A Philosopher's Blog

Shoot or Don’t Shoot?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2015

The police shooting of unarmed black Americans has raised the question of why such shootings occurred. While some have rushed to claim that it is a blend of racism and brutality, the matter deserves careful consideration.

While there are various explanations, the most plausible involves a blend of factors. The first, which does have a connection to racism, is the existence of implicit bias. Studies involving simulators have found that officers are more likely to use force against a black suspect than a white suspect. This has generally been explained in terms of officers having a negative bias in regards to blacks. What is rather interesting is that these studies show that even black and Hispanic officers are more likely to use force against black suspects. Also interesting is that studies have shown that civilians are more likely than officers to use force in the simulators and also show more bias in regards to race.

One reason why an implicit bias can lead to a use of force is that it impacts how a person perceives another’s actions and the perception of objects. When a person knows she is in a potentially dangerous situation, she is hyper vigilant for threats and is anticipating the possibility of attack. As such, a person’s movements and any object he is wielding will be seen through that “threat filter.”  So, for example, a person reaching rapidly to grab his wallet can easily be seen as grabbing for a weapon. Perceptual errors, of course, occur quite often—think of how people who are afraid of snakes often see every vine or stick as a snake when walking in the woods. These perceptual errors also help explain shootings—a person can honestly think they saw the suspect reaching for a weapon.

Since the main difference between the officers and the civilians is most likely the training police receive, it seems reasonable to conclude that the training is having a positive effect. However, the existence of a race disparity in the use of force does show that there is still a problem to address. One point of concern is that the bias might be so embedded in American culture that training will not eliminate it. That is, as long as there is racial bias in the society, it will also infect the police. As such, eliminating the bias in police would require eliminating it in society as a whole—which goes far beyond policing.

A second often mentioned factor is what some call the “warrior culture.” Visually, this is exemplified by the use of military equipment, such as armored personal carriers, by the police. However, the warrior culture is not primarily a matter of equipment, but of attitude. While police training does include conflict resolution skill training, there is a significant evidence on combat skills, especially firearms. On the one hand, this makes sense—people who are going to be using weapons need to be properly trained in their use. On the other hand, there are grounds for being concerned with the fact that there is more focus on combat training relative to the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Since I have seen absurd and useless “training” in conflict resolution, I do get that there would be concerns about such training. I also understand that conflict resolution is often cast in terms of “holding hands and drinking chamomile tea together” and hence is not always appealing to people who are interested in police work. However, it does seem to be a critical skill. After all, in a crisis people fall back on habit and training—and if people are trained primarily for combat, they will fall back on that. Naturally, there is the worry that too much emphasis on conflict resolution could put officers in danger—so that they keep talking well past the point at which they should have started shooting. However, this is a practical matter of training that can be addressed. A critical part of conflict resolution training is also what Aristotle would regard as moral education: developing the character to know when and how to act correctly. As Aristotle said, it is easy to be angry but it is hard to be angry at the right time for the right reasons, towards the right people and to the right degree. As Aristotle also said, this is very hard and most people are rather bad at this sort of thing, including conflict resolution. This does present a challenge even for a well-trained officer—the person she is dealing with is probably horrible at conflict-resolution. One possible solution is training for citizens—not in terms of just rolling over for the police, but in interacting with the police (and each other). Expecting the full burden of conflict resolution to fall upon the police certainly seems unfair and also not a successful strategy.

The final factor I will consider is the principle of the primacy of officer survival. One of the primary goals of police training and practice is officer survival. It would, obviously, be absurd to claim that police should not be trained in survival or that police practices should not put an emphasis on the survival of officers.  However, there are legitimate concerns about ways of training officers, the practice of law enforcement and the attitude that training and practice create.

Part of the problem, as some see it, links to the warrior mentality. The police, it is claimed, are trained to regard their job as incredibly dangerous and policing as a form of combat mission. This, obviously enough, shapes the reaction of officers to situations they encounter, which ties into the matter of perceptual bias. If a person believes that she is going out into a combat zone, she will perceive people and actions through this “combat zone filter.” As such, people will be regarded as more threatening, actions will be more likely to be interpreted as hostile and objects will be more likely to be seen as weapons. As such, it certainly makes sense that approaching officer survival by regarding police work as a combat mission would result in more civilian causalities than would different approaches.

Naturally, it can be argued that officers do not, in general, have this sort of “combat zone” attitude and that academics are presenting the emphasis on survival in the wrong sort of light. It can also be argued that the “combat zone” attitude is real, but is also correct—people do, in fact, target police officers for attack and almost any situation could turn into a battle for survival.  As such, it would be morally irresponsible to not train officers for survival, to instill in them a proper sense of fear, and to engage in practices that focus primarily on officers making it home at the end of the shift—even if this approach results in more civilian deaths, including the deaths of unarmed civilians.

