A Philosopher's Blog

Denmark’s Refugee “Fee”

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 29, 2016

In January, 2016 Denmark passed a law that refugees who enter the state with assets greater than about US $1,450 will have their valuables taken in order to help pay for the cost of their being in the country. In response to international criticism, Denmark modified the law to allow refugees to keep items of sentimental value, such as wedding rings. This matter is certainly one of moral concern.

Critics have been quick to deploy a Nazi analogy, likening this policy to how the Nazis stole the valuables of those they sent to the concentration camps. While taking from refugees does seem morally problematic, the Nazi analogy does not really stick—there are too many relevant differences between the situations. Most importantly, the Danes would be caring for the refugees rather than murdering them. There is also the fact that the refugees are voluntarily going to Denmark rather than being rounded up, robbed, imprisoned and murdered. While the Danes have clearly not gone full Nazi, there are still grounds for moral criticism. However, I will endeavor to provide a short defense of the law—a rational consideration requires at least considering the pro side of the argument.

The main motivation of the law seems to be to deter refugees from coming to Denmark. This is a strategy of making their country less appealing than other countries in the hopes that refugees will go somewhere else and be someone else’s burden. Countries, like individuals, do seem to have the right to make themselves less appealing.  While this sort of approach is certainly not morally commendable, it does not seem to be morally wrong. After all, the Danes are not simply banning refugees but trying to provide a financial disincentive. Somewhat ironically, the law would not deter the poorest of refugees. It would only deter those who have enough property to make losing it a worthwhile deterrent.

The main moral argument in favor of the law is based on the principle that people should help pay for the cost of their upkeep to at least the degree they can afford to do so. To use an analogy, if people show up at my house and ask to live with me and eat my food, it would certainly be fair of me to expect them to at least chip in for the costs of the utilities and food. After all, I do not get my utilities and food for free. This argument does have considerable appeal, but can be countered.

One counter to the argument is based on the fact that the refugees are fleeing a disaster. Going back to the house analogy, if survivors of a disaster showed up at my door asking for a place to stay until they could get back on their feet, taking their few remaining possessions to offset the cost of their food and shelter would seem to be cruel and heartless. They have lost so much already and to take what little that remains to them would add injury and insult to injury. To use another analogy, it would be like a rescue crew stripping people of their valuables to help pay for the rescue. While rescues are expensive, such a practice certainly would seem awful.

One counter is that refugees who are well off should pay for what they receive. After all, if relatively well-off people showed up at my door asking for food and shelter, it would not seem wrong of me to expect that they contribute to the cost of things. After all, if they can afford it, then they have no grounds to claim a free ride off me. Likewise for well-off refugees. That said, the law does not actually address the point, unless having more than $1450 is well off.

Another point of consideration is that it is one thing to have people pay for lodging and food with money they have; quite another to take a person’s remaining worldly possessions. It seems like a form of robbery, using whatever threat drove the refugees from home as the weapon. The obvious reply is that the refugees would be choosing to go to Denmark; they could go to a more generous country. The problem is, however, that refugees might soon have little choice about where they go.


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The New Civility: Ja Oder Nein

Posted in Humor, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 24, 2011
According to Bullock, Hitler was an opportunis...
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Since we are now in an era of New Civility (if by “era” we mean “a few days, maybe a month at tops”) I thought it would be fitting to address a critical dilemma.

On the one horn, the New Civility requires that we not act as volcanoes of hate. On the other horn, there are always infinitely compelling reasons to compare other people to Hitler. Steering through these horns, it seems possible to be able to nail that bull right between the eyes. The modest proposal that I am making is that comparisons to Hitler must be resolved in a civil manner and what, I asked myself, could be more civil than a game?

