A Philosopher's Blog

Protests & Riots

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2016

While Trump’s election has been greeted by some with joy, others have responded by protesting. In Portland, Oregon a protest took a destructive turn and was classified as a riot by the police. This resulted in property damage, the use of less-than-lethal force by the police and arrests. Protests and riots are certainly philosophically interesting and I will begin by considering some basic definitions.

Put simply, a protest is an expression of disapproval. A political protest, of the sort that have been occurring, are obviously aimed at expression an objection to some political matter, in this case the election of Donald Trump. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right of the people to peaceful assembly, although this is not an absolute right. Almost by definition, peaceful assembly seems morally acceptable. As with other rights, there are certainly cases in which peaceful assembly can be justly restricted, but this would need to be warranted because the assembly would result in meaningful and unwarranted harms. For example, if people wanted to assemble on the runways of the Atlanta airport to protest the low wages for fast food workers, then it would be reasonable to prevent that. The protest does not require the use of a runway to make its point and it would create both danger and considerable inconvenience to travelers and cargo shipments. As might be imagined, whether a particular peaceful protest should be allowed can be a matter of great debate, but that is an issue for another time.

While a riot can be a protest, not all protests are riots and not all riots are protests. For example, the 1992 riot that did $10 million in damage arose from a game between the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers does not seem to qualify as a protest.  A riot is characterized by violent civil disorder involving a group. While the violence is most commonly directed against property, it can involve violence against people. Since attacks on people or property are both generally illegal, riots are generally regarded as criminal by their very nature.

For a protest to be a riot (and vice versa), there must be a group of people engaging in a violent civil disorder with the intent of expressing their disapproval. Since riots are generally illegal, a protest riot would probably also be illegal. However, there is an important distinction between law and morality, so a riot that is illegal could be morally justified.

In general terms, a riot could be morally justified in various ways. One obvious justification would be that the riot was in response to a terrible wrong that warrants such violence. For example, Americans often like to point to certain riots that took place in the run up to our revolutionary war as morally warranted because of British tyranny. The violence of such riots would presumably be directed at those who deserve such violence. As such, wrongs that do not warrant a violent response and violence against those not responsible would be unwarranted.

To use an analogy, if Sally did a terrible wrong to Jane and Jane could get no redress any other way, then she could be morally justified in using violence against Sally or her property. But, if Jane went after Bob, who has no connection to Sally, then this would be unjustified. Assuming those engaged in the “riot” in Portland were protesting (and not just opportunists) against Trump, their attacks on property in Portland would obviously be wrong. For example, wrecking cars in a Portland dealership does not strike a blow against Trump—even if Trump did something warranting a riot against him.

It could be argued that since so many voted for Trump, there is a chance that a Trump supporter will be impacted by a riot, thus “paying them back” for their misdeed. The easy and obvious reply is that this sort of riot roulette is morally unacceptable because it is more likely to harm someone who did not support Trump than someone who did. There is also the fact that it is morally unacceptable to regard voting for Trump as grounds for being the target of violence.

Another approach is to justify a riot on utilitarian grounds—if the riot results in more good than harm (and more good than not rioting), then it would be morally acceptable. Once again, Americans often regard their revolutionary riots as falling into this category.

While some people, assuming they are actually protesting Trump, might feel better venting their rage in a riot, it seems unlikely that this “good” will outweigh the harm done to those whose property they destroy or damage. Even if it assumed that Trump is evil and will be doing more evil as president, breaking other peoples’ stuff is not going to counter that evil. It could, of course, be countered that the destruction will show Trump that people are very serious and this will influence him. This, however, seems rather unlikely. One feature of utilitarian justifications is that the action must have actual results; ineffectual expressions of protest do not count in the calculation.

It might be countered that the destruction is morally acceptable because the (alleged) protestors are striking out against an unjust social order that enabled Trump to become president. The obvious reply is that while this might have some abstract appeal, the real damage is being done to the innocent rather than the guilty. Thus, such violence and destruction seem to be immoral.

