person buys the author’s anti-same-sex marriage book, it does not mean that the author is endorsing same-sex marriage.

Not surprisingly, no one has claimed that religious freedom acts are needed to protect Christian writers from being forced to write pro-gay works. However, it has been argued that the acts are needed to protect the freedom of expression for people such as caterers, bakers, and photographers.

The argument is that catering a wedding, baking a wedding cake, doing a wedding or engagement photo shoot and similar things are expressions and are thus covered by the right to freedom of expression.

Obviously enough, if these activities are expressions analogous to the paradigm cases of speech and writing, then the freedom of expression does protect them. As such, the key question is whether or not such actions are acts of expression such that engaging in them in relation to a same-sex wedding would express an endorsement of same-sex marriage.

To get the obvious out of the way, refusing to cater, photograph or bake a cake for a wedding because the people involved were Jewish, black, Christian, white, or Canadian would clearly be discrimination. If the person refusing to do so said that baking a cake for a Jew endorsed Judaism, that catering a black wedding endorsed blackness, or that photographing Canadians being married was an endorsement of Canada, she would be regarded as either joking or crazy.  But perhaps a case could be made that catering, baking and photographing are expressions of agreement or endorsement.

On the face of it, catering food for a wedding would not seem to be expressing approval or agreement with the wedding, regardless of what sort of wedding it might be. Selling someone food would seem to be like selling them a book—their buying it says nothing about what I endorse or believe. When the pizza delivery person arrives with a pizza when I am playing Pathfinder, I do not say “aha, Dominoes endorses role-playing games!” After all, they are just selling me pizza.

In the case of the wedding cake, it could be argued that it is a specific sort of cake and creating one does express an endorsement. By this reasoning, a birthday cake would entail an endorsement of the person’s birth and continued existence, a congratulations cake would entail an endorsement of that person’s achievement and so on for all the various cakes.  This, obviously enough, seems implausible. Making me a birthday cake does not show that Publix endorses my birth or continued existence. They are just selling me a cake. Likewise, selling a person a wedding cake does not entail approval of the wedding. Obviously enough, if a baker sells a wedding cake to a person who has committed adultery, this does not entail her approval of adultery.

It could be argued that bakers have the right to refuse a specific design or message on the cake. For example, a Jewish baker could claim that he has the right to refuse to create a Nazi cake with swastikas and Nazi slogans. This seems reasonable—a baker, like a writer, should not be compelled to create content she does not wish to express. Given this principle, a baker could refuse to bake a sexually explicit wedding cake or one festooned with gay pride slogans and condemnations of straight “breeders.” However, creating a plain wedding cake is not the expression of ideas and would be on par with selling a person a book rather than being forced to write specific content. By analogy, I cannot refuse to sell a book to a person because he is an intolerant atheist, but I can refuse contract to write in support of that view.

Since photography is a form of art (at least in some cases), it is certainly reasonable to regard it is a form of artistic expression. On this ground it is reasonable to accept that photography is protected by the freedom of expression. The key issue here is whether taking pictures commercially is like writing words—that is, photographing something is an endorsement of the activity or if it is like selling a book, which is merely selling a product and not an endorsement.

On the face of it, commercial photography would seem to be like selling a book. A person who is paid to cover a war or a disaster is not taken to be endorsing the war or the disaster. One would not say that because a person took a photo of a soldier shooting a civilian that he endorse that activity. Likewise, a person photographing a wedding is not endorsing the wedding—she is merely recording the event. For money.

It might be countered that a wedding photographer is different from other commercial photographers—she is involved in the process and her involvement is an expression of approval. But, of course, commercial photographers who take photos at sports events, political events, protests and such are also involved in the process—they are there, taking pictures. However, a photographer hired to take pictures of Hilary Clinton does not thus express her support (or vote) for Hilary. She is just taking pictures.  Fox News, after all, takes video and photos of Hilary Clinton, but they do not thereby endorse Hilary. As such, the freedom of expression would not seem to grant a commercial photographer the right to refuse to photograph a same-sex wedding on the basis of an appeal to freedom of expression since taking photos does not involve endorsing the subject.

