A Philosopher's Blog

Do We Want Rapists, Robbers and Murderers Voting?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 26, 2016

My essay on felons and voting received an interesting comment from A.J. McDonald, Jr. He raised a concern about having rapists, robbers and murders voting. One initial reply is that there are many other types of felonies, a significant number of which are non-violent felonies. As such, any discussion of felons and voting needs to consider not just the worst felonies, but all the felonies on the books. And, in the United States, there are many on the books. That said, I will address the specific concern about felons convicted of rape, robbery and murder.

On the face of it, it is natural to have an immediate emotional reaction to the idea of rapists, robbers and murderers voting. After all, these are presumably very bad people and it offensive to think of them exercising the same fundamental right as other citizens. While this reaction is natural, it is generally unwise to try to settle complex moral questions by appealing to an immediate emotional reaction—although calm deliberation might end up in the same place as fiery emotion. I will begin by considering arguments for disenfranchising such felons.

The most plausible argument, given my view that voting rights are foundational rights in a democratic state, is that such crimes warrant removing or at least suspending a person’s status as a citizen. After all, when a person is justly convicted of rape, murder or robbery they are justly punished by suspension of their liberty. In some cases, they are punished by death. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that if the right to liberty (and even life) can be suspended, then the right to vote can be suspended as well. I certainly see the appeal here. However, I think there is a counter to this reasoning.

Punishment by imprisonment is generally aimed at three goals. The first is to protect the public from the criminal by removing him from society and to serve as a deterrent to others.  This could be used to justify taking away the right to vote by arguing that felons are likely to vote in ways that would harm society. The easy and obvious reply is that there seems to be little reason to think that felons could do harm through voting. Or any more harm than non-felon voters. For felons to do real harm through voting, there would need to be harmful choices and these would need to be choices that felons would pick because they are felons and they would need to be able to win that vote It could be claimed that, for example, there might be a vote on reducing prison sentences and the felons would vote in their interest to the detriment of others. While this is possible, it seems unlikely that the felons would be able to win the vote on their own. There is also the obvious counter that non-felons are likely to vote in harmful ways as well—as the history of voting shows. As such, denying felons the vote to protect the public from harm is not a reasonable justification. If there are things being voted for that could do serious harm, then the danger lies with those who got such things on the ballot and not with felons who might vote for it.

The second is the actual punishment, which is typically justified in terms of retribution. This does have some appeal as a justification, assuming that the felon wants to vote and regards being denied the vote as a harm. However, most Americans do not vote—so it is not much of a punishment. There is also the question of whether the denial of the right to vote is a suitable punishment for a crime. Punishments should not simply be tossed onto a crime—they should fit. While paying restitution would fit for a robbery, being denied the right to vote would not seem to fit.

The third is rehabilitation; the prisoner is supposed to be reformed so he can be returned to society (assuming the sentence is not death or life). Denying voting rights would seem to have the opposite effect—the person would be even more disconnected from society. As such, this would not justify removal of the voting rights.

Because of these considerations, even rapists, murderers and robbers should not lose their right to vote. I do agree, as argued in my previous essay, that crimes that are effectively rejections of the criminal’s citizenship (like rebellion and treason) would warrant stripping a person of citizenship and the right to vote. Other crimes, even awful ones, would not suffice to strip away citizenship.

Another approach is to make the case that rapists, murderers and robbers are morally bad or bad decision makers and should be denied the right to vote on moral grounds. While it is true that rapists, murderers and robbers are generally very bad people, the right to vote is not grounded in being a good person (or even just not being bad) or making good (or at least not bad) decisions. While it might seem appealing to have moral and competency tests for voting, there is the obvious problem that many voters would fail such tests. Many politicians would also fail the tests as well.

It could be countered that the only test that would be used is the legal test of whether or not a person is convicted of a felony. While obviously imperfect, it could be argued that those convicted are probably guilty and probably bad people and thus should not be voting. While it is true that some innocent people will be convicted and denied the right to vote and also true that many bad people will be able to avoid convictions, this is acceptable.

A reply to this is to inquire as to why such a moral standard should be used in regards to the right to vote. After all, the right to vote (as I have argued before) is not predicated on moral goodness or competence. It is based on being a citizen, good or bad. As such, any crime that does not justly remove a citizen’s status as a citizen would not warrant removing the right to vote. Yes, this does entail that rapists, murders and robbers should retain the right to vote. This might strike some as offensive or disgusting, but these people remain citizens. If this is too offensive, then such crimes would need to be recast as acts of treason that strip away citizenship. This seems excessive. And there is the fact that there are always awful people voting—they just have not been caught or got away with their awfulness or are clever and connected enough to ensure that the awful things they do are not considered felonies or even crimes. I am just as comfortable allowing a robber to vote as I am to allow Trump and Hillary to vote in their own election.

 

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Policebots

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 11, 2016

Peaceful protest is an integral part of the American political system. Sadly, murder is also an integral part of our society. The two collided in Dallas, Texas: after a peaceful protest, five police officers were murdered. While some might see it as ironic that the police rushed to protect the people protesting police violence, this actually serves as a reminder of how the police are supposed to function in a democratic society. This stands in stark contrast with the unnecessary deaths inflicted on citizens by bad officers—deaths that have given rise to many protests.

While violence and protests are both subjects worthy of in depth discussion, my focus will be on the ethical questions raised by the use of a robot to deliver the explosive device that was used to kill one of the attackers. While this matter has been addressed by philosophers more famous than I, I thought it worthwhile to say a bit about the matter.