The protests against Trump might decline as people work out their disappointment and anger; but they might surge again when Trump takes office and starts doing presidential things. One analogy worth considering is the Tea Party that was spawned in response to Obama. Trump might inspire a similar response by dedicated opponents on the left. If so, protests against President Trump could be routine and there will be something of a role reversal among the people, pundits, politicians and news media. For example, while Fox News was typically favorably inclined towards the Tea Party and almost all attacks on Obama, one would expect them to take a rather different approach to analogous behavior by Trump’s opponents.

 

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Occupying & Protesting

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 8, 2016

Ammon Bundy and fellow “militia” members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as a protest of federal land use policies. Ammon Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy—the rancher who was involved in another armed stand-off with the federal government. Cliven Bundy still owes the American taxpayers over $1 million for grazing his cattle on public land—the sort of sponging off the public that would normally enrage conservatives. While that itself is an interesting issue, my focus will be on discussing the ethics of protest through non-violent armed occupation.

Before getting to the main issue, I will anticipate some concerns about the discussion. First, I will not be addressing the merits of the Bundy protest. Bundy purports to be protesting against the tyranny of the federal government in regards to its land-use policies. Some critics have pointed out that Bundy has benefitted from the federal government, something that seems a bit reminiscent of the infamous cry of “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” While the merit of a specific protest is certainly relevant to the moral status of the protest, my focus is on the general subject of occupation as a means of protest.

Second, I will not be addressing the criticism that if the federal land had been non-violently seized by Muslims protesting Donald Trump or Black Lives Matter activists protesting police treatment of blacks, then the response would have been very different. While the subject of race and protest is important, it is not my focus here. I now turn to the matter of protesting via non-violent armed occupation.

The use of illegal occupation is well established as a means of protest in the United States and was used during the civil rights movement. But, of course, an appeal to tradition is a fallacy—the mere fact that something is well-established does not entail that it is justified. As such, an argument is needed to morally justify occupation as a means of protest.

One argument for occupation as a means of protest is that protestors do not give up their rights simply because they are engaged in a protest. Assuming that they wish to engage in their protest where they would normally have the right to be, then it would seem to follow that they should be allowed to protest there.

One obvious reply to this argument is that people do not automatically have the right to engage in protest in all places they have a right to visit. For example, a public library is open to the public, but it does not follow that people thus have a right to occupy a public library and interfere with its operation. This is because the act of protest would violate the rights of others in a way that would seem to warrant not allowing the protest.

People also protest in areas that are not normally open to the public—or whose use by the public is restricted. This would include privately owned areas as well as public areas that have restrictions. In the case of the Bundy protest, public facilities are being occupied rather than private facilities. However, Bundy and his fellows are certainly using the area in a way that would normally not be allowed—people cannot, in the normal course of things, just take up residence in public buildings. This can also be regarded as a conflict of rights—the right of protest versus the right of private ownership or public use.

These replies can, of course, be overcome by showing that the protest does more good than harm or by showing that the right to protest outweighs the rights of others to use the area that is occupied.  After all, to forbid protests simply because they might inconvenience or annoy people would be absurd. However, to accept protests regardless of the imposition on others would also be absurd. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in such behavior would be acting wrongly and the protest would thus be morally wrong. After all, if rights are accepted to justify a right to protest, then this would provide a clear foundation for accepting the rights of those who would be imposed upon by the protest. If the protestor who is protesting tyranny becomes a tyrant to others, then the protest certainly loses its moral foundation.

This provides the theoretical framework for assessing whether the Bundy protest is morally acceptable or not: it is a matter of weighing the merit of the protest against the harm done to the rights of other citizens (especially those in the surrounding community).

