A Philosopher's Blog

Political Parties & Principles

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2016

While the United States does have numerous third parties and many voters now register as independents, politics is dominated by the Republicans and the Democrats. While there are independents in office here and there, independent voters still identify strongly with the two parties. They are also almost entirely limited to voting for candidates from these two parties.

My own party affiliation is Democrat, although it is a very weak affiliation. While I do share some of the values professed by the party (such as support for education and protecting the environment) my main reason for being a Democrat is that Florida is a closed primary state. If I did not have a party affiliation, I would be limited to voting between the candidates picked by the Democrats and Republicans. That is not acceptable and I regard the Democrats as less evil than the Republicans. At least for now.

While people do sometimes change parties (Reagan started as a Democrat and ended as a Republican, while Hillary Clinton took the reverse path) most people stay loyal to their parties. Trump has tested the loyalty of some Republicans, but it seems likely that most will vote along straight party lines. Likewise for Hillary and the Democrats.

Being a philosopher, I endeavor to operate from consistent moral, logical and political principles rather than merely embracing whatever my party happens to endorse at any given moment. Because of this, I could end up leaving the Democratic party if its professed values changed enough to be broadly incompatible with my own. This can certainly happen. As Republicans love to mention, their party was once the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. As they also love to point out, the Democratic party was once an explicitly racist party. Now, of course, both parties are very different from those days. Teddy Roosevelt would be appalled by the current Republican party and the Democrats are now regarded as a civil rights focused party that is very welcoming to minorities (and certainly welcomes their votes).

While political parties presumably provide some benefits for citizens, they mainly exist to benefit the politicians. They provide politicians with resources and support that are essential to running for office. They also provide another valuable service to politicians:  a very effective means of cognitive and moral derangement. Like other groups, political parties exploit well-known cognitive biases, thus encouraging their members to yield to irrationality and moral failure.

One bias is the bandwagon effect; this is the tendency people have to align their thinking with that of those around them. This often serves to ground such fallacies as the “group think” fallacy in which a person accepts a claim as true simply because their group accepts it as true. In the case of political parties, people tend to believe what their party claims, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is well-established that people often double down on false beliefs in the face of objective evidence against this belief. This afflicts people across the political spectrum. The defense against this sort of derangement is to resist leaping on the bandwagon and train oneself to accept evidence rather than group loyalty as support for a claim.

Another bias is the tendency people have to obey authority and conform. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments in obedience purport to show that people are generally obedient by nature and will obey even when they also believe what they are doing is wrong. This derangement forges people into obedient masses who praise their leader, be that leader the objectively unfit Donald Trump or the morally problematic and Machiavellian Hillary Clinton. Since obedience is so ingrained into humans, resisting is very difficult. In fact, people often think they are resisting authority when they are simply bowing low to some other authority. Being disobedient as a matter of principle is difficult, although people such as Socrates and Thoreau do offer some guidelines and inspiration.

Perhaps the most powerful bias here is the in group bias. This is the natural tendency people have to regard members of their group as having positive qualities while seeing members of other groups as being inferior. This tendency is triggered even by the most superficial of group identifications. For example, sports teams stand for nothing—they do not represent moral or political principles or anything of significance. Yet people routinely become obsessive fans who regard their fellows as better than the fans of other teams. This can, and does, escalate into violence. Violence of the most stupid and pointless sort, but real violence nonetheless. In the case of politics, the bias is even stronger. Republicans and Democrats typically praise their own and condemn their competition. Many of them devote considerable effort scouring the internet for “evidence” of their virtue and the vice of their foes: it is not enough to disagree; the opposition must be demonized and cast as inferior. For example, I see battles play out on Facebook over whether Democrats or Republicans give more to charity—and this sometimes becomes a matter of deep rage that has ended friendships. Since I prefer to not let politics or religion end an otherwise fine friendship, I make a point of not getting engaged in such battles. There are, after all, only losers in those fights.