While the police robot is called a robot, it is more accurate to describe it as a remotely operated vehicle. After all, the term “robot” is often taken as implying autonomy on the part of the machine. The police robot is remote controlled, like a sophisticated version of the remote controlled toys. In fact, a similar result could have been obtained by putting an explosive charge on a robust enough RC toy and rolling it within range of the target.

Since there is a human operator directly controlling the machine, it would seem that the ethics of the matter are the same as if more conventional machines of death (such as rifles or handguns) had been used to kill the shooter. On the face of it, the only difference is in how the situation is seen: a killer robot delivering a bomb sounds more ominous and controversial than an officer using a firearm. The use of remote controlled vehicles to kill targets is obviously nothing new—the basic technology has been around since at least WWII and the United States has killed many people with our drones.

If this had been the first case of an autonomous police robot sent to kill (like an ED-209), then the issue would be rather different. However, it is reasonable enough to regard this as the same old ethics of killing, only with a slight twist in regards to the delivery system. That said, it can be argued that the use of a remote controlled machine does add a new moral twist.

Keith Abney has raised a very reasonable point: if a robot could be sent to kill a target, it could also be sent to use non-lethal force to subdue the target. In the case of human officers, the usual moral justification of lethal force is that it is the best option for protecting themselves and others from a threat. If the threat presented by a suspect can be effectively addressed in a non-lethal manner, then that is the option that should be used. The moral foundation for this is set by the role of police in society: they are to protect the public and expected to take every legitimate effort to deliver suspects for trial in the criminal justice system. They are not supposed to function as soldiers that are engaging an enemy that is to be defeated—they are supposed to function as agents of the criminal justice system. There are, of course, cases in which suspects cannot be safely captured—these are situations in which the use of deadly force is justified, usually by imminent threat to the officer or citizens. A robot (or, more accurately, a remote controlled machine) can radically change the equation.

While a police robot is an expensive piece of hardware, it is not a human being (or even an artificial being). As such, it only has the moral status of property. In contrast, even the worst human criminal is a human being and thus has a moral status above that of a mere object. As such, if a robot is sent to engage a human suspect, then in many circumstances there would be no moral justification for using lethal force. After all, the officer operating the machine is in no danger as she steers the robot towards the target. This should change the ethics of the use of force to match other cases in which a suspect needs to be subdued, but presents no danger to the officer attempting arrest. In such cases, the machine should be outfitted with less-than-lethal options. While television and movies make safely disabling a human seem easy enough, it is actually rather challenging. For example, a rifle butt to the head is often portrayed as safely knocking a person out, when in reality it would cause serious injury or even death. Tasers, gas weapons and rubber bullets also can cause injury or death. However, the less-than-lethal options are less likely to kill a suspect and thus allow her to be captured for trial—which is the point of law enforcement. Robots could, as they often are in science fiction, be designed to withstand gunfire and physically grab a suspect. While this is likely to result in injury (such as broken bones) and could kill, it would be far less likely to kill than a bomb. An excellent example of a situation in which a robot would be ideal would be to capture an armed suspect barricaded in his house or apartment.

It must be noted that there will be cases in which the use of lethal force via a robot is justified. These would include cases in which the suspect presents a clear and present danger to officers or civilians and the best chance of ending the threat is the use of such force. An example of this might be a hostage situation in which the hostage taker is likely to kill hostages while the robot is trying to subdue him with less-than-lethal force.

While police robots have long been the stuff of science fiction, they do present a potential technological solution to the moral and practical problem of keeping officers and suspects alive. While an officer might be legitimately reluctant to stake her life on less-than-lethal options when directly engaged with a suspect, an officer operating a robot faces no such risk. As such, if the deployment of less-than-lethal options via a robot would not put the public at unnecessary risk, then it would be morally right to use such means.

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Narratives, Terror & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2015

After the terrorist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, commentators hastened to weave a narrative about the murders. Some, such as folks at Fox News, Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum, endeavored to present the attack as an assault on religious liberty. This does fit the bizarre narrative that Christians are being persecuted in a country whose population and holders of power are predominantly Christian. While the attack did take place in a church, it was a very specific church with a history connected to the struggle against slavery and racism in America. If the intended target was just a church, presumably any church would have sufficed. Naturally, it could be claimed that it just so happened that this church was selected.

The alleged killer’s own words make his motivation clear. He said that he was killing people because blacks were “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” As far as currently known, he made no remarks about being motivated by hate of religion in general or Christianity in particular. Those investigating his background found considerable evidence of racism and hatred of blacks, but evidence of hatred against Christianity seems to be absent. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to accept that the alleged killer was there to specifically kill black people and not to kill Christians.

Some commentators also put forth the stock narrative that the alleged killer suffered from mental illness, despite there being no actual evidence of this. This, as critics have noted, is the go-to explanation when a white person engages in a mass shooting. This explanation is given some credibility because some shooters have, in fact, suffered from mental illness. However, people with mental illness (which is an incredibly broad and diverse population) are far more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

It is certainly tempting to believe that a person who could murder nine people in a church must be mentally ill. After all, one might argue, no sane person would commit such a heinous deed. An easy and obvious reply is that if mental illness is a necessary condition for committing wicked deeds, then such illness must be very common in the human population. Accepting this explanation would, on the face of it, seem to require accepting that the Nazis were all mentally ill. Moving away from the obligatory reference to Nazis, it would also entail that all violent criminals are mentally ill.

One possible counter is to simply accept that there is no evil, merely mental illness. This is an option that some do accept and some even realize and embrace the implications of this view. Accepting this view does require its consistent application: if a white man who murders nine people must be mentally ill, then an ISIS terrorist who beheads a person must also be mentally ill rather than evil. As might be suspected, the narrative of mental illness is not, in practice, consistently applied.