This leads to a rather important moral concern, namely the degree of risk a person is obligated to take in order to minimize the harm to another person. This matter is not just connected to the issue of the use of force by police, but also the broader issue of self-defense.

I do assume that there is a moral right to self-defense and that police officers do not lose this right when acting in their professional capacity. That is, a person has a right to harm another person when legitimately defending her life, liberty or property against an unwarranted attack. Even if such a right is accepted, there is still the question of the degree of force a person is justified in using and to what extent a person should limit her response in order to minimize harm to the attacker.

In terms of the degree of force, the easy and obvious answer is that the force should be proportional to the threat but should also suffice to end the threat. For example, when I was a boy I faced the usual attacks of other boys. Since these attacks just involved fists and grappling, a proportional response was to hit back hard enough to make the other boy stop. Grabbing a rock, a bat or pulling a knife would be disproportional. As another example, if someone is shooting at a police officer, then she would certainly be in the right to use her firearm since that would be a proportional response.

One practical and moral concern about the proportional response is that the attacker might escalate. For example, if Bob swings on Mary and she lands a solid punch to his face, he might pull out a knife and stab her. If Mary had simply shot Bob, she would have not been stabbed because Bob would be badly wounded or dead. As such, some would argue, the response to an attack should be disproportional. In terms of the moral justification, this would rest on the fact that the attacker is engaged in an unjust action and the person attacked has reason to think, as Locke argued, that the person might intend to kill her.

Another practical and moral concern is that if the victim “plays fair” by responding in a proportional manner, she risks losing the encounter. For example, if Bob swings on Sally and Sally sticks with her fists, Bob might be able to beat her. Since dealing with an attacker is not a sporting event, the idea of “fair play” seems absurd—hence the victim has the moral right to respond in a disproportional manner.

However, there is also the counter-concern that a disproportional response would be excessive in the sense of being unnecessary. For example, if Bob swings at Sally and Sally shoots him four times with a twelve gauge, Sally is now safe—but if Sally could have used a Taser to stop Bob, then the use of the shotgun would seem to be wrong—after all, she did not need to kill Bob in order to save herself. As such, it would seem reasonable to hold to the moral principle that the force should be sufficient for defense, but not excessive.

The obvious practical challenge is judging what would be sufficient and what would be excessive. Laws that address self-defense issues usually leave this very vague: a person can use deadly force when facing a “reasonable perceived threat.” That is, the person must have a reasonable belief that there is a threat—there is usually no requirement that the threat be real. To use the stock example, if a man points a realistic looking toy gun at an officer and says he is going to kill her, the officer would have a reasonable belief that there is a threat. Of course, there are problems with threat assessment—as noted above, implicit bias, warrior mentality and survival focus can cause a person to greatly overestimate a threat (or see one where it does not exist).

The challenge of judging sufficient force in response to a perceived threat is directly connected with the moral concern about the degree of risk a person is obligated to face in order to avoid (excessively) harming another person.  After all, a person could “best” ensure her safety by responding to every perceived threat with maximum lethal force. If she responds with less force or delays her response, then she is at ever increasing risk. If she accepts too little risk, she would be acting wrongly towards the person threatening her. If she accepts too much risk, she would be acting wrongly towards herself and anyone she is protecting.

A general and generic approach would be to model the obligation of risk on the proportional response approach. That is, the risk one is obligated to take is proportional to the situation at hand. This then leads to the problem of working out the details of the specific situation—which is to say that the degree of risk would seem to rest heavily on the circumstances.

However, there are general factors that would impact the degree of obligatory risk. One would be the relation between the people. For example, it seems reasonable to hold that people have greater obligations to accept risk to avoid harming people they love or care about. Another factor that seems relevant is the person’s profession. For example, soldiers are expected to take some risks to avoid killing civilians—even when doing so puts them in some danger. To use a specific example, soldiers on patrol could increase their chance of survival by killing any unidentified person (adult or child) that approaches them. However, being a soldier and not a killer requires the soldiers to accept some risk to avoid murdering innocents.

In the case of police officers it could be argued that their profession obligates them to take greater risks to avoid harming others. Since their professed duty is to serve and protect, it can be argued that the survival of those who they are supposed to protect should be given equal weight to that of the survival of the officer. That is, the focus should be on everyone going home. In terms of how this would be implemented, the usual practice would be training and changes to rules regarding use of force. Limiting officer use of force can be seen as generating greater risk for the officers, but the goal would be to reduce the harm done to civilians. Since the police are supposed to protect people, they are (it might be argued) under greater obligation to accept risk than civilians.

One obvious reply to this is that many officers already have this view—they take considerable risks to avoid harming people, even when they would be justified in using force. These officers save many lives—although sometimes at the cost of their own. Another reply is that this sort of view would get officers killed because they would be too concerned about not harming suspects and not concerned enough about their own survival. That is a reasonable concern—there is the challenge of balancing the safety of the public and the safety of officers.