The above assumes a non-violent occupation of the sort that can be classified as classic civil disobedience of the sort discussed by Thoreau. That is, non-violently breaking the rules (or law) in an act of disobedience intended to bring about change. This approach was also adopted by Gandhi and Dr. King. Bundy has added a new factor—while the occupation has (as of this writing) been peaceful, the “militia” on the site is well armed. It has been claimed that the weapons are for self-defense, which indicates that the “militia” is willing to escalate from non-violent (albeit armed) to violent occupation in response to the alleged tyranny of the federal government. This leads to the matter of the ethics of armed resistance as a means of protest.

Modern political philosophy does provide a justification of such resistance. John Locke, for example, emphasized the moral responsibilities of the state in regards to the good of the people. That is, he does not simply advocate obedience to whatever the laws happen to be, but requires that the laws and the leaders prove worthy of obedience. Laws or leaders that are tyrannical are not to be obeyed, but are to be defied and justly so. He provides the following definition of “tyranny”: “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” When the state is acting in a tyrannical manner, it can be justly resisted—at least on Locke’s view. As such, Bundy does have a clear theoretical justification for armed resistance. However, for this justification to be actual, it would need to be shown that federal land use policies are tyrannical to a degree that warrants the use of violence as a means of resistance.

Consistency does, of course, require that the framework be applied to all relevantly similar cases of protests—be they non-violent occupations or armed resistance.

 

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Who is Responsible for a Living Income?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2015

There is, obviously enough, a minimum amount of income that a person or family needs in order to survive—that is, to pay for necessities such as food, shelter, clothing and health care. In order to address this need, the United States created a minimum wage. However, this wage has not kept up with the cost of living and many Americans simply do not earn enough to support themselves. These people are known, appropriately enough, as the working poor. This situation raises an obvious moral and practical question: who should bear the cost of making up the difference between the minimum wage and a living wage? The two main options seem to be the employers or the taxpayers. That is, either employers can pay employees enough to live on or the taxpayers will need to pick up the tab. Another alternative is to simply not make up the difference and allow people to try to survive in truly desperate poverty. In regards to who currently makes up the difference, at least in Oregon, the answer is given in the University of Oregon’s report on “The High Cost of Low Wages in Oregon.”

According to the report, roughly a quarter of the workers in Oregon make no more than $12 per hour. Because of this low income, many of the workers qualify for public assistance, such as SNAP (better known as food stamps). Not surprisingly, many of these low-paid workers are employed by large, highly profitable corporations.

According to Raahi Reddy, a faculty member at the University of Oregon, “Basically state and taxpayers are we helping these families subsidize their incomes because they get low wages working for the companies that they do.” As such, the answer is that the taxpayers are making up the difference between wages and living wages. Interestingly, Oregon is a leader in two categories: one is the percentage of workers on public support and the other is having among the lowest corporate tax rates. This certainly suggests that the burden falls heavily on the workers who are not on public support (both in and outside of Oregon).

The authors of the report have recommended shifting some of the burden from the taxpayers to the employers in the form of an increased minimum wage and paid sick leave for workers. Not surprisingly, increasing worker compensation is generally not popular with corporations. After all, more for the workers means less for the CEO and the shareholders.

Assuming that workers should receive enough resources to survive, the moral concern is whether or not this cost should be shifted from the taxpayers to the employers or remain on the taxpayers.

One argument in favor of leaving the burden on the taxpayers is that it is not the moral responsibility of the corporations to pay a living wage. Their moral obligation is not to the workers but to the shareholders and this obligation is to maximize profits (presumably within the limits of the law).

One possible response to this is that businesses are part of civil society and this includes moral obligations to all members of that society and not just the shareholders. These obligations, it could be contended, include providing at least a living wage to full time employees. It, one might argue, be more just that the employer pay a living wage to the workers from the profits the worker generates than it is to expect the taxpayer to make up the difference. After all, the taxpayers are not profiting from the labor of the workers, so they would be subsidizing the profits of the employers by allowing them to pay workers less. Forcing the tax payers to make up the difference certainly seems to be unjust and appears to be robbing the citizens to fatten the coffers of the companies.