This bias is extremely useful to politicians as it helps fuels the moral and cognitive derangement of their supporters. The most pronounced effect is that party members will typically rush to defend their politician over matters that they savagely attack the other side for. For example, Donald Trump is, as a matter of objective fact, unrelenting in his untruths. His supporters who otherwise regard lying as wrong, rush to defend and excuse him, while bashing Hillary as a liar and a crook—despite the fact that Hillary says untrue things far less often than Trump. As should be expected, Hillary’s devout backers do the same thing—excusing Hillary for things they condemn about Trump (such as sketchy business deals).

As a matter of rational and moral principle (and consistency), a person who regards lying as wrong should take liars of both parties to task and criticize their lying appropriately. To do otherwise is to be irrational and morally inconsistent. The same should apply to other matters as well, such as sketchy business deals. To avoid this derangement, people need to train themselves (or be trained) to assess politicians as objectively as possible to avoid being morally and cognitively deranged by the undue corrupting influence of party.

This is not to say that a person should fall into the trap of false equivalency or regard any misdeed as equal to any other. Simply saying “they are all equally bad” when they are not is also a failure of reason and ethics. Using the example of the 2016 campaign, while Trump and Clinton both have their flaws, Clinton is objectively better than Trump in regards to qualifications for being president. As Republicans argued when Obama was running in 2008, experience is critically important and the presidency is not an entry level political job. Naturally, I expect some to lash out at me over such claims. Some will rush to praise Trump and tear apart Hillary. I also would expect Hillary backers to be displeased by my fairly negative view of Hillary (while Hillary haters will probably have the mistaken impression that I am all in for her). Such things will actually help prove my point: people tend to be ruled by their biases.

I am not advocating that people become apathetic or abandon their parties. Rather, I want people to hold all politicians to the same standards of criticism rather than rushing to defend their side simply because it is their side and bashing the other simply because it is the other. This would, I hope, force politicians to actually be better. As it now stands, they can be rather awful and simply count on the derangement of voters to work in their favor.


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Political Candidates & Expertise

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2015

As I write this, the number of Republican presidential contenders is in the double digits. While businessman and reality TV show star Donald Trump is still regarded as leading the pack, neurosurgeon Ben Carson has been gaining ground and some polls put him ahead of Trump.

In an earlier essay I did an analysis of how someone like Trump could sustain his lead despite what would have been politically fatal remarks by most other candidates. In this essay I will examine the question of why Trump and Carson are doing well and will do so in the context of the notion of expertise.

From a rational standpoint, a person should consider an elected office as a job and herself as the employer who is engaged in evaluating the candidate. As such, the expertise of the candidate should be a rather important factor. What should also be considered are the personal qualities needed to do the job well, such as dependability, integrity and so on. A person should also consider the extent to which the candidate will act in her self-interest and also the extent to which the candidate will act in accord with her values. While a person’s self-interest and values can be consistent with each other, there can be a conflict. For example, it might be in the self-interest of a wealthy person for taxes on the rich to be lowered, but his values might such that he favors shifting more of the tax burden to the wealthy.

When considering whether a candidate has the needed expertise or not, the main factors include education, experience, accomplishments, position, and reputation. I will begin by considering education.

While education is usually looked at in terms of formal education, it can also include what is learned outside of the classroom. While there is no degree offered in being-the-president it is certainly worth considering the education of candidates and its relevance towards the office they are seeking. In this case, the office is the presidency.  Carson has an M.D. and is clearly well educated. Trump is also an educated man, albeit not a brain surgeon.