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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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Police, Protests & Rights

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2014

The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson sparked a series of protests in the town. Not surprisingly, these protests led to additional incidents involving conflicts between the citizens and the police. Initially, the local police met the protestors like an invading army: many of the officers were in military grade combat gear and backed up by armored vehicles. As noted in my previous essay, this sort of approach is based on a common philosophy of order held by authorities. This philosophy of order is that perceived threats to the existing order are to be met with physical force—even when the perceived threat consists of citizens acting within their rights. One reason for this is practical—the state generally has an advantage over the citizens in terms of force. As Thoreau notes, “…the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” Another reason for this is conceptual—authorities are often similar to bullies in that their view of how to address problems mainly involves coercion rather than persuasion and reason. There is also a philosophical element—those in authority often seem to have a philosophical view about the rights of citizens that rather differs from that of the founders they so often praise when running for re-election.

As this is being written, it is not yet know if Brown rights were violated. As noted in the previous essay, the officer might have used force legitimately. However, the response to the protests has been the systematic and repeated violation of rights.

To begin with the most obvious violations of constitutional rights, the rights of free speech and assemble have been routinely violated by the police. The curfew is the most obvious example of these violations. The harassment and arrests of journalists also seem to be clear violations of the freedom of the press.

Section 1 of the 14th amendment has also been relentlessly violated since citizens have been “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and citizens have been denied “the equal protection of the laws.” The violations of the 14th amendment are not limited just to the treatment of the protestors—the policing of Ferguson’s disproportionality clearly illustrates systematic violation of this amendment. Obviously, this is also a nationwide problem.

There are also clear violations of internationally established human rights: the protestors are being shot with rubber bullets (admittedly this is better than being shot with metal bullets) and tear gas has been used.

Those who accept natural rights, such as John Locke, would certainly agree that these rights are being violated in Ferguson. The most obvious being the right of liberty.  As such, the violations are not just a matter of violations of human law but also violations of natural rights (assuming there are such things). For those who prefer a more utilitarian approach to liberty, Mill’s utilitarian arguments would certainly support the claim that the state is violating the rights of the protestors in Ferguson.

The conflict in Ferguson can thus be seen as having a significant connection to past struggles for liberty and rights. The most obvious link is that the protests are a continuation of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. This struggle can, of course, be traced back to the development of the very notions of liberty and rights. As such, Ferguson is a recent battleground in the struggle for justice, rights and liberty.

One obvious counter to this view is the claim that the police are justified because of the nature of the situation. People are looting, shooting and destroying property and the police are acting to protect the rights of life, liberty and property. This, of course, does require the use of force and it might appear that some rights are being violated in the keeping of order.

This counter does have considerable underlying merit. The state does have an obligation to prevent protestors from violating the rights of other people. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in unwarranted violence or other misdeeds can be justly stopped or arrested.

There is also the obvious concern with people who use protests as an excuse to engage in or as cover for misdeeds such as looting. If the police arrest someone who has come to “protest” by stealing from local homes, they have not violated that person’s rights—he has no moral right to steal even if he claims that he is doing so as an act of protest.

The easy reply to this counter is that the legitimate need to prevent the violation of rights does not justify violating those same rights. So, while the police have an obligation to keep protestors from committing crimes against life, liberty and property the police also have an obligation to not violate the rights of the protestors. I will freely admit that this can be challenging in practice since opportunists and criminals often mix in with actual protestors. However, if our society is supposed to respect rights, effort must be taken to ensure that these rights are protected—even (and especially) in heated moments. After all, rights are not just for corporations.


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Ferguson, Police & Race

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2014

On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson. Repeating an all too common pattern, Brown was unarmed when he was killed. While some claim that Brown was murdered, others claim that the shooting was justified because Brown was attacking the officer. While this might strike some as implausible, unarmed people do attack police officers and, though this might seem odd to some, an officer can be morally justified in using lethal force against an unarmed attacker. As this is being written, the facts of the matter have not been established so I do not know whether Brown was shot down in cold blood or in a legitimate use of force. Obviously enough, if the officer used force legitimately (that is, in defense against an unprovoked attack), then he acted in a morally acceptable (though regrettable) manner. If Brown was not a threat or if Brown was a threat but could have been subdued without killing him, then the shooting would be immoral. This is, of course, a matter of the ethics of the incident taken in isolation. That is, was the officer morally justified in shooting Brown or not, regardless of the broader context? Settling this will require knowing the facts of the matter.