So as not to strain the brains of anyone, I have elected to create a simple game that I call “Hitler: ja oder nein?” In English, this is “Hitler: yes or no?” To start a game of HJON you first make a comparison between Hitler and some person. Next, you assert whether the comparison fits (ja) or does not hold (nein). If you want, you can signal a strong commitment or confidence with “!”. If you are not quite sure or are just weakly committed, use a “?”. For example “ja!” or, as another example, “nein?” In the third step, other folks make their reply to your initial ja oder nein. Be sure to keep it civil, of course.

The game continues until the players decide that they are tired of talking about people being like Hitler.

I’ll start a game by putting an entry in the comment section. To play along, post a reply to the comment with your position.

To start a new game, post a new person with your ja oder nein and get it rolling.

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So Much For Civility…

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2011
Joseph Goebbels
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In the wake of the bloodshed in Arizona, many pundits and politicians decided to tone down their rhetoric and ring in a new era of civility. Members of congress, out of respect for Giffords, also made a point of calling for civility. This, not surprisingly, did not last very long.

Interestingly, the first return to the old way was taken by Democrat Steve Cohen and what an epic return it was. He was clearly not content to be merely a bit uncivil or a bit harsh. No, he went right for the Nazi comparison. By itself, that would have been a rather impressive return to incivility. But Cohen clearly wanted to make the first shot really count. He kicked it up another notch by taking a shot at Sarah Palin (or so I suspect) by tossing in a reference to blood libel. Then it brought it into the stratosphere with a Holocaust reference:

“They say it’s a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels. You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it. Like blood libel. That’s the same kind of thing, blood libel. That’s the same kind of thing…The Germans said enough about the Jews and people believed it –believed it and you have the Holocaust.”

While rhetorical comparisons and hyperbole have a role in the political game, Cohens has acted wrongly. First, he seems to have lead the way back towards the old incivility. While I knew this was just a matter of time, I had hoped that the folks in congress would at least  have enough decency to wait until Giffords was out of the hospital before getting back into the old ways. I must admit that I did not think that the first move would include Nazis, Goebbels, blood libel and the Holocaust.

Second, his comparisons are extreme in their hyperbole and have no plausibilty. Even if the Republicans are misrepresenting the facts, they are clearly not comparable to Nazis. Even if they are lying, such alleged lies are not comparable to the blood libel. Also, even if the Republicans achieve their goal of repealing health care, this will not be anything remotely like the Holocaust. The lack of similarities reveals that Cohen was employing poor reasoning skills (his analogies are flawed) and his needless and counterproductive  hyperbole shows that his rhetoric was also lacking.

Third,  there is the ethical concern about using references to the Holocaust in an attempt to score rhetorical points on a political issue that is, in fact, not comparable to the Holocaust. This sort of comparison is, to say the least, lacking in decency and shows considerable disrespect for those who were victims of that horror.

While this seems unlikely to happen, I think that congress should pass a resolution calling on its members to forgo references to Nazis and the Holocaust unless they are 1)discussing what they watched on the History Channel or 2) actually discussing something that is, in fact, comparable to the Nazis and the Holocaust.

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The Tea Party & Racism

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on July 15, 2010
One in a series of posters attacking Radical R...
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The NAACP recently passed a resolution condemning what they perceive as racism in the Tea Party movement. The resolution does not, to be clear, condemn the political views of the Tea Party. Rather, the resolution is in response to alleged racist behavior on part of certain individuals at tea party events. As evidence of such racism, people point to the comparisons made between Obama and monkeys, as well as the infamous Obama witch doctor and Joker images. Oddly enough, a segment on CNN presented as evidence of racism a Tea Party image comparing Obama to Hitler and Stalin.

The monkey comparison does seem to be racist, although George Bush was also compared unfavorably to monkeys. It does, however, seem reasonable enough to take such comparisons as potentially racist, given the long history of such comparisons in racist contexts.

The witch doctor comparison could also be seen as racist. After all, it does cash in on a racial stereotype. Of course, the notion of comparing someone to a witchdoctor does transcend race. However, it does seems reasonable to take this image as racist.