That said, another approach would be to argue that while taking a photo of an event does not entail endorsement of the event, an artist cannot be compelled to create a work of art that she does not wish to create. Since a photograph is art, a wedding photographer cannot be compelled to create an image of a same-sex wedding, just as a writer cannot be justly compelled to write a certain sort of book. This certainly has considerable appeal. After all, a photographer would seem to have every right to refuse to take photos of a wedding orgy or even of a tastefully nude wedding on the basis of the content.

Of course, this would also seem to allow commercial wedding photographers to refuse to take photos of blacks, Christians, Jews, or anything on the grounds that she does not want to create, for example, a photographic work including crosses or black people. So, consistency would seem to require that if wedding photographers can refuse to serve gay clients on the basis of artistic content, then a wedding photographer could refuse anyone on the same grounds. Thus, wedding photographers should be permitted to have “whites only”, “straights only” or “gays only” signs on their business. For artistic reasons, of course. This does seem a bit problematic in regards to commercial wedding photographers.

 

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Academic Freedom & State Schools

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 21, 2014
English: Protesting academics in 2006 at UKZN

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Academic freedom is a longstanding and generally well-supported right. In terms of its underpinnings, the obvious foundation is freedom of expression—the right to express views and ideas without being silenced. In the case of academic freedom, the expression is (obviously enough) in an academic context. It is typically taken as being more than just protection regarding making specific claims in that it is supposed to provide fairly broad protection in such matters as selecting books, developing curriculum and so on. It is also supposed to protect professors (tenured professors at least) from being fired or punished for expressing their views (in legitimate ways—it is not a license to say anything without consequences).

Stereotypically, defenders of academic freedom are seen as leftists. However, in somewhat recent years, some conservatives have come forth to accuse “the left” of restricting the academic freedom of conservative thinkers in accord with the doctrines of political correctness. While such matters are overstated in the usual hyperbole of politics, there are enough incidents of faculty being punished for holding views that are regarded as politically incorrect. For example, Mike Adams was apparently denied promotion to full professor on the basis of his political engagement rather than a legitimate lack in his qualifications. There have also been proposals to use a standard of academic justice to replace academic freedom. While the idea of justice certainly sounds nice, the proposal is to substitute an ideological test in place of the general right—in short, academics could research what they wished, provided that it is consistent with the specific ideology. As might be suspected, I have written at length in opposition to this proposal. There have also been proposals from “the left” regarding trigger warnings and these proposals also provide a potential threat to academic freedom—a subject I have also written about.

While I am typically cast as being on “the left”, I take a consistent position regarding academic freedom—namely that I support it. Since I am consistent, this support extends to fellow professors whose views I disagree with—while I think they are wrong, I hold that they have as much right as I do to express these views. Even when (or especially when) they are regarded as “politically incorrect.”

One interesting problem of academic freedom arises for state colleges and universities. While even for-profit schools receive money from the government, state schools receive funding from the state—as decided by the state legislature. While academic institutes, they are subject to the control of the state government. To use a concrete example, Florida’s state legislature recently passed a law changing the general education requirements for all state schools, thus requiring faculty and administrators to implement the changes.

Given that the state government is (in theory) acting in accord with the “will of the people” and that the schools are funded with state money (that is, the people’s money), it is not unreasonable to believe that the state has the right to impose a degree of control over the schools. A rather important question is the extent to which the state should impose on academic freedom. As might be guessed, people answer this question based largely on their ideology.

As noted above, some of the loudest voices crying out for academic freedom these days are coming from the right. Somewhat ironically, one of the harshest impositions on academic freedom in recent years has come from that same right. To be specific, a senate panel of the Michigan senate banned courses at public schools “that promote or discourage organizing efforts.” The penalty for doing so is $500,000.

The University of Michigan was accused of breaking this rule because it offers courses on the history of labor. State Rep. Al Pscholka (who chairs the house panel controlling higher education funding) said, “I believe in academic freedom, and you’re going to have difficult subjects that you’re going to cover at any university. But this is a case where I think we’re almost encouraging labor disputes, and I don’t think that’s appropriate.” Interestingly, Pscholka praised the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Hobby Lobby case as a victory for religious freedom.