In discussing this matter, I have found that some people consider this aspect of the incident the most important one. That is, the critical issue is whether or not the officer was justified in shooting Brown or not. This view is clearly reasonable, but has an obvious defect: it does not consider the broader context. Roughly put, it could be the case that the officer was morally justified in shooting Brown in what could be regarded as the individual context of one person facing off against another. However, there is also the broader context that involves the social roles of the individuals, the social context, the history of race in America, the political context and so on. That is, the incident is not just a matter of two men who confronted each other. It is also a confrontation of class and race heavy with the weight of history. These considerations lead to the broader moral concerns regarding why Brown and the officer were in that situation.

One obvious part of the answer is the history of race in America, both recent and in the more distant past. This history, as it has done so many times before, has set the stage for death. To state a truism, being black in America is generally rather different from being white—despite the untrue claims that America is post-racial. Since I look very white, my experience has been the white experience. However, I have taught at an HCBU (Historically Black College and University) since 1993 and this has given me a perspective somewhat different from most other white folks. One rather obvious difference between whites and blacks in general is how they tend to be treated by the police. It is a considerable understatement to say that blacks tend to be treated rather worse by the police and young black men tend to be singled out for some of the worst treatment. It is, of course, important to note that many police officers are decent people—one should no more stereotype people by profession than by race. Not surprisingly, young black men tend to look at the police rather differently than white folks and the dynamic between young black men and police is often a rather bad one. I have had indirect experience with this dynamic: many years ago I was training for a marathon with a fellow grad student who happened to be African American. While running through a neighborhood we apparently did not belong in, we were stopped by a cop who inquired what we “boys” were doing. I have never been fond of being called “boy” and my friend clearly hated it. Not wishing to be arrested so close to the race, I reigned in my pride and engaged my diplomatic skills while my friend stood in silent anger. The cop let us go and we left the area at a good clip. I am not sure how things would have gone if my friend had been alone—but I suspect it would have not gone quite so well. I have been stopped by police while running one other time and also while biking—although I was not doing anything illegal on any occasion. From these incredibly limited experiences, I can only imagine what it would be like to be subject to such police attention on a regular basis. Once again, to be fair to the police, I have also had many positive experiences with the police and it would be unjust to sweepingly condemn all police because of the actions of some. However, there is clearly a serious moral problem in America in this regard.

Another obvious part of the answer is the philosophy of order held by many in power. While perhaps not familiar with Hobbes, they tend to operate in accord with his view of order and morality. The practical application of this view is that force is the primary (sometimes sole) tool in the toolbox of order.  The most visual manifestation of this is the militarization of the police: even small town police forces have combat gear and sometimes even armored vehicles. As Thoreau noted, “thus the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” That this approach leads to violence is hardly surprising.

When the context of race is combined with a philosophy of force, it is hardly a surprise that violence and death are all too often the results. As such, even if the officer was justified in his individual actions, they were taken in a context that is fundamentally morally flawed.


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On Returning the Lost

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2014
A picture of a wallet.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My regular running routes take me over many miles and through areas that are heavily trafficked—most often by college students. Because of this, I often find lost phones, wallets, IDs and other items. Recently I came across a wallet fat with cash and credit cards. As always, I sought out the owner and returned it. Being a philosopher, I thought I’d write a bit about the ethics of this.

While using found credit card numbers would generally be a bad idea from the practical standpoint, found cash is quite another matter. After all, cash is cash and there is typically nothing to link cash to a specific person. Since money is rather useful, a person who finds a wallet fat with cash would have a good practical reason to simply keep the money and use it herself. One possible exception would be that the reward for returning the lost wallet would exceed the value of the cash in the wallet—but the person who finds it would most likely have no idea if this would be the case or not. So, from a purely practical standpoint, keeping the cash would be a smart choice. A person could even return the credit cards and other items in the wallet, claiming quite plausibly that it was otherwise empty when found. However, what might be a smart choice need not be the right choice.

One argument in favor of returning found items (such as the wallet and all the cash) can be built on the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. More formally, this is moral reasoning involving the method of reversing the situation. Since I would want my lost property returned, I should thus treat others in the same way. Unless, of course, I can justify treating others differently by finding relevant differences that would justify the difference. Alternatively, it could also be justified on utilitarian grounds.  For example, someone who is poor might contend that it would not be wrong to keep money she found in a rich person’s wallet on the grounds that the money would do her much more good than it would do for the rich person: such a small loss would not affect him, such a gain would benefit her significantly.

Since I am reasonably well off and find relatively modest sums of money (hundreds of dollars at most), I have the luxury of not being tempted to keep the money. However, even when I was not at all well off, I still returned whatever I found. Even when I honestly believed that I would put the money to better use than the original owner. This is not due to any fetishes about property, but a matter of ethics.