The Joker image does not seem racist. While some folks have made a point of it being Obama in “white face”, the point of the comparison is to cast Obama as some sort of crazy super villain.  The Joker, thanks to years of comics and the Batman movie, is an easily recognized symbol of evil. While this is hyperbole, claiming that it is racist is grasping at straws. The burden of proof in this case seems to rest on those who see racism in a comparison to a super villain.

In the case of the Stalin and Hitler comparisons, they seem to be devoid of racism. No racial stereotypes are being used, nor does the comparison seem to have anything to do with Obama being black. Rather, the folks who make the comparison are doing so based on what they see as Obama’s socialist policies. On the face of it, calling someone a socialist, communist or Nazi is not racism. It does seem to be hyperbole in this case, but hyperbole is hardly the same as racism.

Of course, the above does not show that there are not racists who attend the Tea Party events. People do appear at such events and do express racist views. However, it might be wondered whether the Tea Party leadership has an obligation or even the right to silence such people.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the Tea Party should take a moral stand against such views and that it has an obligation to police its events in regards to racist expressions.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the right to free expression entails that the Tea Party leadership does not have the right to silence such people at public events.

While people should not be racists or express racist views, people should also avoid restricting the free expression of others. In this specific case, the Tea Party should (as some of its leaders have done) condemn racism and expressions of racism. However, the Tea Party should not restrict freedom of expression at public events.

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Rhetorical Overkill

Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 28, 2010
Adolf Hitler, head-and-shoulders portrait, fac...

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As part of my critical thinking class, I teach a section on rhetoric. While my main concern is with teaching students how to defend against it, I also discuss how to use it. One of the points I make is that one risk with certain forms of rhetoric is what I call rhetorical overkill. This is  commonly done with hyperbole which is, by definition, an extravagant overstatement.

One obvious risk with hyperbole is that if it is too over the top, then it can be ineffective or even counterproductive. If a person is trying to use positive hyperbole, then going too far can create the impression that the person is claiming the absurd or even mocking the subject in question. For example, think of the over the top infomercials where the product is claimed to do  everything but cure cancer.  If the person is trying to use negative hyperbole, then going too far can undercut the attack by making it seem ridiculous. For example, calling a person a Nazi because he favors laws requiring people to use seat belts would seem rather absurd.

Another risk is that hyperbole can create an effect somewhat like crying wolf. In that tale, the boy cried “wolf” so often that no one believed him when the wolf actually came. In the case of rhetorical overkill, the problem is that it can create what might be dubbed “hyperbolic fatigue.” If matters are routinely blown out of proportion, this will tend to numb people to such terms. On a related note, if politicians and pundits routinely cry “Hitler” or “apocalypse” over lesser matters what words will they have left when the situation truly warrants such terms?

In some ways, this  is like swearing. While I am not a prude, I prefer to keep my swear words in reserve for situations that actually merit them. I’ve noticed that many people tend to use swear words in everyday conversations and I found this a bit confusing at first. After all, I have “hierarchy of escalation” when it comes to words, and swear words are at the top.  But, for many folks today, swear words are just part of everyday conversation (even in the classroom). So, when someone swears at me now, I pause to see if they are just talking normally or if they are actually trying to start trouble.

While I rarely swear, I do resent the fact that swear words have become so diluted and hence less useful to make a point quickly and directly. The same applies to extreme language-if we do not reserve it for extreme circumstances, then we diminish our language by robbing extreme words of their corresponding significance.

So, what the f@ck do you think?

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America, Iran & the Authoritarian Mind

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 30, 2009

Reading Maziar Bahari’s article about his ordeal in Iran reminded me very much of the novel 1984 and all the other descriptions of “interrogations” I have read. Thinking about this, I began to suspect that there is a core authoritarian mindset that remains the same across a wide variety of ideologies. In the case of Maziar Bahari’s horrible ordeal in Iran, he faced this mind in the form of Mr. Rosewater-his primary tormentor. While Mr. Rosewater is an individual, he is token of a type-that of the authoritarian mind.