This view does have some potential problems. Accepting this view would seem to deny the existence of evil (or at least the sort involved with violent acts) in favor of people being mentally defective. This would also be to deny people moral agency, making humans things rather than people. However, the fact that something might appear undesirable does not make it untrue. Perhaps the world is, after all, brutalized by the mad rather than the evil.

An unsurprising narrative, put forth by Charles L. Cotton of the NRA, is that the Reverend Clementa Pickney was to blame for the deaths because he was also a state legislator “And he voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.” While it is true that Rev. Pickney voted against a 2011 bill allowing guns to be brought into churches and day care centers, it is not true that Rev. Pickney is responsible for the deaths. The reasoning in Cotton’s claim is that if Rev. Pickney had not voted against the bill, then an armed “good guy” might have been in the church and might have been able to stop the shooter. From a moral and causal standpoint, this seems to be quite a stretch. When looking at the moral responsibility, it primarily falls on the killer. The blame can be extended beyond the killer, but the moral and causal analysis would certainly place blame on such factors as the influence of racism, the easy availability of weapons, and so on. If Cotton’s approach is accepted and broad counterfactual “what if” scenarios are considered, then the blame would seem to spread far and wide. For example, if he had been called on his racism early on and corrected by his friends or relatives, then those people might still be alive. As another example, if the state had taken a firm stand against racism by removing the Confederate flag and boldly denouncing the evils of slavery while acknowledging its legacy, perhaps those people would still be alive.

It could be countered that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and that it is not possible to address social problems except via the application of firepower. However, this seems to be untrue.

One intriguing narrative, most recently put forth by Jeb Bush, is the idea of an unknown (or even unknowable) motivation. Speaking after the alleged killer’s expressed motivations were known (he has apparently asserted that he wanted to start a race war), Bush claimed that he did not “know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” While philosophers do recognize the problem of other minds in particular and epistemic skepticism in general, it seems unlikely that Bush has embraced philosophical skepticism. While it is true that one can never know the mind or heart of another with certainty, the evidence regarding the alleged shooter’s motivations seems to be clear—racism. To claim that it is unknown, one might think, is to deny what is obvious in the hopes of denying the broader reality of racism in America. It can be replied that there is no such broader reality of racism in America, which leads to the last narrative I will consider.

The final narrative under consideration is that such an attack is an “isolated incident” conducted by a “lone wolf.” This narrative does allow that the “lone wolf” be motivated by racism (though, of course, one need not accept that motivation). However, it denies the existence of a broader context of racism in America—such as the Confederate flag flying proudly on public land near the capital of South Carolina. Instead, the shooter is cast as an isolated hater, acting solely from his own motives and ideology. This approach allows one to avoid the absurdity of denying that the alleged shooter was motivated by racism while denying that racism is a broader problem. One obvious problem with the “isolated incident” explanation is that incidents of violence against African Americans is more systematic than isolated—as anyone who actually knows American history will attest. In regards to the “lone wolf” explanation, while it is true that the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone, he did not create the ideology that seems to have motivated the attack. While acting alone, he certainly seems to be the member of a substantial pack and that pack is still in the wild.

It can be replied that the alleged shooter was, by definition, a lone wolf (since he acted alone) and that the incident was isolated because there has not been a systematic series of attacks across the country. The lone wolf claim does certainly have appeal—the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone. However, when other terrorists attempt attacks in the United States, the narrative is that each act is part of a larger whole and not an isolated incident. In fact, some extend the blame to religion and ethnic background of the terrorist, blaming all of Islam or all Arabs for an attack.

In the past, I have argued that the acts of terrorists should not confer blame on their professed religion or ethnicity. However, I do accept that the terrorist groups (such as ISIS) that a terrorist belongs to does merit some of the blame for the acts of its members. I also accept that groups that actively try to radicalize people and motivate them to acts of terror deserve some blame for these acts. Being consistent, I certainly will not claim that all or even many white people are racists or terrorists just because the alleged shooter is white. That would be absurd. However, I do accept that some of the responsibility rests with the racist community that helped radicalize the alleged shooter to engage in his act of terror.

 

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A Shooting in South Carolina

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 15, 2015

While the police are supposed to protect and serve, recent incidents have raised grave concerns about policing in America. I am, of course, referring to the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers. In the most recent incident Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager shot Walter Lamer Scott to death after what should have been a routine traffic stop. What makes this case unusual is that there is video of the shooting. While the video does not show what happened before Scott started to flee, it clearly shows that Scott is no threat to Slager: he is unarmed and running away. Police are not allowed to shoot a suspect merely for fleeing. The video also show Slager dropping an object by Scott’s body—it appears to be Slager’s Taser. When Slager called in the incident, he described it as a justifiable shooting: Scott grabbed his Taser and he had to use his service weapon. Obviously Slager was unaware that he was being recorded as he shot the fleeing Scott.

Since I am friends with people who are ex-law enforcement (retired or moved on to other careers) I have reason to believe that the majority of officers would not engage in such behavior. As such, I will not engage in a sweeping condemnation of police—this would be both unjust and unfounded. However, this incident does raise many concerns about policing in the United States.