One of the reasons is my belief that I do have obligations to help others, especially when the cost to me is low relative to the aid rendered. In the case of finding someone’s wallet or phone, I know that the loss would be a significant inconvenience and worry for most people. In the case of a wallet, a person will probably need to replace a driver’s license, credit cards, insurance cards and worry about identity theft. It is easy for me to return the wallet—either by dropping it off with police or contacting the person after finding them via Facebook or some other means. That said, the obvious challenge is justifying my view that I am so obligated. However, I would contend that in such cases, the burden of proof lies on the selfish rather than the altruistic.

Another reason is that I believe that I should not steal. While keeping a lost item is not the same morally as active theft (this could be seen as being a bit analogous to the distinction between killing and letting die), it does seem to be a form of theft. After all, I would be acquiring what does not belong to me by choosing not to return it. Naturally, if I have no means of returning it to the rightful owner (such as finding a quarter in the road), then keeping it would not seem to be theft. Obviously enough, it could be contended that keeping lost property is not theft (even when it could be returned easily), perhaps on the ancient principle of finders keepers, losers weepers. It could also be contended that theft is acceptable—which would be challenging. However, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who claim that theft is acceptable or that keeping lost property when returning it would be quite possible is not theft.

I also return found items for two selfish reasons. The first is that I want to build the sort of world I want to live in—and in that world people return lost items. While my acting the way I want the world to be is a tiny thing, it is more than nothing. Second, I feel a psychological compulsion to return things I find—so I have to do it for peace of mind.


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DNA Gathering

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 13, 2013
Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In some states, the police are allowed to gather DNA samples upon making an arrest-even before the person is actually charged (let alone convicted). As might be guessed, this has raised concerns from those who are concerned about privacy issues. However, there are those who regard the collection of DNA as a good idea and one that can help ensure that the guilty are punished and the innocent are set free.

One argument in favor of allowing the police to take DNA samples upon arresting a person is that the DNA information can be used in whatever investigation that might follow. Of course, the obvious counter to this is that the sample need not be taken upon arrest to be used in the investigation or trial. That is, the police can wait until the person is actually charged with a crime that legitimately involves a need for DNA evidence.

Another argument in favor of allowing the police to take DNA samples upon arresting a person is that this adds to the database of DNA. Even if the person arrested is not charged or found to be innocent, the DNA information will remain and it might prove useful in a later investigation. Not surprisingly, this same argument is used to argue in favor of mandating that everyone be included in the DNA database. Such a national DNA registry would be a great boon to police. For example, a person picked up for a traffic violation could be checked against the database and it could be found that he is a wanted serial rapist. Without the DNA information, the serial rapist would have been free to continue his crimes.

As might be imagined, the arguments in favor of such DNA sampling and database creation are countered with arguments against them.

One of the main arguments against taking DNA samples from a person who has been merely arrested is based on the claim that the police need a proper warrant to obtain evidence. Just as an officer cannot go through my computer or house without a warrant, she cannot go through my DNA. The main counter to this is that the police do take fingerprints and this practice is on a solid legal foundation. The debate then becomes one of analogy: is DNA more like fingerprints or more like the content of a person’s house or computer? The answer to this depends a great deal on the sort of data gained from the DNA sample.

If the DNA sampling merely provided data comparable to that provided by fingerprints (that is, just identifying the person), then a fairly solid case can be made that DNA sampling of this sort would be just as legally solid as fingerprinting.  However, if the DNA sampling provides more data, then it would seem to be more analogous to going through a person’s home and thus simply grabbing a DNA sample upon an arrest would seem to be on par with going though a person’s house just because she had been arrested.

Obviously enough, a DNA sample does potentially provide a vast amount of information about a person. However, the amount of information revealed would depend on the sort of testing used on the DNA. Thus, a key part of the matter would focus on how the DNA was used (and what was done with the actual samples).

Another argument against DNA sampling is the potential for the misuse of the information gathered. Obviously, there is the concern that the information revealed by the DNA will be misused by the police. For example, DNA samples are now used to make family matches and innocent relatives of criminals can find themselves targeted by the police.   As as another example, DNA identifications are not as reliable as people generally believe. This raises the concern that too much reliance will be placed on such evidence. For folks who worry about the government having a registry of firearms, the idea of collecting such DNA information should be utterly terrifying. There is also the concern that the data will be misused by those outside of the police forces. That is, that the data will become available to other parts of the government and perhaps even those in the private sector. For example, the DNA data gathered by the police could become available to insurance companies.

The gathering of DNA evidence is now fairly common and it continues to grow more common. One reason for this is that the companies that profit from DNA testing have effective lobbies that work rather hard to ensure that there will be a large market for their products. This, like the for-profit prisons, also raises concerns. After all, when such profits are involved, the public good is often ignored.

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Gun Rights & Tyranny

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2013
Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common approach to arguing in favor of civilian gun rights is to claim that such rights prevent, deter or at least provide a defense against tyranny. In general, the idea seems to be that the people in power will be less inclined and less able to impose tyranny if the civilian population possesses the right to keep and bear arms. In the United States, this is presented in terms of the members of the government deciding to impose tyrannical rule over the people.