Interestingly, influential elements in the Republican have pushed an anti-intellectual and anti-science line over the years. As such, it is hardly a surprise that some Republicans like to compare Obama to a professor and intend for this comparison to be an insult. The anti-science leaning has, in recent years, been very strong in regards to the science of climate change. However, it is well worth noting that the opposition to science and intellectualism seems to be driven primarily by an ideological opposition to specific positions in science. Those on the left are often cast as being in favor of science and intellectualism—in large part, perhaps, due to the fact that scientists and intellectuals tend to lean more left than right. However, a plausible case can be made that some of the pro-science and pro-intellectual leaning of the left also comes from ideology—that is, leftists like the science and intellectualism that matches their world views. As an example, the left tends to be pro-environment and this fits in nicely with the science of climate change. Interestingly, when science goes against a view held by some left leaning folks, they will attack and reject science with the same sort of “arguments” that are employed by their fellows on the right. One good example of this is the sort of anti-vaccination people who reject the scientific evidence in favor of their ideology.

Given the fact that Carson is a neurosurgeon and Trump has an education, it might be wondered how they are doing so well given the alleged anti-science and anti-intellectual views of some Republicans. In the case of Trump, the answer is easy and obvious: what he says tends to nicely fit into this view. While Trump has authored several books, no one would accuse him of being an intellectual.

Carson’s case is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, he is a well-educated neurosurgeon and is regarded as intelligent and thoughtful. On the other hand, he tends to make remarks that make him appear anti-intellectual and anti-science. Some claim that he is doing this in a calculated way to appeal to the baser nature of some of the Republican base. Others assert that his apparent missteps are due to his lack of experience in the realm of politics.  Coincidentally, this leads to the next subject of consideration.

Since the presidency is not an entry level job, it seems reasonable to expect that a candidate have relevant experience in similar jobs.  It also seems reasonable to expect that the candidate would be accomplished in relevant ways, have held relevant positions, and have a good reputation that is relevant to the presidency.

This is why many past presidents have been governors, military leaders or in congress before they moved to the oval office. While Trump has had experience in business and reality TV, he has not held political office. While some claim that executive business experience is relevant, it is certainly reasonable to consider that it is not an adequate substitute for experience in a political position. I, for example, would not claim that my experience in chairing committees, captaining athletic teams, and running classes would qualify me to be president.

While Carson has some administrative experience, he is primarily a neurosurgeon. While this is certainly impressive, it does not seem relevant to his ability to be president. I, for example, am also a doctor and have written numerous books—but these would not seem to be large points in favor of me being president.

Given the relatively weak qualifications of Trump and Carson in these areas, it might seem odd that they are currently trouncing former governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Scott Walker, Senator Rand Paul and former governor John Kasich.

One easy explanation for the success of Trump and Carson is that Republican politicians and pundits adopted a tactic of waging rhetorical war against politicians, insiders, the establishment and government itself. In contrast, being a non-politician, a political outsider, a non-establishment person and against government were lauded as virtues. This tactic seems to have been too successful: the firehose that the Republican strategists struggled to keep targeted on Democrats seems to have slipped from their grip and is now hosing the more qualified candidates while Trump and Carson stay dry. The irony here is that those who are probably the best qualified to actually run the country (such as Rubio, Bush and Kasich) are currently regarded as undesirable precisely because of the qualities that make them qualified.

What might also be ironic is that it seems the Republican rhetoric of attacking politicians for being politicians has helped Bernie Sanders in his bid to become the Democratic candidate. While Sanders is a senator, he is a very plausible as an outsider and a non-establishment person. He is even convincing as being a non-politician politician: though he has plenty of political experience, he seems to have an authenticity and integrity that is all too uncommon among the polished, packaged and marketed politicians (most notable Hilary Clinton).

As a final point, many pundits take the view that Trump, Carson and Sanders will inevitably fade in the polls and be replaced by the more traditional candidates.  Pundits who like to hedge their bets a bit will usually also add that even if Trump or Carson becomes the Republican nominee, they cannot win the general election. The pundits also claim that even if Sanders get the nomination, he will lose in the general election. Of course, if the 2016 election is Sanders versus Trump or Carson, one of them has to win.


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Cyber Warfare: Proportionality

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2014

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (March 10, 2009) Information...