This view of liberty is hardly surprising. As Mill noted in his classic work on liberty, people tend to not operate based on a consistent principle regarding what should be allowed and what should be restricted. Rather, people decide based on what they like and dislike. As such, it is hardly a shock that folks on the left and right praise freedom when it is protecting something they like while being quite happy to restrict freedom when it involves something they do not like. But, as one might say, the law is the law and consistency of principle seems to lack legal weight.

That said, there is still the question of whether the state has the right to make such an imposition. As noted above, one avenue of argumentation is that since the state provides the funding and the schools are public institutions, then the state government has the right to dictate to the universities in regards to the content of their courses.

If this line of reasoning is strong, then this would be a general principle and not one just limited to the Republicans of Michigan wanting to keep courses on labor off state campuses. So if a state legislature passed laws forbidding teaching business courses or courses in religion, then that would be acceptable under this principle. It would also be acceptable for a law to be passed banning the teaching of Western history, Western values, anything that is seen as endorsing “the patriarchy”, and anything that is positive about white males and so on. That is, this principle would allow the state to impose the ideology of the day onto the state schools.

I think it is obvious that Pscholka and the others who support the rule in question would be adamantly opposed to the ideology of their opposition setting the content for public schools. As such, it is probably fair to say that they do not actually have a general principle regarding the degree of state control over state schools but rather do not like the idea of the schools teaching about labor. In short, the “principle” is that the school should not teach what they do not like—which is hardly a principle.

I would also be opposed to a leftist agenda being opposed onto state schools, but on the basis of a principle of academic freedom—in this case that the state should not impose ideological restrictions (left or right) on public schools.

 

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Anyone Home?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 7, 2014
English: man coming out of coma.

English: man coming out of coma. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I tell my students, the metaphysical question of personal identity has important moral implications. One scenario I present is that of a human in what seems to be a persistent vegetative state. I say “human” rather than “person”, because the human body in question might no longer be a person. To use a common view, if a person is her soul and the soul has abandoned the shell, then the person is gone.

If the human is still a person, then it seems reasonable to believe that she has a different moral status than a mass of flesh that was once a person (or once served as the body of a person). This is not to say that a non-person human would have no moral status at all—I do not want to be interpreted as holding that view. Rather, my view is that personhood is a relevant factor in the morality of how an entity is treated.

To use a concrete example, consider a human in what seems to be a vegetative state. While the body is kept alive, people do not talk to the body and no attempt is made to entertain the body, such as playing music or audiobooks. If there is no person present or if there is a person present but she has no sensory access at all, then this treatment would seem to be acceptable—after all it would make no difference whether people talked to the body or not.

There is also the moral question of whether such a body should be kept alive—after all, if the person is gone, there would not seem to be a compelling reason to keep an empty shell alive. To use an extreme example, it would seem wrong to keep a headless body alive just because it can be kept alive. If the body is no longer a person (or no longer hosts a person), then this would be analogous to keeping the headless body alive.

But, if despite appearances, there is still a person present who is aware of what is going on around her, then the matter is significantly different. In this case, the person has been effectively isolated—which is certainly not good for a person.

In regards to keeping the body alive, if there is a person present, then the situation would be morally different. After all, the moral status of a person is different from that of a mass of merely living flesh. The moral challenge, then, is deciding what to do.

One option is, obviously enough, to treat all seemingly vegetative (as opposed to brain dead) bodies as if the person was still present. That is, the body would be accorded the moral status of a person and treated as such.

This is a morally safe option—it would presumably be better that some non-persons get treated as persons rather than risk persons being treated as non-persons. That said, it would still seem both useful and important to know.

One reason to know is purely practical: if people know that a person is present, then they would presumably be more inclined to take the effort to treat the person as a person. So, for example, if the family and medical staff know that Bill is still Bill and not just an empty shell, they would tend to be more diligent in treating Bill as a person.

Another reason to know is both practical and moral: should scenarios arise in which hard choices have to be made, knowing whether a person is present or not would be rather critical. That said, given that one might not know for sure that the body is not a person anymore it could be correct to keep treating the alleged shell as a person even when it seems likely that he is not. This brings up the obvious practical problem: how to tell when a person is present.