On the face of it, this justification does have some appeal. After all, if the government has to overcome armed civilians, then it would obviously be harder than using force against unarmed civilians. Also it could be argued that politicians might fear that they would be assassinated by armed patriots if they started acting in tyrannical ways.

People also point to the American Revolution and claim that the fact that the civilian population was armed was an important factor in the American victory over the British tyranny. Those with some science-fiction leanings also present counter-factual scenarios in which one is asked to imagine what would have happened in Germany if the Jews and anti-Nazi Germans had possessed the right to keep and bear arms (or were at least armed). Stalin and other dictators are also often brought up in this context. The idea is, of course, to appeal to the intuitions of the audience and persuade them that if only the Germans had had their own Second Amendment, then Hitler might have never been able to come to power and the Holocaust might not have happened.

The idea that the cowardly politicians who dream of tyranny are kept in check by red-blooded Americans exercising their constitutional right to keep and bear arms does have a certain emotional appeal. So too does the thought of armed plucky rebels defending America from tyranny. In fact, such scenarios would no doubt make for successful Hollywood films. But what is appealing and what might make a blockbuster film are not the same as what is, in fact, true.

Naturally enough, the general idea of the role of civilian armaments in deterring tyrants can be debated extensively. This is, of course, a worthwhile debate and would be a rather interesting project for historians to sort out. However, what is under discussion here is the rather specific matter of whether or not the right to keep and bear arms is warranted by the deterrent value of this right against tyranny. This, obviously enough, involves some key matters of fact.

One obvious matter of fact is the issue of whether or not gun rights frightens politicians with tyrannical intentions—that is, whether worries about assassination keep them in check.

As argued above, it makes sense to think that a politician would be less inclined to do something if she believed doing so would result in people attempting to kill her. Naturally, if the population has easy access to firearms, then an assassin could easily acquire a gun. If there were strict controls on guns, then politicians would have less to worry about in terms of assassins drawn from the ranks of the general population. They would just have to worry about the military and police forces (and anyone who could make a bomb or wield a knife). Obviously, even in a state with strict civilian gun control, the politicians would need to win over the majority of the military and police forces to their tyrannical agenda—or their attempts at tyranny would end rather quickly. In the United States, this would require winning over the national forces (the military, FBI, and so on) as well as the state (National Guard and state police) and local forces (police and sheriffs).

Interestingly, democratic states with stricter gun control than the United States, such as the United Kingdom, do not seem to have fallen into tyranny. This suggests that it is not fear of assassination by citizens exercising their guns rights that keeps a democratic state from tyranny, but rather other factors. But perhaps they are just biding their time and the United Kingdom will soon be back under an absolute monarchy.

A second obvious matter of fact is the issue of whether or not civilian gun ownership would deter the military and police forces from imposing tyranny on the people at the behest of the tyrant(s). This, of course, assumes that the tyrant(s) has won over the majority of the military and police forces to her plot of tyranny and that there is no significant opposition from the military and police forces that are not in on the tyrannical take over. That is, the tyrant has won over the American citizens in the military and police forces to the degree that they would be willing to throw aside the Constitution and turn their weapons against the general population—including their friends, family, spouses, and children.

In such a scenario, it would seem that civilian weapons would be of little use. After all, the military and police forces of the tyrant would have military weapons (tanks, attack helicopters, bombers, artillery, ships, nukes and so on). Handguns, rifles and shotguns would be of rather limited use against such forces. Back in the time when civilian weapons and military weapons were essentially on par (muskets) and the most destructive military weapons were very limited (muzzle loading cannons) an armed civilian population would reasonably be regarded as a deterrent. However, it is hard to imagine suburban Americans battling successfully against tanks, Predator drones, and Hellfire missiles using AR-15s and .38 specials. That said, there is something to be said for an honorable death fighting against impossible odds.

Of course, the civilians could turn to the sort of tactics used by insurgents and terrorists to resist the military and police of the tyrant—but this would not be a case of the right to keep and bear arms deterring tyranny. However, the main thing that seems to defeat tyrants is a lack of support-without that a tyrant is a just a single man.

Naturally, it can be pointed out that civilian arms could be used to resist a small scale tyrannical incursion (perhaps a takeover in a small town). However, in such a scenario the tyrant would soon be dealt with by the police or military of the state. Also, the main deterrents against American tyrants grabbing American towns would seem to involve not guns but other factors—like an unwillingness to go along with a tyrant.

It would thus seem that civilian gun ownership would be little, if any, deterrence or defenses against a serious tyrant. It is also interesting to note that if such armaments provided considerable power against the state, there would be the fear that they would be used by a segment of the population to impose their own tyrant on others.