As noted above, what makes this incident unusual is not that a situation involving a black man and white officer escalated. It is also not very unusual that a black man was shot by a police officer. What is unusual is that the incident was videotaped and this allowed the public to see what really happened—as opposed to what was claimed by the officer. If the incident had not been recorded, this most likely would have gone down as the all-too-common scenario of a suspect attacking a police officer and being shot in self-defense. The tape, however, has transformed it from the usual to the unusual: a police officer being charged with murder for shooting a suspect.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware that the story of one incident, however vivid, is but an anecdote. I am also well aware that to generalize broadly from one such incident is to commit the fallacy of hasty generalization. That said, the videotape does provide legitimate grounds for being suspicious of other incidents in which suspects have been shot while (allegedly) trying to attack an officer. Since we know that it has happened, we clearly know that it can happen. The obvious and rather important concern is the extent to which this sort of thing has happened. That is, what needs to be determined is the extent to which officers have engaged in legitimate self-defense and to what extent have officers engaged in murder.

This videotape shows, rather dramatically, that requiring police to use body cameras is a good idea—at least from the standpoint of those who believe in justice. People are, obviously enough somewhat less likely to act badly if they know they are being recorded. There is also the fact that there would be clear evidence of any misdeeds. The cameras would also benefit officers: such video evidence would also show when the use of force was legitimate, thus helping to reduce suspicions. As it stands, we know that at least one police officer shot down a fleeing suspect who presented no threat. This, naturally enough, motivates suspicion about all shootings (and rightly so). The regular use of body cameras could be one small contribution to addressing legitimate questions about use of force incidents.

What is also usual about this incident is that there has been a focus on the fact that Scott had a criminal record and legal troubles involving child support. This is presumably intended to show that Scott was no angel and perhaps to suggest that the shooting was, in some manner, justified. Or, at the very least, not as bad as one might think. After all, the person killed was a criminal, right? However, Scott’s background has no relevance in this incident: his having legal troubles in the past in no manner justifies the shooting.

What was also usual was the reaction of Bill O’Reilly and some of the other fine folks at Fox, which I learned about from Professor Don Hubin’s reaction and criticism. Rather than focusing on the awfulness of the killing and what it suggests about other similar incidents, O’Reilly’s main worry seems to be that some people might use the killing to “further inflame racial tensions” and he adds that “there doesn’t seem to be, as some would have you believe, that police are trying to hunt down black men and take their lives.” While this is not a claim that has been seriously put forth, O’Reilly endeavors to “prove” his claim by engaging in a clever misleading comparison. He notes that “In 2012, last stats available, 123 blacks were killed by police 326 whites were killed.” While this shows that police kill more whites than blacks, the comparison is misleading because O’Reilly leaves out a critical piece of information: the population is about 77% white and about 13% black. This, obviously enough, sheds a rather different light on O’Reilly’s statistics: they are accurate, yet misleading.

Naturally, it might be countered that blacks commit more crimes than whites and thus it is no surprise that they get shot more often (when adjusting for inflation) than whites. After all, one might point out, Scott did have a criminal record. This reply has a certain irony to it. After all, people who claim that blacks are arrested (and shot) at a disproportionate level claim that the police are more likely to arrest blacks than whites and focus more on policing blacks. As evidence that blacks commit more crimes, people point to the fact that blacks are more likely (adjusting for proportions) than whites to be arrested. While one would obviously expect more blacks to be arrested in they committed more crimes (proportionally), to assume what is in doubt (that policing is fair) as evidence that it should not be doubted seems to involve reasoning in a circle.

O’Reilly also raised a stock defense for when bad thing are done: “You can’t … you can’t be a perfect system. There are going to be bad police officers; they’re going to make mistakes; um .. and then the mistakes are going to be on national television.” O’Reilly engages in what seems to be a perfectionist fallacy: the system cannot be perfect (which is true), therefore (it seems) we should not overly concerned that this could be evidence of systematic problems. Or perhaps he just means that in an imperfect system one must expect mistakes such as an officer shooting a fleeing suspect to death. O’Reilly also seems rather concerned that the mistakes will be on television—perhaps his concern is, as I myself noted, that people will fall victim to a hasty generalization from the misleading vividness of the incident. That would be a fair point. However, the message O’Reilly seems to be conveying is that this incident is (as per the usual Fox line) an isolated one that does not indicate a systemic problem. Despite the fact that these “isolated” incidents happen with terrible regularity.

I will close by noting that my objective is not to attack the police. Rather, my concern is that the justice system is just—that is rather important to me. It should also be important to all Americans—after all, most of us pledged allegiance to a nation that offers liberty and justice to all.

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Charlie, Islam & Justification

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 21, 2015

While the murders of twelve people at Charlie Hebdo are unjustifiable, one of the killers did attempt, in advance, to justify the attack. The main justification offered was that the attack was in accord with Islamic law. Since I am not a scholar of Islam, I will not address the issue of whether this is true or not. As an ethicist, I will address the matter of moral justification for the killings.

From the standpoint of the killers, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was presumably punishment for the actions of those they killed. In general, punishment is aimed at retaliation for wrongs done, redemption of the wrongdoer or deterrence (this is the RRD model). Presumably the killers were aiming at both retaliation and deterrence and not redemption. From a moral standpoint, both retaliation and deterrence are supposed to be limited by a principle of proportionality.

In the case of retaliation, the punishment should correspond to the alleged crime. The reason for this is that disproportionate retaliation would not “balance the books”, but instead create another wrong that would justify retaliation in response. This, of course, assumes that retaliation is justifiable in general, which can certainly be questioned.

In the case of deterrence, there is also a general presumption in favor of proportionality. The main reason is the same as in retaliation: excessive punishment would seem to, by definition, create another wrong. A standard counter to this is to argue that excessive punishment is acceptable on the grounds of its deterrence value—the greater the punishment, the greater the deterrence.

