A Philosopher's Blog

Confederate Monuments

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2017
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The question “when was the last battle of the Civil War fought?” is a trick question; the last battle has yet to be fought. One minor skirmish took place recently in New Orleans as the city began its removal of Confederate monuments. Fortunately, this skirmish has yet to result in any injuries or deaths, although the removal of the first monument looked like a covert military operation. Using equipment with hidden company names, the removal crews wore masks and body armor while operating under both the cover of darkness and police sniper protection. These precautions were deemed necessary because of threats made against workers. In addition to being controversial, such removals are philosophically interesting.

One general argument in favor of keeping such Confederate monuments in place is the historical argument: the monuments express and are part of history and their removal is analogous to tearing pages from the history books. This argument does have considerable appeal, at least in cases in which the monuments mark an historical event and stick to the facts. However, monuments tend to be erected to bestow honors and this goes beyond mere noting of historical facts.

One example of such a monument is the Battle of Liberty Place Monument. It was erected in New Orleans in 1891 to honor the 1874 battle between the Crescent City White League and the racially integrated New Orleans Metropolitan police and state militia. The monument was modified by the city in 1932 with a plaque expressing support for white supremacy. The monument was modified again in 1993 when a new plaque was placed over the 1932 plaque, commemorating all those who died in the battle.

From a moral perspective, the problem with this sort of monument is that it does not merely present a neutral historical marker, but endorses white supremacy and praises racism. As such, to keep the memorial in place is to state that the city currently at least tolerates white supremacy and racism. If these values are still endorsed by the city, then the monument should remain as an honest expression of these immoral values. That way people will know what to expect in the city.

However, if the values are no longer endorsed by the city, then it would seem that the monument should be removed.  This would express the current views of the people of the city. It could be objected that such removal would be on par with purging historical records. Obviously, the records of the event should not be purged. It is, after all, a duty of history to record what has been and this can be done without praising (or condemning) what has occurred. In contrast, to erect and preserve an honoring monument is to take a stance on the matter—to praise or condemn it.

It could be argued that the 1993 change to the monument “redeems” it from its white supremacist and racist origins and, as such, it should be left in place. This does have some appeal, part of which is that the monument expresses the history of the (allegedly) changed values. To use an analogy, a building that once served an evil purpose can be refurbished and redeemed to serve a good purpose. This, it could be argued, sends a more powerful statement than simply razing the building.

However, the fact remains that the monument was originally created to honor white supremacy and the recent modification seems to be an effort to conceal this fact. As such, the right thing to do would seem to be to remove the monument. Since the monument does have historical significance, it would be reasonable to preserve it as such—historical artifacts can be kept without endorsing any values associated with the artifact. For example, keeping artifacts that belonged to Stalin as historically significant items is not to endorse Stalinism. Keeping a monument in a place of honor, however, does imply endorsement.

The matter can become more complicated in cases involving statues of individuals. In New Orleans, there are statues of General Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General P.G.T. Beauregard. It cannot be denied that these were exceptional men who shaped the history of the United States. It also cannot be denied they possessed personal virtues. Lee, in particular, was by all accounts a man of considerable virtue. P.G.T. Beauregard went on to advocate for civil rights and voting rights for blacks (though some might say this was due to mere political expediency).

Given their historical importance and the roles they played, it can be argued that they were worthy of statues and that these statues should remain to honor them. The easy and obvious counter is that they engaged in treason against the United States and backed the wicked practice of slavery. As such, whatever personal virtues they might have possessed, they should not be honored for their role in the Confederacy. Statues that honor people who were Confederates but who did laudable things after the Civil War should, of course, be evaluated based on the merits of those individuals. But to honor the Confederacy and its support of slavery would be a moral error.

It could also be argued that even though the true cause of the Confederacy (the right of states to allow people to own other people as slaves) is wicked, people like Lee and Beauregard earned their statues and their honor. As such, it would be unjust to remove the statues because of the political sensibilities of today. After all, as it should be pointed out, there are statues that honor the slave owners Washington and Jefferson for their honorable deeds within the context of the dishonor of slavery. If the principle of removing monuments that honored those who supported a rebellion aimed at creating an independent slave-owning nation was strictly followed, then there would need to be a rather extensive purge of American monuments. If honoring supporters of slavery and slave owners is acceptable, then perhaps the removal of the statues of the heroes of the Confederacy could be justified on the grounds of their rebellion against the United States. This would allow for a principled distinction to be made: statues of slavery supporters and slave owners can be acceptable, as long as they were not rebels against the United States. Alternative, the principle could be that statues of victorious rebel slavery supporters are acceptable, but those of losing rebel slavery supporters are not. Winning, it could be said, makes all the difference.

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Trump’s Enquiring Rhetoric

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on May 4, 2016

As this is being written, Donald Trump is the last surviving Republican presidential candidate. His final opponents, Cruz and Kasich, suspended their campaigns, though perhaps visions of a contested convention still haunt their dreams.