Most of the time we judge there is a person present based on appearance, using the assumption that a human is a person. Of course, there might be non-human people and there might be biological humans that are not people (headless bodies, for example). A somewhat more sophisticated approach is to use the Descartes’s test: things that use true language are people. Descartes, being a smart person, did not limit language to speaking or writing—he included making signs of the sort used to communicate with the deaf. In a practical sense, getting an intelligent response to an inquiry can be seen as a sign that a person is present.

In the case of a body in an apparent vegetative state applying this test is quite a challenge. After all, this state is marked by an inability to show awareness. In some cases, the apparent vegetative state is exactly what it appears to be. In other cases, a person might be in what is called “locked-in-syndrome.” The person is conscious, but can be mistaken for being minimally conscious or in a vegetative state. Since the person cannot, typically, respond by giving an external sign some other means is necessary.

One breakthrough in this area is due to Adrian M. Owen. Overs implying things considerably, he found that if a person is asked to visualize certain activities (playing tennis, for example), doing so will trigger different areas of the brain. This activity can be detected using the appropriate machines. So, a person can ask a question such as “did you go to college at Michigan State?” and request that the person visualize playing tennis for “yes” or visualize walking around her house for “no.” This method provides a way of determining that the person is still present with a reasonable degree of confidence. Naturally, a failure to respond would not prove that a person is not present—the person could still remain, yet be unable (or unwilling) to hear or respond.

One moral issue this method can held address is that of terminating life support. “Pulling the plug” on what might be a person without consent is, to say the least, morally problematic. If a person is still present and can be reached by Owen’s method, then thus would allow the person to agree to or request that she be taken off life support. Naturally, there would be practical questions about the accuracy of the method, but this is distinct from the more abstract ethical issue.

It must be noted that the consent of the person would not automatically make termination morally acceptable—after all, there are moral objections to letting a person die in this manner even when the person is fully and clearly conscious. Once it is established that the method adequately shows consent (or lack of consent), the broader moral issue of the right to die would need to be addressed.

 

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Michigan & Affirmative Action

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 28, 2014
Michigan State University wordmark

Michigan State University wordmark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The matter of affirmative action once again hit the headlines in the United States with the Supreme Court upholding Michigan’s civil rights amendment, which had been overturned. The amendment specifies that:

 

(1) The University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and any other public college or university, community college, or school district shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

(2) The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

 

On the face of it, these two things seem to be exactly what civil rights laws should state, namely that discrimination and preferential treatment of the sorts specified is forbidden. As such, it might surprise some that the amendment has faced opposition from civil rights supporters and liberals. The main reason is that the amendment is aimed at ending affirmative action in public education and public sector jobs. Before the amendment, race could be used as a factor in college admissions and in hiring when doing so would address perceived racial disparities.

Despite being often cast as an academic liberal (with all attendant sins), I have long had a somewhat mixed view of affirmative action in education and employment. As an individualist who believes in the value of merit, I hold that college admission and hiring should be based entirely on the merit of the individual.  That is, the best qualified person should be admitted or hired, regardless of race, gender and so on. This is based on the principle that admission and hiring should be based on earning the admission or job and this is fairly and justly based on whether or not an individual merits the admission or job.

To use a sports analogy, the person who gets the first place award for a 5K race should be the person who runs the race the fastest. This person has merited the award by winning. To deny the best runner the award and give it to someone else in the name of diversity would be both absurd and unfair—even if there is a lack of diversity in regards to the winners. As such, the idea of engaging in social engineering at the expense of the individual tends to strike me as wrong.

However, I also am well aware of the institutionalized inequality in America and that dismantling such a system can, on utilitarian grounds, allow treating specific individuals unjustly in the name of the greater good. There is also the matter of the fairness of the competition.

In my 5K analogy, I am assuming that the competition is fair and victory is a matter of ability. That is, everyone one runs the same course and no one possesses an unfair advantage, such as having a head start or being able to use a bike. In such a fair competition, the winner fairly earns the victory. Unfortunately, the world outside of a fair 5K is rather different.