As predicted by science fiction writers, cyber warfare has become a rather real thing. The United States and Israel, some say, launched a cyber-attack on the Iranian nuclear program. North Korea, some say, launched a cyber-attack on Sony.

On the face of it, cyber-attacks seem to be a special sort of thing. While conventional attacks can be secret and hard to trace, the typical cyber-attack does not cause the sort of damage and causalities that a traditional attack causes. For example, a conventional attack aimed at the Iranian nuclear program would have most likely killed people and caused considerable damage. In contrast, the cyber-attack was narrowly focused and did not kill anyone. People often seem to “feel” that cyber-attacks are just “different” since they do not involve the sorts of things that most people think of as weapons and do not do the sort of damage that people tend to associate with military attacks. Despite this conceptual problem, it seems quite reasonable to accept that cyber-attacks can have qualities that make it reasonable to regard them as military attacks. To use the obvious analogy, criminals and soldiers both use guns, but the difference between a bank robber and a military attack lies in the agents carrying out the attack, those ordering the attack, and the goals of the attack. In the case of cyber-attacks, cyber-criminals and cyber-soldiers both use similar weapons. The distinction lies in the agents, those behind the action and the goals.

As mentioned above, some people lay the blame of the attack on Sony on North Korea. If this is true, then this would seem to have the potential of being a military action. After all, it was carried out by a state and had political goals as motivating factors. That said, it could also be argued that the attack was state-sponsored crime. After all, the target was Sony rather than a state target and the operation was more vandalism and extortion than a military strike. This can, of course, be countered by the claim that economic warfare is still warfare—North Korea was attacking an economic entity in another sovereign state (assuming North Korea was behind the attack).

President Obama took the attack seriously and seems to have accepted that North Korea was responsibility. He did fall short of calling it a military action and described it in terms of vandalism. He did, however, say that the United States would have a proportional response.

A proportional response is, as matter of general principle, the right thing to do. After all, the retaliation should be proportional to the provocation. Excessive response would be morally problematic. To use the obvious analogy, if someone shoves me in a dispute and I shoot them in the head with a twelve-gauge shotgun, then I would have acted wrongly. Naturally, there can be considerable debate about the matter of proportionality as well as the value of using a “robust” response as a deterrence (such as pulling a gun when the other person has a stick).

One problem with cyber-attacks is that they are relatively new. Because of this, states have not worked out the norms governing these interactions and there are, as of yet, no clear and specific international treaties and rules laying out the rules of cyber-warfare in a way comparable to the norms and rules of traditional war. We are now in the stages of making up the norms and rules. It should be expected that there will be some problems with this and, no doubt, some defining incidents. The attack on Sony might be one of these.

Obama’s decision to use a proportional response does seem sound and will, perhaps, serve as a starting point for the norms and rules of cyber warfare. This approach is certainly analogous to how conventional attacks are handled. This nicely fits the existing model, namely that incidents in the “physical world” between countries usually stay proportional. For example, with North Korea does something provocative with its military, the United States does not over-react, such as by firing cruise missiles into the country.

One obvious problem with cyber-attacks is working out the proportionality, especially if non-cyber responses are being considered. In such cases, the challenge would be working out what sort of conventional military response would be a proportional response to a cyber-attack. It is not uncommon for people to see cyber-attacks as somehow less “serious” and damaging than “real” world attacks. If North Korea had, for example, sent a strike team to the United States to physically grab computers and erase drives on the spot, then people would feel that something more serious had happened—though the results would have been the same. In such a case, the proportional response would almost certainly be more robust than a proportional response to a cyber-attack. Perhaps this would be justified on the grounds that a physical intrusion is a greater violation of territorial integrity than a virtual intrusion. But, this might simply be a matter of “feeling” and a result of “old-fashioned” thinking—that is, people thinking about attacks in the old way.