While this does have a certain appeal, it also runs counter to common moral intuitions. For example, blowing up a student’s car for parking in a faculty parking space at university would certainly deter students, but would be excessive. As another example, having the death penalty for traffic violations would tend to deter such violations, but this certainly seems unacceptable.

There is also the standard utilitarian argument that excessive punishment used for deterrence would create more harm than good. For example, allowing police to execute anyone who resisted arrest would deter resistance, but the harms to citizens and society would certainly seem to outweigh the benefits gained. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that punishment for the purpose of deterrence should be proportional to the offense. There is, of course, still the concern about the deterrence factor. A good guiding principle is that the punishment that aims at deterrence should be sufficient to deter, yet proportional to the offense. Roughly put, deterring the misdeed should not be worse than the misdeed.

In the case of the people at Charlie Hebdo, their alleged offense was their satire of Mohammad and Islam via cartoons. On the face of it, death certainly seems to be a disproportionate punishment. After all, killing someone is certainly vastly more harmful than insulting or offending someone.

A proportional response would have been something along the lines of creating a satirical cartoon of the staff, publishing an article critical of their cartoons or protesting these cartoons. That is, a proportional response to the non-violent expression of a view would be the non-violent expression of an opposing view. Murder would obviously be a vastly disproportionate response.

It could be replied that the punishment was proportional because of the severity of the offense. The challenge is, obviously enough, arguing that the offense was severe enough to warrant death. On the face of it, no cartoon would seem to merit death. After all, no matter how bad a cartoon might be, the worst it can do is offend a person and this would not seem to warrant death. However, it could be argued that the offense is not against just any person, but against God. That is, the crime is blasphemy or something similar. This would provide a potential avenue for justifying a penalty of death. It is to this that I now turn.

Religious thinkers who believe in Hell have long faced the challenge of justifying eternal damnation. After all, as David Hume noted, an infinite punishment for what must be finite offenses is contrary to our principles of justice. That is, even if a person sinned for every second of her life, she could not do enough evil to warrant an infinitely bad, infinitely long punishment. However, there is a clever reply to this claim.

In his classic sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, Jonathan Edwards says of sinners that “justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins.” Roughly put, he justifies the infinite punishment of sin on the grounds that since God is infinitely good, any sin against God is infinitely bad. As such, the punishment is proportional to the offense: infinite punishment for an infinitely bad crime.

It could be contended that creating cartoons mocking Mohammed and Islam are sins against an infinitely good God, thus warranting an infinite punishment and presumably justifying killing (which is less than infinite punishment). Interestingly, the infinite punishment for sins would seem to render the punishing of sinners here on earth pointless for two reasons. First, if the sinner will be punished infinitely, then punishing him here would not increase his punishment. So, there is no point to it. Second, if the sinner is going to be punished divinely, then punishment here would also be pointless. To use an analogy, imagine if someone proposed having a pre-legal system in which alleged criminals would be tried and, if found guilty, be given pointless and miniscule sentences (such as being mildly scolded for one second). The alleged criminals would then go on to the real legal system for their real punishment. This pre-legal system would obviously be a pointless waste of time and resources. Likewise, if there is divine justice for sins, then punishing them here would be a pointless waste of time.

This, obviously enough, assumes that God is real, that He punishes and that He would punish people for something as minor as a cartoon. It would certainly seem to be a rather petty and insecure God that would be overly concerned about snarky cartoons—people are usually most likely to react to mockery when they are strong enough to punish, but weak enough to be insecure. God, I would think, is far too big to be enraged by cartoons. But, I could be wrong. If I am, though, God will take care of matters and there is thus no reason to kill cartoonists.

If God does not exist, then the cartoons obviously cannot have offended God. In this case, the offense would be against people who believe in a make-believe faith. While such people might be very offended or angry at being mocked, killing the cartoonists would be like enraged Harry Potter fans killing a cartoonist for mocking Daniel Radcliffe with a snarky cartoon. While they might be devoted to the make believe world of Harry Potter and be very protective of Daniel Radcliffe, offensive cartoons mocking a real person and a make believe system would not warrant killing the cartoonist.

As such, if God is real, then He will deal with the offense against Him. As such, there would be no justification for people seeking revenge in His name. If He is not real, then the offense is against the make-believe and this does not warrant killing. Either way, the killings would be completely unjustified.

 

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Mental Illness or Evil?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2012
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(Photo credit: Robbie Wroblewski)

When a person does terrible things that seem utterly senseless, like murder children, there is sometimes a division in the assessment of the person. Some people will take the view that the person is mentally ill on the grounds that a normal, sane person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Others take the view that the person is evil on the grounds that a normal, non-evil person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Both of these views express an attempt to explain and understand what occurred. As might be imagined, the distinction between being evil and being mentally ill is a matter of significant concern.

One key point of concern is the matter of responsibility and the correct way to respond to a person who has done something terrible. If a person acts from mental illness rather than evil, then it seems somewhat reasonable to regard them as not being accountable for the action (at least to the degree the person is ill). After all, if something terrible occurs because a person suffers from a physical illness, the person is generally not held accountable (there are, obviously, exceptions). For example, my running friend Jay told me about a situation in which a person driving on his street had an unexpected seizure. Oddly, the person’s foot stomped down on the gas pedal and the car rocketed down the street, smashing into another car and coming to a stop in someone’s back yard. The car could have easily plowed over my friend, injuring or killing him. However, since the person was not physically in control of his actions (and he had no reason to think he would have a seizure) he was not held morally accountable. That is, he did nothing wrong. If a person had intentionally tried to murder my friend with his car, then that would be seen as an evil action. Unless, perhaps, the driver was mentally ill in a way that disabled him in a way comparable to a stroke. In that case, the driver might be as “innocent” as the stroke victim.