The first, and most obvious, quality of this mind is that it is obedient to authority. While Milgram‘s famous experiment showed that most people seem to be naturally obedient, the authoritarian mind takes this obedience to a greater extreme. While the obedience does come in degrees, the truly authoritarian mind reaches a state of almost unquestioning obedience. This sort of obedience is, of course, critical to rulers everywhere-without such “dogs” (as per Animal Farm) they would lack an essential tool of their power. These “dogs” are the people who tortured Bahari, the people who ran the Nazi camps, and those folks who tortured in the name of defending freedom and democracy.

The second quality of this mind is a self-fulfilling paranoia. This sort of person sees any disagreement as the mark of an enemy, thus often forcing such people to become enemies in fact. Hobbes, of course, took this sort of view in the Leviathan when he noted that people see a failure to agree as the mark of disagreement and that people react with hostility to such things. Of course, the authoritarian mind takes this to a greater extreme than normal and tends to be willing to take violent action against those who disagree.

The third quality of this mind is a distrust and fear of the freedom of thought and expression. As such, these people tend to regard intellectuals and journalists as natural enemies. After all, people who think tend not to obey unquestionably and they often raise difficult moral concerns by failing to see the world as those in power wish it to be seen. Journalists, at least those not owned by the state, have a tendency to report unpleasant truths rather than the official “truths” of those in power.

Interestingly enough, both the hardliners in Iran and those in the United States have very similar views about the intellectuals and the media. In both countries, these folks blame the media for creating dissent, undermining the state, and encouraging immorality. The intellectuals and elites are also criticized and regarded as enemies. After all, these people are out of touch with “the people” and are not part of the true America/Iran.  Needless to say, it was interesting to learn that Mr. Rosewater’s view of the media is the same as that of Sarah Palin.

Of course, the dislike of the authoritarians for folks who think and talk is ancient. The sort of people who killed Socrates are the same sort of people who tortured Bahari.

The fourth quality is a flexible moral absolutism. In general, authoritarian folks believe that their cause or side is absolutely right. They also tend to hold to an absolute moral view of pure good and evil: the enemy is pure evil while they are pure good. This is often associate with a religion (for example, Islam in Iran and Christianity in the US).

What makes their absolutism flexible is that although they see the world in absolutes, they accept that they can do terrible things in service to their cause. For example, Mr. Rosewater worked very hard trying to paint Bahari as a morally evil man. Meanwhile, Mr. Rosewater was beating Bahari, subjecting him to mental torment and keeping him locked away for no legitimate reason. That is, Mr. Rosewater was evil and doing evil things. Likewise, in the United States people advocated using torture and imprisonment without trial and justified this by claiming that America is good and hence must be protected.

But, perhaps the authoritarians are not really flexible absolutists. Perhaps they just have two absolute principles: “my cause is right, so anything done its defense is also right” and “my enemies are wrong, so anything they do is wrong.” These two principles do seem to nicely capture the authoritarian mind.

A fifth quality of the authoritarian mind is a lack of concern about truth. In the case of Mr. Rosewater, his goal was not to find out the truth about reality (that Bahari was just a journalist and not a spy or agent). Rather, his goal was to impose a “truth” upon reality. For the authoritarian mind, “truth” is not something that one finds by objective investigation. The “truth” is provided by those above and it is “confirmed” by the use of force and torture. For example, if the authorities say that Bahari is a spy, then Mr. Rosewater would torture him to get him to say that he is a spy, thus “confirming” the “truth.” In contrast, real journalists and “intellectuals” investigate reality to see what the truth is-yet another reason why authoritarians hate intellectuals and journalists they do not control.