I think a reasonable case can be made to treat cyber-attacks as being comparable to traditional attacks and using the results as the measure of proportionality. That is, the United States’ response to the (alleged) North Korean intrusion should be treated the same way that the United States should react to a team of North Koreans physically breaking into Sony at the behest of the state. To treat cyber-attacks as somehow less serious because they are “virtual” seems, as I have been suggesting, a mistake based on outdated concepts of warfare.


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Goldman Sachs

Posted in Business, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 28, 2010
Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.
Image via Wikipedia

Since it is finals week, I have been using the schedule feature to post pre-written blogs. This has, of course, meant that the posts have not been at the cutting edge of events. As such, I thought I’d take a moment to do an up to date post.

As most folks know, the fine people from Goldman Sachs have been called up before Congress. As most folks should know, Goldman Sachs has been a major campaign contributor. For example, the company provided Obama with a nice wad of cash for his 2008 campaign for President. Goldman Sachs has also donated significant sums to other politicians, mostly Republicans. In short, it seems reasonable to suggest that the company has considerable influence over many politicians.

But, someone might say, surely congress is not in the pocket of Goldman Sachs. After all, they called the Goldman Sachs folks to appear before them and asked some tough questions.

The obvious reply is that while politicians take money from companies like Goldman Sachs, they ultimately need to get votes in order to keep their position at the trough. Goldman Sachs is something of a villain today and hence the politicians need to appear that they are taking this villain to task. Of course, they cannot really put the whip to the villain; they need his gold for the upcoming elections. As such, it seems reasonable to expect the usual political theater to play out here.

Given the fact that Goldman Sachs has been a major campaign contributor, it certainly seems reasonable to point out that there seems to be a conflict of interest in having congress grill these folks. In fact, it is tempting to use scenarios like this to argue for campaign finance reform: how can congress be expected to hold hearings regarding the very companies that hand them vast sacks of campaign cash?  If a judge were in that position, she would hardly be allowed to remain the judge in such a case.

It can, of course, be pointed out that congress is not a judge. After all, it is the legislative branch and not the judicial. However, congress does craft the laws and hence there are still grounds for concern.

Ironically, this situation might help Goldman Sachs. Interestingly enough, their stock actually improved after the executives were grilled by congress. Also, the company admits to having a credibility gap and this situation can perhaps give them an opportunity at the appearance of redemption.

As a final point, Goldman Sachs might have a very good defense-they seem to have talked congress into changing the rules a while back and then seem to have largely played by these rules. As such, if Goldman Sachs and other companies did wrong, it seems that many folks in congress and government were their willing accomplices.  I doubt congress will hold hearings on itself, so it is up to the voters to judge what they have done (or not done).

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Reid a Racist?

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on January 14, 2010
WASHINGTON - JANUARY 27:  U.S. Senate Minority...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Senator Reid recently got in political hot water because of what he said in 2008 about the US being  “ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama – a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.’”

Some folks are calling him a racist for these remarks. Others claim that he was simply making a statement about the political realities of America. Still others claim that he merely chose his words poorly.

Some folks on the right are claiming that the Democrats (who forgave Reid) are holding to a double standard. Republicans, such as Trent Lott, who have said unfortunate things have tended to reap the whirlwind for such remarks. In contrast, Joe Biden‘s infamous remark about Obama was quickly forgiven and now Joe is Vice President.

The folks who make this point are raising a matter well worth considering. After all, if making allegedly racist remarks is a career ending injury for Republicans, then the same standard should apply to Democrats-unless, of course, there is a relevant difference that justifies applying a different standard.

Some folks on the left might be inclined to claim that when a Democrat says something that seems racist (or sexist), then this is just an unfortunate slip rather than a revelation of the person’s true racist character. In contrast, when a Republican makes a racist remark, it expresses their true character of racism.