There seem to be at least two ways that a mentally ill person might be absolved of moral responsibility (at least to the degree she is mentally ill).

First, the person might be suffering from what could be classified as perceptual and interpretative disorders. That is, they have mental defects that cause them to perceive and interpret reality incorrectly.  For example, a person suffering from extreme paranoia might think that my friend Jay intends to steal his brain, even Jay has no such intention. In such a case, it seems reasonable to not regard the person as evil if he tries to harm Jay—after all, he is acting in what he thinks is legitimate self-defense rather than from a wicked motivation. In contrast, someone who wanted to kill Jay to rob his house or just for fun would be acting in an evil way. Put in general terms, mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal.  Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems sensible to consider that such people might be following their conscience as best they can, only they have distorted information to work with in their decision making process and this distortion results from mental illness.

Second, the person might be suffering from what could be regarded as a disorder of judgment. That is, the person’s ability to engage in reasoning is damaged or defective due to a mental illness. The person might (or might not) have correct information to work with, but the processing is defective in a way that causes a person to make judgments that would be regarded as evil if made by a “normal” person. For example, a person might infer from the fact that someone is wearing a blue hat that the person should be killed.

One obvious point of concern is that “normal” people are generally bad at reasoning and commit fallacies with alarming regularity. As such, there would be a need to sort out the sort of reasoning that is merely bad reasoning from reasoning that would count as being mentally ill. One point worth considering is that bad reasoning could be fixed by education whereas a mental illness would not be fixed by learning, for example, logic.

A second obvious point of concern is discerning between mental illness as a cause of such judgments and evil as a cause of such judgments. After all, evil people can be seen as having a distorted sense of judgment in regards to value. In fact, some philosophers (such as Kant and Socrates) regard evil as a mental defect or a form of irrationality. This has some intuitive appeal—after all, people who do terrible and senseless things would certainly seem to have something wrong with them. Whether this is a moral wrongness or health wrongness is, of course, the big question here.

One of the main reasons to try to sort out the difference is figuring out whether a person should be treated (cured) or punished (which might also cure the person). As noted above, a person who did something terrible because of mental illness would (to a degree) not be accountable for the act and hence should not be punished (or the punishment should be duly tempered). For some it is tempting to claim that the choice of evil is an illusion because there is no actual free choice (that is, we do what we do because of the biochemical and electrical workings of the bodies that are us). As such, people should not be punished, rather they should be repaired. Of course, there is a certain irony in such advice: if we do not have choice, then advising us to not punish makes no sense since we will just do what we do. Of course, the person advising against punishment would presumably have no choice but to give such advice.

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A World Less Violent?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2011
Violence!

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Although the Libyan and Iraq wars recently ended, the world still seems like a violent place. After all, the twenty four hour news cycles are awash with stories of crime, war, riots and other violent activities. However, Steven Pinker contends, in his The Better Angels of Our nature: Why Violence Has Declined that we are living in a time in which violence is at an all time low.

Pinker bases his claim on statistical data. For example, the records of 14th century Oxford reveal 110 homicides per 100,000 people while the middle of the 20th century saw London with a murder rate of less than 1 person per 100,000. As another example, even the 20th century (which saw two world wars and multitudes of lesser wars) killed .7% of the population (3% if all war connected deaths are counted).

Not surprisingly, people have pointed to the fact that modern wars have killed millions of people and that the number of people who die violently is fairly large. Pinker, not surprisingly, makes the obvious reply: the number of violent deaths is higher but the percentage is far lower-mainly because there are so many more people today relative to the past.

As the title suggests, Pinker attributes the change, in part, to people being better at impulse control, considering consequences, and also considering others. This view runs contrary to the idea that people today are not very good at such things-but perhaps people are generally better than people in the past. Pinker does also acknowledge that states have far more control now than in the past, which tends to reduce crime.

While Pinker makes a good case, it is also reasonable to consider other explanations that can be added to the mix.

In the case of war, improved medicines and improved weapons have reduced the number of deaths. Wounds that would have been fatal in the past can often be handled by battlefield medicine, thus lower the percentage of soldiers who die as the result of combat.  Weapon technology also has a significant impact. Improvements in defensive technology mean that a lower percentage of combatants are killed and improvements in weapon accuracy mean that less non-combatants are killed. The newer technology has also changed the nature of warfare in terms of civilian involvement. With some notable exceptions, siege warfare is largely a thing of the past because of the changes in technology. So, instead of starving a city into surrendering, soldiers now just take the city using combined arms.

The improved technology also means that modern soldiers are far more effective that soldiers in the past which reduces the percentage of the population that needs to be involved in combat, thus lowering the percentage of people killed.

There is also the fact that the nature of competition between human groups has changed. At one time the conflict was directly over land and resources and these conflicts were settled with violence. While this still occurs, we now have far broader avenues of competition, such as economics, sports, and so on. As such, people might be just as violently inclined as ever, only now we have far more avenues into which to channel that violence. So, for example, back in the day an ambitious man might have as his main option being a noble and achieving his ends by violence. Today a person with ambitions of conquest might start a business or waste away his life in computer games.

In the case of violent crime, people are more distracted, more medicated, and more separated than in the past. This would tend to reduce violent crimes, at least in terms of the percentages.

A rather interesting factor to consider is natural selection. Societies tend to respond to violent crimes with violence, often killing such criminals. Wars also tend to kill the violent. As such, centuries of war and violent crime might be performing natural selection on the human species-the more violent humans would tend to be killed, thus leaving those less prone to crime and violence to reproduce more. Crudely put, perhaps we are killing our way towards peace.