In light of the above, the defense against tyranny argument would seem to provide little in the way of justification for civilian gun rights. This should not be terribly shocking—after all, the second amendment does not justify the right to keep and bear arms in terms of having an armed population ready to shoot it out with other armed citizens.

There are, however, good reasons for gun rights, but these are beyond the intended scope of this essay.

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Litter & Vandalism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 14, 2013
English: Littering in Stockholm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I went for my run this morning, I ran across the usually bounty of litter that people dump in the park, streets and sidewalks. I actually run litter loops in the park each day, picking up trash. Today someone had slung the remains of a big takeout order from a restaurant into the park-the large bag, plenty of plates, cups and so on. I also got my usual collection of discarded water bottles and other assorted debris. I also ran across some impressive vandalism.

When the park was “renovated” a few years back, they added sign posts labeling the various trails. These posts are landscaping timbers that were sunk into pre-dug holes and had spikes driven into them to make it harder for folks to pull them out. But, some local vandal-hulk was up to the task and ripped out one of the signs, bending the spikes. I spotted the hole before stepping into it (a person could easily get a foot stuck and break something) and then found the timber that had been tossed into the woods. I replaced it as best I could and then checked the others for vandalism.

Since I’m teaching ethics and hand plenty of time on my run to think about this, I wondered about whether or not littering and vandalism are evil. On the face of it, I would say that they would seem to involve, at the least, a lack of virtue.

In the case of littering, there would seem to be two main contenders for the controlling vice. The first would be laziness: littering because one is too lazy to carry the trash away. This, obviously, would not account for people who throw trash from their cars, but could explain those who simply leave empty water and sport’s drink bottles littered about. The second would be a lack of respect for the environment and other people. Of course, a person might also casually litter due to lack of thought-some people treat their own living areas as trash pits, so they would no doubt see public places the same way. I would probably not consider being this way an evil thing, but is clearly a defect of character and it could be considered a vice.

Vandalism is more clearly immoral. After all, a person is damaging or destroying property with a malicious intent. Even if a person is “just playing” or “having fun”, the person is still causing damage or harm when s/he has no right to do so. There is also the obvious matter of the consequences of the vandalism. Someone will have to expend resources to repair or undo the damage. For example, I had to spend my time this morning putting that timber back in place so people would know where the trails led and, more importantly, so that someone did not get injured by stepping into the hole.

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God’s Vigilantes

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 6, 2012
The Vigilantes seal from the cover of Fifes an...

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In anticipation of teaching my Modern philosophy class in the upcoming spring semester, I have been perusing my notes. Since I recently did a post on God and punishment, re-reading Locke got me thinking about this matter once again.

Locke, like other political thinkers of his age, made use of the state of nature in his consideration of rights and authority. Roughly put, the state of nature is a situation in which there is no political authority: no politicians, no police, no judges, no man-made laws and so on. In short, there is no artificial society-just people existing in a natural state.

Thomas Hobbes also envisioned such a state, but he saw this as  a state of perpetual war. Since many of my students play video games, I always illustrate Hobbes as presenting a “death match” view of the state of nature: everyone against everyone, whatever you can grab is yours (until someone kills you and takes it), and so forth.  Locke, however, envisioned a nicer state in which people possessed natural rights to life, liberty and property.

Locke also contended that there is a law of nature that should be observed and that this law “wills the peace and preservation of all mankind.” Locke also noted the obvious: if there is no one to execute or enforce the law of nature, this law would be in vain.

To solve this problem, Locke claimed that in the state of nature everyone has the right to execute the law of nature by punishing wrongdoers who violate the right to life, liberty or property.  Locke, of course, grounds these rights on God. Our right to life rests on his view that we are God’s property and our right to property rests, in part, on God’s gift of the world to us. Put a bit simply, God is the legislator of the law of nature and the author of our rights. However, given what Locke claims, God respects the distinction between the executive and the legislative in that He does not enforce the law of nature nor does He act to prevent or punish (on earth) the violation of rights. He does not even dispatch angels to act as divine police. As such, on Locke’s view the state of nature is governed by divine law but God does deploy any enforcers.

In human societies when laws exist but there are no official enforcers, people sometimes turn to vigilantism. That is, people take the law into their own hands. In human societies, this practice is generally frowned upon-at least when law enforcement does exist. It is, as might be imagined, tolerated more (or even encouraged) when official law enforcement is lacking.

Given that in the state of nature there is law (the law of nature) but no official enforcers, what Locke is arguing for is vigilantism. In short, he calls upon people to serve as God’s vigilantes. Naturally, it might be wondered why God would need vigilantes rather than having official law enforcement in operation. After all, God surely cannot lack the funding or personnel to provide adequate policing. Given that He supposedly created the universe and all its contents, surely He could create a divine police force to supervise us here on earth. This force would not, of course, impede our free will anymore than our own police forces do: people are always free to chose to do wrong-they just get punished if they get caught and convicted.