While this might appeal to some, if all we have to go on are the words, that what damns a Republican should equally damn a Democrat. However, my view has been that a person should not be condemned as a racist because of such a slip. After all, people say stupid things and make slips. While these can reveal true character, they can also be just stupid remarks that reveal the obvious: people are fallible and make mistakes. In order to establish that a person is racist requires more than such remarks-it requires more evidence. While there is not a set standard for what line must be crossed for a person to be a racist, the bar must be higher than a few remarks. If someone is really a racist, they will have an established pattern of racism that can be found in their words and deeds. If this is found, then the person can be condemned as a racist. If not, then their remarks can be attributed to a poor choice of words, a slip, or some other failing.

In the specific case of Reid, it is also important to consider the distinction between when a person is presenting his/her own view and when a person is simply stating how things are. For example, if I say that some white people are suspicious about young black men who wear their pants down low and speak in slang, I am not being racist. I am merely stating a fact.

Since I teach  philosophy at a historically black university, I have heard many discussions over the years about the chances of a black person being elected President. In general, the view was (long before Obama was elected) that the first black President would be lighter skinned and have a manner that white people did not find threatening. These discussions were not racist-there was no unjustified judgment of people on racial grounds. Rather, the reality of the situation was presented in an objective manner. Likewise, Reid could be seen as simply stating a fact about America. Of course, he could also be expressing his alleged racism. If so, there should be additional evidence for this racism. If there is, then he can be condemned as a racist. If not, perhaps he should be regarded as merely being realistic.

Naturally, this same standard should be applied to everyone. Republicans should get the same treatment as Democrats when it comes to the same sort of remarks.

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Going Rogue

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2009
GOP Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin givi...

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Sarah Palin‘s book, Going Rogue, recently hit the shelves and is selling quite well. Eager to cash in on this, magazines such as Newsweek (which features a ‘pin up gal’ style cover shot) and other media sources are putting forth stories about Palin. Naturally, the left leaning folks are being rather critical and those on her right wing bandwagon are completely thrilled.

What I find most interesting about Palin is the fact that she has been lifted out of obscurity and placed under the bright spotlights of fame for doing very little.

True, she was governor of Alaska, but then quit. Weirdly enough, this made her even more of a hero rather than making her seem like someone who cannot stick with her responsibilities and duties. I am not sure why some people see this as a sign that she would be a good choice for a presidential candidate. After all, if someone cannot handle being governor, then she surely would not be able to handle being president.

True, she was also picked out of the blue as the VP candidate in 2008. However, this did not seem to be based on any merit on her part and even many conservatives regarded this as a bad idea. And, of course, she lost.

Of course, being famous for being famous is nothing new. The media engines did, after all, lift people like Paris Hilton on high so that she might be gazed upon by the masses. While Sarah purports to criticize the media, they have served to put her face on TV and on the cover of magazines. While some folks in the media criticize her and almost cast her as a monster, in many ways she is their monster.

To merely say that she is famous for being famous would, however,be unfair to her. She manages to appeal to a very loud demographic in America-folks who are angry and afraid and who seem to be looking for someone like her to express their views to the world. The fact that she seems to be somewhat confused and unclear about such things as history, science and political ideology merely makes her more appealing. After all, those who find her so dear seem to be in the same boat.

It must also be said that Palin does represent one aspect of the American dream: she arose from humble origins to the national stage, fame, wealth and success. As such, her story is very appealing in a very American sort of way. Even her critics cannot deny that she has become, at least for the moment, a political force. While she might fade into obscurity, she is burning bright across the sky for now.

Naturally enough, people are speculating about 2012. I share the view of many conservative thinkers: Palin simply does not have what it takes to be a good President. I think she could probably match George W. Bush, but we certainly do not need that sort of Presidency again. Apparently 74% of Americans think that she is not qualified to be president, so I am not alone in this. But, of course, what people think and how they vote are two different matters. After all, being seen as unqualified does not seem to be grounds for not electing a person-folks on the left say this about Bush while folks on the right say this about Obama.


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