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Murder?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2011
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I recently had a discussion about the killing of Bin Laden. One point that was raised was that the raid was actually an act of murder because no one in his house was armed and no resistance was offered to the Seals. This point was used by one person to argue that the Seals committed murder.

One point worth considering is the source of the claim that there was no resistance.When I asked about this, I was informed that two Pakistani officials have made this claim and described it as “cold-blooded.” My initial response was the obvious: Pakistani officials are rather lacking in credibility regarding Bin Laden. After all, they have told the world for years that they had no idea where he was located.  It is important to note that I am not rejecting their claims on the basis of an ad hominem. Rather, I am suspicious of their claims on the basis of assessing the officials quality as reliable authorities in this matter.

However, let it be assumed that Bin Laden and his fellows were unarmed and did not resist. While killing unarmed people who are offering no resistance can be regarded as rather cold-blooded, it need not be murder. After all, while murder is a type of killing, not all killings are murder. On the face of it, murder would seem to be intuitively defined as a wrongful killing. This sort of definition is typically used to distinguish capital punishment from murder. In the case of capital punishment, one stock argument is that the person killed has been found guilty of a crime and that the just punishment is death. Since the death is not, in theory, wrongful, it is not murder. Naturally, a multitude of objections can be raised against capital punishment, but there does seem to be an important theoretical distinction between murdering a person and killing a person in the process of justice.Obviously enough, capital punishment is generally inflicted on a person who is unarmed and who typically offers no resistance. As such, the death of Bin Laden could be regarded as capital punishment rather than murder. Under Locke’s view of capital punishment, the killing of Bin Laden would seem to morally correct-after all, Bin Laden showed himself to be an enemy of humanity and thus could be destroyed like a dangerous animal.

If the capital punishment argument does not float, the matter of war can be used. Killing occurs in war, however it is generally not classified as murder provided that the appropriate rules of war are followed. While killing people who are not armed is generally looked down on, snipers are not tried as criminals when they shoot unarmed and “unresisting” targets-provided that those targets are otherwise legitimate.  Taking out high value assets (such as commanders) is also considered legitimate in war, even when those targets are not wielding weapons.

It might be countered that soldiers are expected to take prisoners and hence killing Bin Laden was an act of murder, even in the context of war. Of course, the ethics of taking prisoners does include the fact that the soldiers are not morally required to take great risks merely to keep an enemy alive. Since Bin Laden was clearly a legitimate target and it seems likely that getting him out of Pakistan alive would have been rather difficult, it would seem that the soldiers would be morally justified in killing him on the spot rather than risking their own lives needlessly and putting their mission at risk.

I do recognize that there is something morally problematic about killing an unarmed person. It could be argued that even if he appeared unarmed, past experience has shown that terrorists use explosive vests and hence it does make sense to shoot a known terrorist in the head when there is a chance he is loaded with explosives. It could also be argued that in the real world (as opposed to movies) it makes no sense to let an enemy arm himself when you can shoot him before he can shoot back. Speaking of movies,  if Bin Laden was unarmed, then that seems to have been a poor decision on his part:

Little Bill Daggett: “Well, sir, you are a cowardly son of a bitch! You just shot an unarmed man!”
Will Munny: “Well, he should have armed himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.”

This situation is a tough one. However, I think that my considered opinion is best put by the professor who taught me about military ethics: “some people you just have to kill.”

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God & Time Travel

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on June 24, 2010
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Like most philosophers, I like science fiction and stories about time travel. Recently I watched the episode Time of the SyFy  series Stargate Universe. This episode got me thinking about time travel and God, oddly enough.

Imagine, if you will, the following science fiction situation. Sally is working on a time travel project and during one experiment, her own smartphone appears in the lab. Startled, she checks her pocket and finds that her phone is there. Yet it also appears to be on the table. Picking it up, she finds that video has been recorded on it. Much to her horror and dismay, it seems to be a video of her saying that she has killed her husband for having an affair with her friend, only to find out after that she was wrong.  In the video, she can she the body of what seems to be her dead husband. The video closes with her future self saying that she is sending back the phone to tell her past self to not kill her husband; future Sally then shoots herself in the head as the phone is being sent into the past.

Being something of a skeptic, Sally checks the phones carefully and finds that (aside from some blood on the future phone that matches her husband’s blood type) the two are identical. This convinces Sally and she does not kill her husband.

Now, let God be brought into the picture, at least hypothetically. If one prefers to leave God out of this game, then an omniscient observer who judges people for their deeds and misdeeds can be used in His place.

In this scenario, what would God actually “see” and how would He judge?

On one hand, the future Sally did kill her husband and send the phone back. After all, without those events, then the phone would not have the video recorded on it and would not have been sent back As such, God would judge that Sally was guilty of suicide and murder, hence worthy of divine punishment. Also, both Sally and her husband would be dead and thus would have gone off to the relevant afterlife (assuming there is such a thing).

On the other hand, the time traveling phone prevented Sally from killing her husband and committing suicide. Thus, Sally would not be judged for these deeds. Also, neither Sally nor her husband would be dead. In effect, that future event never will be, although it must have been (otherwise there would be no phone).

One easy way out of the problem is to follow John Locke’s approach in his discussion of personal identity: since God is good, he would not allow such confusing events (in this case, time travel) to come to pass. Of course, this is not very satisfying as an answer.

Another easy way out is to deny the entire scenario and say that time travel is impossible because of exactly this sort of nonsense. But, where is the fun in that?