Cruz left the field of battle with a bizarre Trump arrow lodged in his buttocks: Trump had attacked Cruz by alleging that Ted Cruz’ father was associated with Lee Harvey Oswald. The basis for this claim was an article in the National Enquirer, a tabloid that has claimed Justice Scalia was assassinated by a hooker working for the CIA. While this tabloid has no credibility, the fact that Trump used it as a source necessitated an investigation into the claim about Cruz’ father. As should be expected, Politifact ranked it as Pants on Fire. I almost suspect that Trump is trolling the media and laughing about how he has forced them to seriously consider and thoroughly investigate claims that are utterly lacking in evidence (such as his claims about televised celebrations in America after the 9/11 attacks).

When confronted about his claim about an Oswald-Cruz connection, Trump followed his winning strategy: he refused to apologize and engaged in some Trump-Fu as his “defense.” When interviewed on ABC, his defense was as follows:  “What I was doing was referring to a picture reported and in a magazine, and I think they didn’t deny it. I don’t think anybody denied it. No, I don’t know what it was exactly, but it was a major story and a major publication, and it was picked up by many other publications. …I’m just referring to an article that appeared. I mean, it has nothing to do with me.”

This response begins with what appears to be a fallacy: he is asserting that if a claim is not denied, then it is therefore true (I am guessing the “they” is either the Cruz folks or the National Enquirer folks. This can be seen as a variation on the classic appeal to ignorance fallacy. In this fallacy, a person infers that if there is a lack of evidence against a claim, then the claim is true. However, proving a claim requires that there be adequate evidence for the claim, not just a lack of evidence against it. There is no evidence that I do not have a magical undetectable pet dragon that only I can sense. This, however, does not prove that I have such a pet.

While a failure to deny a claim might be regarded as suspicious, not denying a claim is not proof the claim is true. It might not even be known that a claim has been made (so it would not be denied). For example, Kanye West is not denying that he plans to become master of the Pan flute—but this is not proof he intends to do this. It can also be a good idea to not lend a claim psychological credence by denial—some people think that denial of a claim is evidence it is true. Naturally, Cruz did end up denying the claim.

Trump next appears to be asserting the claim is true because it was “major” and repeated. He failed to note the “major” publication is a tabloid that is lacking in credibility. As such, Trump could be seen as engaging in a fallacious appeal to authority. In this case, the National Enquirer lacks the credibility needed to serve as the basis for a non-fallacious argument from authority. Roughly put, a good argument from authority is such that the credibility of the authority provides good grounds for accepting a claim. Trump did not have a good argument from authority.

Trump also uses a fascinating technique of “own and deny.” He does this by launching an attack and then both “owning” and denying it. It is as if he punched Cruz in the face and then said, “it wasn’t me, someone else did the punching. But I will punch Cruz again. Although it wasn’t me.” I am not sure if this is a rhetorical technique or a pathological condition. However, it does allow him the best of both worlds: he can appear tough and authentic by “owning it” yet also appear to not be responsible for the attack. This seems to be quite appealing to his followers, although it is obviously logically problematic: one must either own or deny, both cannot be true.

He also makes use of an established technique:  he gets media attention drawn to a story and then uses this attention to “prove” the story is true (because it is “major” and repeated). While effective, this technique does not prove a claim is true.

Trump was also interviewed on NBC and asked why he attacked Cruz in the face of almost certain victory in Indiana.  In response, he said, “Well, because I didn’t know I had it in the grasp. …I had no idea early in the morning that was — the voting booths just starting — the voting booths were practically not even opened when I made this call. It was a call to a show. And they ran a clip of some terrible remarks made by the father about me. And all I did is refer him to these articles that appeared about his picture. And — you know, not such a bad thing.”

This does provide something of a defense for Trump. As he rightly says, he did not know he would win and he hoped that his attack would help his chances. While the fact that a practice is common does not justify it (this would be the common practice fallacy), Trump seems to be playing within the rules of negative campaigning. That said, the use of the National Enquirer as a source is a new twist as is linking an opponent to the JFK assassination. This is not to say that Trump is acting in a morally laudable manner, just that he is operating within the rules of the game. To use an analogy, while the brutal hits of football might be regarded as morally problematic, they are within the rules of the game. Likewise, such attacks are within the rules of politics.

However, Trump goes on to commit the “two wrongs make a right” fallacy: since bad things were said about Trump, he concludes that he has the right to strike back. While Trump has every right to respond to attacks, he does not have a right to respond with a completely fabricated accusation.

Trump then moves to downplaying what he did and engages in one of his signature moves: he is not really to blame (he just pointed out the articles). So, his defense is essentially “I am just punching the guy back. But, I really didn’t punch him. I just pointed out that someone else punched him. And that punching was not a bad thing.”


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Katrina’s Money Trail

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 9, 2010
A U.S. Coast Guard aircrewman searches for sur...
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For some folks on the right, it is a matter of faith that the poor are draining America’s wealth via various entitlement programs and federal support. For some folks on the left, it is a matter of faith that the corporations and wealthy siphon off vast sums of taxpayer money.