Discrimination, segregation and unjust inequality are still the order of the day in much of the United States. As such, when people are competing for admission to schools and for jobs, some people enjoy considerable unfair advantages while others face significant and unfair disadvantages. For example, African-Americans are more likely to attend underfunded and lower quality public schools and they face the specter of racism that still haunts America. As such, when people apply for college or for state jobs they are not meeting on the starting line of a fair race which will grant victory to the best person. Rather, people are scattered about (some far behind the starting line, some far ahead) and some enjoy unfair advantages while others unfair burdens.

Interestingly, many of these advantages and burdens involve employment and education. For example, a family that has a legacy at a school will have an advantage over a family whose members have never attended college. As such, affirmative action can shift things in the direction of fairness by, to use my racing analogy, pushing people backwards or forwards to bring everyone closer to the starting line to allow for a fairer competition.

To use a somewhat problematic analogy, 5K races divide the trophies up by age and gender (and some have wheelchair divisions as well). As such, an old runner like myself can stand a chance of winning an age group award, even though the young fellows enjoy that advantage of youth. The analogy works in that the 5K, like affirmative action done properly, recognizes factors that influence the competition that can be justly compensated for so that people can achieve success. The analogy, obviously enough, does start to break apart when pushed (as all analogies do). For example, affirmative action with trophies will never make me as fast as the youth, whereas affirmative action in college admission could allow a disadvantaged student match those who have enjoyed advantages.   It also faces the obvious risk of suggesting that the competitors are actually inferior and cannot compete in the open competition. However, it does show that affirmative action can be squared with fair competition.

In closing, I do believe that a person of good conscience can be concerned about the ethics of affirmative action. After all, it does seem to run contrary to the principles of fairness and equality by seeming to grant a special advantage to some people based on race, gender and such. I also hold that a person of good conscience can be for affirmative action—after all, it is supposed to aim at rectifying disadvantages and creating a society in which fair competition based on merit can properly take place.

 

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Email Privacy

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2010
tele-TASK laptop
Image via Wikipedia

A recent case raises questions about the ethics of reading a spouse’s email. The gist of the situation is that Leon Walker of Michigan  faces the possibility of up to five years in prison for allegedly “hacking” into his wife’s email account (they are now divorced) and learning that she was having an affair with her second ex-husband.  Michigan does have a law against “hacking” computers, programs or networks to get property “without authorization.” Applying this law to accessing a spouse’s email is seen by some legal experts as a stretch, but Leon Walker might very well face trial under this law.

Walker has offered two main defenses for his actions.

His first defense is that his wife had asked him to read her emails before and had given him the password.

If this is true, then it would certainly seem that she had granted him authorization to access her email. As such, he would seem to have acted neither illegally nor wrongly.

Of course, there is the question of whether or not he was acting under her authorization when he learned of her affair. While it is possible, it seems somewhat unlikely that she would be sending and receiving emails related to the affair while still authorizing her husband to read her email. If she did, in fact, remove her authorization, then a case could be made that he did break the law. Ethically, it could also be seen as an incorrect act. After all, being married does not grant a spouse carte blanche access to the other person’s private matters and this would seem to include email. To use an analogy, if someone allowed her husband to open a bill addressed to her, this would not grant him a right to open all her letters and read through them without her explicit permission.

While it seems reasonable to accept a presumption of privacy even with spouses, there is still the question of whether the right to privacy gives spouses a right to hide misdeeds (such as having an affair). This leads to Walker’s second argument.

After getting the emails, Walker passed on the information with his ex-wife’s first ex-husband. This man used the information to justify filing an emergency motion to get custody of his son (whom he had with Clara Walker, the woman in question). The second ex-husband was apparently once arrested on a charge of domestic violence and since Clara Walker was apparently having an affair with him, Leon Walker saw this as a matter of significant concern.

Walker likened his reading his ex-wife’s email to kicking down a door during a house fire. While this would be breaking in, it would be breaking in with the intent of saving people from harm.

This analogy does have a certain degree of appeal. After all, just breaking down someone’s door to steal their stuff would be a criminal (and most likely immoral) action. This would be analogous to hacking into a computer to, for example, steal credit card numbers. In contrast, kicking down a locked door when a house is on fire so as to save people would not be a criminal act nor a wrongful action. If Walker is right, then his reading his ex-wife’s email should not be considered criminal or unethical.