As far as the view that God does not punish and hence does not need police , given what most faiths claim, God has no compunction against punishing people. He just seems rather reluctant to do so when people are watching.

It might be argued that God has deployed a police force, namely us. We are, of course, also the criminal element and the judges as well. However, this seems a rather odd way of doing things. Consider the following analogy: imagine a federation or empire with unlimited resources that is engaged in colonization. The way it colonizes is that it just dumps people on a habitable world, but provides them with no technology, no police, no education and so on. While this would make some sense for a poor empire that cannot afford proper colonization efforts, this would seem absurd for such a wealthy empire.

In the case of God, it seems absurd that He would just dump us on a planet and have us “go to it” on our own with no support or police.  This hypothesis seems, on might suspect, more absurd than the hypothesis that humans are the result of a seriously lame (or badly failed) colonization attempt by a space empire. After all, to say that we are ruled over by a God who makes rules, but provides no police or judges here on earth seems rather like saying that we are ruled over by a space empire that laid down our laws, but provides no police, judges or any contact with us.

This analogy also provides the obvious response to the claim that God punishes people in the afterlife. Imagine if someone claimed that we are part of a space empire and that just before people appear to die they are whisked away by transporters and their bodies replaced with duplicates. The supposedly dead people are then brought to the Court of the Space Empire and then tried by Space Lawyers before the Space Judges. If they are found guilty of crimes, they are cast into Space Hell to be punished. If they are found to be innocent, they are transported to Space Heaven and rewarded. Naturally, we are all really immortal-we just seem to die when we are transported away and replaced by a fake corpse (or ashes or whatever).

Just as we have every reason to think that the space empire story is just bad science fiction, it would seem that we should think that the story about God is just a bad fantasy story.

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Police & Protests

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 3, 2011
Riot police using tear gas on 21 April 2001 ag...

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Protests are often marred by senseless violence and the recent protest on Wall Street was no exception. One incident that has gotten extensive attention is the pepper spraying/macing of penned in women by Anthony Bologna, a relatively high ranking member of the NYC police. These sorts of incidents raise questions about the legitimate role of the police in regards to protests. My discussion is limited to the context of democratic states, such as the United States.

First, it is rather important to acknowledge that the police do have a legitimate role to play at protests. While protests are intended to draw attention and often aim to do so by creating a disruption of the normal course of events, a state of protest does not grant protestors a carte blanche right to interfere with the legitimate rights of others. As such, the police have a legitimate right to prevent protestors from violating the rights of others and this can correctly involve the use of force. Obviously, if it is argued that protestors have a right to protests, this would entail accepting that people have rights and intuitively the right to protest does not automatically trump other rights-especially the core rights of life, liberty and property. Those who claim otherwise would seem to have the burden of proof upon them.

To use an obvious example, people protesting a decision by the parliament or congress do not gain the right to loot the businesses along their path of protest and the police would act correctly in stopping these acts of theft.   To use a less extreme example, protestors who are disrupting a legitimate business can legitimately be prevented from doing so by the police.

Second, while protestors do not gain a carte blanche right to violate the rights of others, peaceful protest is a legitimate form of expression and is certainly a form of free speech (far more so than spending money on political campaigns and some rather ludicrous “free speech” defenses launched by corporations such as Google). As such, the right of protest should be respected by the police.

Even when protestors act in ways that are technically illegal, provided that their crimes do not involve violence or property damage (that is, the protests are peaceful), they should be handled with minimal force. After all, the force used by the police should be proportional to the crime and the resistance being offered. Exceeding this would be, by definition, excessive force and hence a wrongful action. The police, after all, have the right to use the force needed to enforce the law. Force beyond that would go beyond their rights and hence cross over into assault and beyond (after all, once they cross the boundary of legitimate force, they have ceased to enforce the law and are engaged in needless violence and may rightfully be regarded as criminals-albeit with badges). Spraying women that have been penned in and are offering no resistance would be, from a moral perspective, an assault with a dangerous weapon and not a legitimate act of law enforcement. The fact that the perpetrator is wearing a uniform does not change this-except to make it an even worse action-a crime committed by someone who is supposed to prevent crime.

Naturally enough, violent and destructive protests can be met with legitimate force. As an example, protestors who are looting or attacking innocent citizens can be treated as the criminals they are and handled accordingly.

Third, there are cases in which violent and destructive protest can be justified. These would involve cases in which the wrong being done was such that it warrants such a response and there is no recourse to an objective, impartial and fair legal redress. In such cases, the police should be acting in defense of the people driven to such acts rather than fighting against such people. These situations are not common in the Western democracies, but have (and no doubt will) occur.

Thus, both protestors and police have moral obligations they should respect.


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