While a person’s political view tends to serve as a tinted lens in such matters, where the money goes is a matter of fact. While it can be rather challenging to determine where it goes, it is often possible to discern just where it is ending up (or not ending up-such as the billions of dollars unaccounted for in Iraq).

As a specific example, consider the situation in Louisiana. After Katrina took down New Orleans, the federal government provided billions of dollars to the region. But, one might wonder, who received the money? Of the $5.9 billion in bonds in Louisiana, New Orleans received less that 1%.  $2 billion went to support oil production projects, such as $1 billion to expand a refinery.  Meanwhile, parts of New Orleans are still uninhabitable.

It might be argued that money given to the oil industry is money well spent. After all, the oil industry generates jobs in the region as well as significant profits for the oil companies.

While I do agree that creating jobs is a good idea, it might be wondered why the state would need to provide two billion to the oil industry. After all, oil companies seem to operate with rather tidy profits and hence seem to be far less in need of tax payer support than people who lost everything to Katrina. It would seem to be both more sensible and ethical to aid those who are most in need of help first. Once these people are given the support needed to rebuild their lives, then perhaps the well off corporations can be given the leftover money.

Given the changing climate conditions and our general lack of proper defensive preparations against natural disasters, it seems reasonable to expect that new disasters are just around the corner. Given the way Katrina was handled, it seems reasonable to expect the same pattern to repeat itself again. That is, most of the money that is supposed to aid those in need will instead end up going to companies.

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Obama’s Katrina?

Posted in Environment, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 27, 2010
A beach after an oil spill.
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Interestingly enough, when Obama seems to be doing something wrong the pundits and others say that it is Obama’s X (where X is something bad that happened under the Bush administration). At this time the oil leak is being considered as a candidate for Obama’s Katrina. Katrina, as you will recall, was a paradigm of government inefficiency and poor crisis management. So, the obvious issue here is whether or not it is fair to compare the situations.

On one hand, the comparison seems apt. First,  mismanagement played a role in setting up both disasters. In both cases politicians had a hand in this. Second, both cases involved a delayed response on the part of the government. Third, the responses made in both cases tended to be inadequate.

On the other hand, the comparison does break down in some important ways. First, Katrina was clearly within the responsibility of the government. In the case of the oil spill, the initial responsibility was on BP and BP claimed it could handle the situation. Perhaps the administration should have assumed that BP was mistaken (or perhaps even being deceptive), but this is clearly an important difference. In the case of Katrina, there was no corporation that caused the storm-it was a straight forward natural disaster of the sort that the government is supposed to handle. The BP situation is a corporate disaster of the sort that the corporation should have been equipped to handle, which leads to the third point. Third, the government does not have the equipment that is needed to contain and repair such oil spills. This is because the government is not an oil company. BP is, which is why it makes sense that BP should have been able to handle the situation. True, the Coast Guard does have some very limited ability to deal with spills. However, this is what the Coast Guard has been doing.

However, the government has failed in two important ways. The first was in allowing BP to operate the well without having the means to effectively deal with such an accident. The second is the failure of the federal government to step in and do everything that it could do to address the situation. For example, the federal government should have started organizing the onshore cleanup (using BP’s money, of course) so that people would be trained, equipped and in place as soon as the oil hit the shores. As a second example, a comprehensive plan is needed to address the economic and environmental disaster that will arise from this situation. Plans and contingency plans should have been in place weeks ago.

There are some interesting ironies about this situation. One is that just as Obama was giving in to “drill, baby, drill” this disaster occurred. The second is that the pundits who have been slamming Obama for his alleged desire to expand government power and regulation are now slamming him for not getting “big government” involved right away and on a massive scale.

My considered view is that the situation is not yet Obama’s Katrina. As noted above, one important distinction is the cause of the disaster. Another is that while the government could have made a huge difference in New Orleans, the same is not true in this case. After all, the government does not have the equipment to do well repair at the bottom of the ocean. That is, obviously enough, something that BP should have been able to do.

That said, the situation is still developing. It does have the potential to be his Katrina or perhaps even worse.

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Top Reasons to Love the Oil Spill

Posted in Environment, Humor by Michael LaBossiere on May 10, 2010
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  1. When you drive to the beach, you can fill up your tank right at the shore.
  2. You can stop feeling guilty about the time you dumped that used motor oil out behind your house.
  3. No need to bring sun tan oil  to the beach-go for a swim and you’ll be coated.
  4. When the gas prices are jacked up again, at least you’ll know why.
  5. It takes up news time that would otherwise be devoted to water skiing squirrels and Frisbee catching dogs.
  6. It put an end to people chanting “drill, baby, drill’…but “spill, baby, spill” is almost as annoying.
  7. It probably killed the giant sea monster that was on its way to attack New Orleans.
  8. It will create a lot of new jobs-get those applications in for Bird Scrubber, Beach Cleaner and Clam Therapist.
  9. At least it is not radioactive.
  10. Self cooking seafood-touch a match to it, put it out and you’re ready to eat!
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