Another way out is to use the branching worlds approach: what seems to be time travel is actually travel between possible worlds. So, the phone did not come from Sally’s future. Rather, it is from a possible world in which Sally did kill her husband. So, the Sally of that world is a killer and a suicide; but her actions saved her counterpart Sally from her fate.  So, God takes care of the killer Sally and the lucky Sally avoids her fate. Hardly fair, but that is nothing new.

But, let us suppose that the scenario happens as described. From God’s perspective, it would seem that time travel would create all these loops and changes throughout time. Or perhaps not. One classic view of God and time is that God perceives all of time “at once.’ To use an analogy, God’s perspective is like being able to see the entire filmstrip of a movie at once. The past, present and future are just positions on the strip relative to a specific film cell. Hence, He does not see any changes in the past-He merely sees as the events that did occur, shall occur and are occurring all “at once.”  So, God would “see” the phone appear from a future that never was to save Sally from committing a murder that never will be.

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Debating Meat II: Theology of Meat

Posted in Ethics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on February 18, 2010
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While religion is often used to justify eating meat, it is rather interesting to note that some significant Christian thinkers have seriously considered the ethics of the matter. This does make perfect sense. After all, the bible is clear that killing is a sin and it would certainly be unfortunate to end up in hell for eating a hamburger.

St. Aquinas addressed the matter of killing living things in his Summa Theologica. His approach is to raise and reply to three arguments against the killing of animals (primarily for the purpose of consuming their flesh).

In his first argument he contends that it appears to be unlawful to kill living beings. His concern, is of course, that breaking God‘s law leads to damnation. He further notes that divine providence seems to command that all living beings be preserved. As such, killing would be against divine law. Given his ethical theory, this would also make killing animals an immoral act.

In response to this, Aquinas avails himself of St. Augustine’s argument about eating meat. Augustine’s argument for the acceptability of eating meat actually has three parts.

First, he contends that the injunction against killing does not apply to trees (because they “have no sense”) or animals (because they “have no fellowship with us”). Thus, the injunction against killing does not apply to plants or animals. Of course, there are those who contend that trees do have sense (or at least some sort of awareness) and fairly strong case can (and has) been made that animals to have fellowship with us. As Hume argued, animals seem to differ from us mainly in degree rather than in kind.

Second, Augustine makes use of some of Aristotle‘s philosophy to present a teleological argument for eating meat. He begins with the assumption that it is not sinful to use something for the purpose for which it was created.  Following Aristotle, he notes that there is an order of things in the universe and asserts that the “imperfect are for the perfect.”

Interestingly, he notes that this follows the process of reproduction: beings go from a lower to a higher state. In the case of man, he asserts, there is “first a living thing, then an animal, and last a man.”  he then returns to his main focus, and contends that because plants have mere life, then they exist as food for animals. Since animals are inferior to men, they are thus food for men. As such, it is morally acceptable for humans to eat meat.

This argument, obviously enough, assumes that there is a hierarchy of beings and that being lower down on this hierarchy allows the higher ups to eat one. This would certainly seem to imply that beings higher than man could lawfully eat men.  Fortunately for us, angels do not appear to have a taste for human burgers (perhaps they subsist on angel food cake).

Put a bit more roughly, his argument seems to be that we are better than animals, so we can eat them. This “we are better than you” reasoning has, of course, been routinely used in history to justify a wide variety of misdeeds ranging from oppression to slavery to outright genocide. As such, it certainly seems to be a justification that is morally questionable.

Third, Augustine presents a theological argument for eating meat. He begins by noting that animals need to eat plants and men need to use animals for food. This, of course, typically requires killing the plant or animal. This is justified because the bible says it is:  (Gn. 1:29,30): “Behold I have given you every herb … and all trees … to be your meat, and to all beasts of the earth” and  (Gn. 9:3): “Everything that moveth and liveth shall be meat to you.”

This argument assumes that God exists and has given us permission to eat animals. Obviously enough, those who do not share these assumptions will find the argument rather less than compelling. Another point that can be contended is his assumption that humans need to eat animals. While this might have been true in the past, today there is no such necessity. As such, while we might still have permission from God to eat meat, this still leaves us the option to chose not to do so.

The second argument that Aquinas considers is based on the assumption that murder is sinful because it deprives a man of his life. Since animals and plants are also alive, it would seem that it would also be sinful to kill them.

Aquinas responds to this by using what certainly appears to be views taken from Aristotle. To be specific, he claims that animals and plants lack reason and are driven by mere natural impulses. Because of this, they are “naturally enslaved” and exist for our use.

This is, of course, another version of the “we are better than them so we can eat them” argument.  If we take this principle literally and apply it consistently, then it would seem that rational humans could thus consume humans who are not rational (such as infants).  After all, as Augustine argued, a human infant would seem to be on par with a mere animal.

Various people have also argued that some animals do possess reason (such as elephants, primates and whales). If so, killing them would count as murder under Aquinas’s view of the matter.

Aquinas’s third argument is purely theological. He notes that divine law requires special punishments only for sins. There is a special punishment for a man who kills another man’s ox or sheep, so it would seem that killing animals would be sinful.

His reply is a very easy one-the sin being committed is not a sin of murder but of theft. This is because the killer is depriving another man of his property. This, of course, does make it sinful (and immoral given Aquinas’s moral theory) to kill animals that people own (such as pets).

My main thought on these arguments is that while they do argue that eating meat (and plants) is morally and theologically acceptable, they do not show that we must eat meat. After all, even if it is agreed that we can eat meat, it does not follow that we are required to do so. In light of the concerns raised by Aquinas and Augustine, it would seem reasonable and ethical to avoid eating meat except when we must do so to survive.

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