Authoritarians might also think that other people do what they do in this regard and this might also help explain this hostility. After all, if they think that the intellectuals and media people are trying to impose “truth” on the world, they would see these people as competitors to their “truth” and hence enemies. Perhaps the idea of objective truth is foreign to the authoritarian mind (as nicely illustrated in 1984).

Not surprisingly, authoritarians are terribly dangerous and help make small and great evils possible. Unfortunately, criticism of them generally tends to reinforce their paranoia as they see any criticism as an attack (especially if it is true). For example, criticism of Iran tends to simply make the hardliners take an ever harder line as they see more and more “evidence” that their paranoia is correct.

They also tend to be immune to reason and moral appeals-they are, after all, confident in their own moral goodness and regard reason as an attempt to create dissent.

So, then, how do we deal with such people? In some cases, they can be reached-after all, they are still human. For example, Bahari’s article reveals a great deal about Mr. Rosewater, such as the fact that he seems to truly love his wife. In some cases, these people cannot be reached and then it comes down to what they understand quite well-force.

Perhaps the best way to deal with this people is by increasing the numbers of people who are not them. While authoritarians are very dangerous because of their willingness to obey and do terrible things, they are obviously not superhuman. As such, their power can be countered by numbers of people who are willing to resist them and the evils that they defend.

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Nazi Health Care Plan?

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 21, 2009
Barney Frank

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As the health care debate continues, the hyperbole gets even worse. At a recent town hall meeting, a woman asked Barney Frank why he supports a “Nazi” health policy. Frank reacted in a fairly extreme way to this question and made an inquiry about what planet the women spends most of her time.

On one hand, Frank’s reaction was quite reasonable. After all, he is Jewish and to suggest to him that Obama’s health care plan is akin to what the Nazis did would certainly strike a nerve. Further, the comparison between what Obama has proposed and what the Nazis did is an absurd piece of hyperbole and fear mongering. As such, this sort of comparison is wrong in two primary ways. First, it serves to stoke the fires of unreasonable fear in people who apparently do not know any better. This is, of course, why it works-people are not sure what the plan truly involves and are worried. Ignorance plus fear creates an easy breeding grown for even greater fear. Second, such comparisons are demeaning to the people who suffered under and those who fought against Nazism. While there are grounds to criticize the health care plans, it is nothing like Nazism and to make that comparison is both logically flawed (it is a crappy analogy) and morally flawed.

The use of such scare tactics and hyperbole is, of course, rather effective. As noted above, people are worried about health care and it is very complex. As such, fear and ignorance are available as exploitable commodities and the various folks who are against health care are exploiting them as effectively as they can. Of course, this is harmful to America. Rather than discussing the real pluses and minuses of various plans, we are being sidetracked by these absurd sort of comparisons. My thought is that if Obama’s health care plan is truly flawed, then the opponents should be able to show that without resorting to absurd Nazi comparisons, scare tactics and what seem to be outright fabrications.

On the other hand, Frank should be aware that some people are genuinely worried that Obama’s health care plan will really be on par with some sort of Nazi plan. Thanks to irresponsible rumors, there are folks who really and sincerely believe that Obama’s plan includes euthanizing old folks.

While it might seem ridiculous that people need to be told that Obama has no plans to kill grandma and grandpa, the fear is there. As such, the Democrats need to (absurdly enough) address those fears. While the fears might be manufactured, they are now genuine fears and hence worthy of some attention.

It does bother me that there are people who are intentionally generating baseless claims that are wasting our time and distracting us from meaningful discussions of the issues. I have no objection against people being critical of Obama’s policies and, in fact, I encourage that (as Socrates argued, gadflies are good). What I am opposed to are these hateful rumors. Those folks who are against Obama’s plans should be presenting reasoned arguments against them and offering alternatives rather than creating and spreading hateful rumors. These rumors do not do America any good and, in fact, hurt us by creating needless fear and dragging the discourse into absurd realms.

For the folks on the right, my comments also apply to rumor mongers on the left as well. As a specific example, George Bush is no more a Nazi than Obama.

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