Of course, when a person kicks down the door of a burning house they know that it is on fire and they have to gain access to actually help people. In the case of the email, Walker would need to have clear signs of a “fire” and would need to have reason to believe that he had to “kick down the door” in order to help people.  This is, of course, a factual matter. It could be the case that Walker had reason to believe that his wife was having an affair and that crucial information relating to the safety of others was locked behind the password (and could not be acquired via other non-intrusive means).

If this is the case, then Walker would seem to have acted in an acceptable manner. After all, a right to privacy does not seem to give a person a shield behind which they can conceal misdeeds or  hide information relating to a possible danger to, for example, a child. In such a case, the person’s right to privacy would be violated and in this they would be wronged. However, the violation could be justified based on the nature of what was being concealed. After all, it would seem odd to say that a married person has  right to conceal evidence of her affair from her husband. He would certainly seem to have a moral right to know that.

In response, it could be argued that the right of a spouse (or ex-spouse) to know about such things does not extend to intruding into certain privacy rights, such as email. After all, while there is a certain appeal to thinking it was okay to get into someone’s email when they were having an affair, one must also consider all the cases in which the spouse is not having an affair. It would be odd to say that spouses should have the right to get into each other’s email, mail, and so on all the time because people have affairs.

Some legal experts and Leon Walker’s attorney are, of course, focusing on the legal aspect of the case. The law in question seems to have been intended to deal with cases in which someone has actually hacked into a computer or network and done damage or has stolen something.

While reading someone else’s email is an intrusion into that person’s privacy, it does not seem to fall under the law, at least as it is worded. After all, nothing seems to have been stolen from the woman and she can hardly claim that she was the damaged party when her affair was exposed.

It will be interesting to see how the case develops and what impact it has on legality of the no doubt common practice of spousal snooping.

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Florida & Michigan

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 6, 2008

As most people know, Michigan and Florida decided to have their primaries early. This was apparently in violation of the rules laid down by the Democratic party-rules that the Democrats in these two states knew about. The response of the party was to simply not count the votes and to not allow the elected delegates to be seated at the national convention.

As with American politics, there are two sides to this matter.

The first is that the Democrats in Michigan and Florida are getting what they deserve (disclaimer-I live in Florida).  After all, they agreed to the rules and then chose to knowingly violate them. As such, they forfeited their rights. To use an analogy: imagine a track meet where it has been agreed each team has been set to compete in the 1500 meter race in distinct heats. Suppose that the teams from Michigan and Florida have been slated to run at 4:00 pm.  At the meeting before the meet, everyone is told that teams racing outside their time will not be scored and all the coaches agree to this. But, the teams from Michigan and Florida decide to just go and run their race at 8:00 am. Naturally enough, their results will not be scored because they did not run when they agreed to do so.  They can complain, but the obvious reply is that if they had such a serious problem with the time, then they should have worked it out beforehand rather than simply doing what they wanted. The same could be said about the Democrats in Florida and Michigan.

The second is that voting is more serious than a track race (well, maybe). The voters are entitled to have their votes count and to participate in the democratic process (limited as it is). To deny Florida and Michigan voters their representation because some party leaders decided to just disregard the rules  seems to be both  unfair and unjust. As such, the voters in these states should have their votes count. To take away their voice would be to treat them as criminals who need to be punished for their misdeeds.

This raises questions about what should be done in regard to the specifics. In Michigan, Obama was not even on the ballot-hence if the voting was not done over, she would win in an unfair manner. Thus, Michigan should re-vote if their votes are going to count. In the case of Florida, both Obama and Clinton were on the ballot, but neither candidate campaigned here. Some argue that since Obama was less well known than Clinton, she had an unfair advantage under this rule. They contend that if Obama had been able to campaign in Florida, then he would have fared better. As such, the vote should be re-done in Florida as well.

Such events are not cheap and there is the question of who should pay for the re-vote. My thought is that the people who decided to break the rules should fork over the money-after all, it is their fault.  Then again, the rank and file Democrats who were well aware of what would happen, should have taken action as well-perhaps demanding that the events take place in accord with the agreed upon rules. Or perhaps Al Gore could donate some money in the name of democracy.