It could be countered that requiring a living wage could destroy a company, thus putting the workers into a worse situation—that is, being unemployed rather than merely underpaid. This is a legitimate concern—at least for businesses that would, in fact, be unable to survive if they paid a living wage. However, this argument would obviously not work for business, such as Walmart, that have extremely robust profit margins. It might be claimed that there must be one standard for all businesses, be they a tiny bookstore that is barely staying afloat or a megacorporation that hands out millions in bonuses to the management. The obvious reply is that there are already a multitude of standards that apply to different businesses based on the differences between them—and some of these are even reasonable and morally acceptable.

Another line of argumentation is to attempt to show that there is, in fact, no obligation at all to ensure that citizens have a living income. In this case, the employers would obviously have no obligation. The taxpayers would also not have any obligation, but they could elect lawmakers to pass laws authorizing that tax dollars be spent supporting the poor. That is, the tax payers could chose to provide charity to the poor. This is not obligatory, but merely a nice thing to do. Some business could, of course, also choose to be nice—they could pay all their full time workers at least a living wage. But this should, one might argue, be entirely a matter of choice.

Some folks would, of course, want to take this even further—if assisting other citizens to have a living income is a matter of choice and not an obligation arising from being part of a civil society (or a more basic moral foundation), then tax dollars should not be used to assist those who make less than a living wage. Rather, this should be a matter of voluntary charity—everyone should be free to decide where their money goes. Naturally, consistency would seem to require that this principle of free choice be extended beyond just assisting the poor.  After all, free choice would seem to entail that people should decide as individuals whether to contribute to the salaries of members of the legislatures, to the cost of wars, to subsidies to corporations, to the CDC, to the CIA, to the FBI and so on. This does, obviously enough, have some appeal—the state would operate like a collection of charity recipients, getting whatever money people wished to contribute. The only major downside is that it would probably result in the collapse of civil society.

 

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Yet Another Sex Scandal

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 28, 2011
David Wu

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While our attention should be on the debt ceiling and other such national matters, another sex scandal has occurred. This one involves David Wu of Oregon, a Democrat. While Wu apparently was not Tweeting junk shots, he is alleged to have had an “unwanted sexual encounter” with a young woman.  Wu is currently separated from his wife and apparently has various other personal issues he is dealing with.

Wu has decided to resign, but has stated that he will remain until the debt ceiling matter is settled. Given the way things have progressed with this matter, he might be there quite some time. The Democrats do, of course, have an excellent reason to let Wu remain for the duration. After all, he is a Democrat and they need all the votes they can get. Of course,Wu is from a district that is solidly Democrat in its voting and hence it seems likely that his replacement will be a Democrat. However, having Wu out of office while a replacement is being selected could put the Democrats at a disadvantage.

While it might seem that politicians are more prone to such poor behavior, it is probably the case that the engage in such misdeeds at roughly the rate of the general population. After all, the majority of politicians (like the majority if non-politicians) do not engage in such behavior (or, perhaps, simply do it well enough to avoid being caught). Politicians, however, differ from the general population in (at least) two main ways.

First, the news media is generally far more interested in the doings of politicians than the misconduct other folks (with the obvious exception of celebrities and those few who catch the lens of the media). Because politicians who behave badly end up garnering extensive media attention, it tends to create the impression that such behavior is common (this can be taken as the Spotlight Fallacy or the fallacy of Misleading Vividness).

Second, politicians tend to have personality traits that lead them to exacerbate such situations. For example, politicians tend to think that they are exempt from the usual rules. While normal folks often think this as well, it seems to be more extreme in the case of politicians.  This often leads politicians to fail to recognize that they are acting badly and thus can not only lead them to act badly but also to continue to do so past the point when a normal person would realize that the game is up. As another example, politicians seem to be even more deceptive than non-politicians and this leads them to drag out the denial (such as was famously the case with Weiner). This factor, combined with the first factor, ensures that the sexual misdeeds of politicians will garner a great deal of attention.

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