A Philosopher's Blog

“Democrats & Republicans: The Philosophy of the State”

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 1, 2012

I was asked to contribute a piece on political philosophy to Florida A&M University’s Living Well series and here is what I wrote:

Election Day is almost here and every U.S. citizen must reflect on the similarities and differences between each presidential candidate before casting a vote. This requires more than a quick scan of party platforms. Instead, a deeper focus on the philosophy behind Democratic and Republican party rhetoric will help the average citizen make a more informed decision on Nov. 6. While many believe philosophy has little impact outside of academics, the campaign trail has shown the importance of really knowing the core philosophical values that guide each candidate and will ultimately determine America’s fate for the next four years.

Similarities

Lost in the heat of partisan politics is the truth that most of us share the same values as a people.  In fact, both parties share core philosophical views traceable to the European and American thinkers of the Enlightenment Period (about 1600-1800) such as Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The English philosopher John Locke is probably the philosopher who most influenced American politics in his case for the right to life, liberty and property. In addition to these cherished ideals, Locke also believed legitimate government relies on the consent of the citizenry through majority rule. Interestingly, Democrats and Republicans are united in the once radical view that government exists for the good of the people.

Differences

Self-Interest vs. the Common Good

Many of their differences, however, stem from deciding what role the government should play in serving this good. Republicans tend to take a more conservative approach and accept the philosophy of Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations. Smith’s view, commonly known as laissez-faire capitalism, encourages individuals to act on the basis of self-interest in a free and competitive market that best serves the good of all.  Furthermore, Republican views on the role of government are best attributed to the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau: “that government is best which governs least.” Rather than have the state direct the market, Smith spoke of the market’s “invisible hand” as a metaphor to describe the self-regulating behavior of the marketplace.

While Democrats also embrace capitalism, the philosophy of the current Democratic Party was shaped by the Great Depression and the New Deal. From their standpoint, this economic disaster was caused by allowing the invisible hand of the market to act with little restraint or regulation.

As such, Democrats tend to favor having the state play a prominent role in regulating the economy. This allows the state to serve the good of the people by checking the excesses of self-interest in favor of the common good.  Republicans contend checking of excesses can harm the public good by choking the economy. Thus, Republicans generally favor less state influence over the economy.

The Democrats, as exemplified in the New Deal, generally take the view that the state has a positive, active and significant role to play in securing the good of the people. Specifically, the Democratic Party believes the state should be altruistic in its support of programs like federal student aid, welfare, and healthcare.

While the Republican Party also holds to the idea of the state having an active role in the public good and in caring for citizens during times of need, they generally embrace the idea that the role of the state should be more limited and it is preferable for people to rely on personal success than private charity.

A very strong version of this view is put forth by the Tea Party. Interestingly, they explicitly acknowledge the influence of philosopher Ayn Rand. In her collection of essays titled The Virtue of Selfishness, argued that we are morally obligated to achieve happiness. As she saw it, ethics based on altruism (the moral view that we should act for the benefit of others) would prevent people from achieving happiness. This is because altruists would be wasting their resources on other people rather than using them to achieve their own happiness. Her solution was that people should embrace what philosophers call ethical egoism—the moral view that a people should exclusively act in their own self-interest. While this might sound harsh, the justification is that this creates a better society in which people can succeed by their own efforts without being dragged down by supporting others and without being trapped in dependence.

Thus, some of the key philosophical distinctions between the Democrats and the Republicans involve their views of what role the state should play in securing the general good. The Democrats advocate a more extensive role for the state in securing this good while the Republicans claim the general good is better served by a more limited state. This disagreement is often dramatically exaggerated in political rhetoric, which makes it all the more important to remember that far more unites us as Americans than divides us as Democrats or Republicans (or independents).

I’ll be doing a Twitter live chat as well:

Join LaBossiere on Twitter for a live chat on Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. to answer your questions about political philosophy. Follow FAMU_1887 via hashtag #LivingWell101.

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Sandy & Socialism

Posted in Environment, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2012

Because I am a philosopher, I am sometimes accused of “not getting” the “real world.” That is, people who disagree with me sometimes like to take the intellectual shortcut of accusing me of not getting it rather than actually presenting developed arguments showing that I am in error.

Despite being accused of being detached from the “real world”, I actually consider reality to be an excellent source of evidence for discussing philosophical concerns, such as the legitimate role of the state.

Not surprisingly, the legitimate role of the state is often an issue in presidential elections and the 2012 election was no exception. The Republicans put forth the general idea that government is not the solution. There was also the stock tactic of presenting government as both ineffective and undesirable. One interesting addition was the explicit Tea Party twist of an Ayn Rand attack on the demon of collectivism. In sum, the Republican Party presented the government as an evil to be reduced and collective action as undesirable. Then Sandy hit the east coast of the United States.

Despite the political ideology expressed by the Republicans, there has been no opposition to the government stepping in to take collectivist actions. Republican Governor Chris Christie (who spoke passionately against Obama at the RNC) praised Obama’s leadership in bringing the state into the rescue and recovery operations. Christie himself made it clear that the state has a clear role to play in the recovery. Christie and Obama are right about the importance of the state in such disasters. After all, it requires collective action to address a problem of this magnitude and the private sector alone cannot handle the problems. On the face of it, disasters like Sandy provide considerable evidence against the Republican attacks on the state and collective action.

An obvious reply is that while the Republicans have been critical of the state and collectivism, they can claim that they believe the state has a legitimate role to play in disasters while still being able to hold to their criticisms of the state and collectivism. That is, they can take the collective response by the state to Sandy as legitimate government activity while still painting other activities, such as student loans and welfare, as socialism.

While this reply has some appeal, it is reasonable to dig a bit deeper and look at the underlying principle at work.

In the case of a natural disaster, many people are put in danger and are in need through no fault of their own. Of course, people sometimes are partially responsible—by staying when an evacuation order has been given, for example. This can be taken as justifying the collective action of the state. To be specific, the scale of the disaster and its nature requires a collective response by the state because it is beyond the capabilities of individuals acting on their own and even beyond the capabilities of the private sector to handle. Also, the fact that the disaster has struck people through (in general) no fault of their own also serves to justify state intervention even for those who might otherwise be opposed to the state assisting people. After all, one might contend, it is one thing for a person to simply expect the state to give them free stuff and another for them to be given aid in the context of a disaster like Sandy—even if this includes “free stuff.”

As such, a reasonable principle to justify state intervention in a disaster would be that the state has a legitimate role in addressing large scale disasters that arise through no (or perhaps even partial) fault of those who are harmed by the disaster. This principle would thus justify the collective action taken by the state in response to Sandy.

However, the principle would also seem to justify collective action by the state in other cases as well. For example, the economic “storm” that damaged the economy was a man-made disaster, but it was widespread and hurt many people through no (or at most partial) fault of their own. That is, millions of people were victims of an economic disaster that is ongoing. As such, the collective response by the state can be justified in general by this same principle. Interestingly, the general harms caused by the economic system (such as unemployment, low wages, environmental costs and other endemic harms) could also justify collective intervention by the state to mitigate them. After all, people who are homeless because the economy tanked are no less homeless than people who lost their homes to Sandy or other storm.

The obvious objection is, of course, that there is a difference between man-made disasters and natural disasters. As such, it could be argued that the state can legitimately intervene in the case of a natural disaster like Sandy but to intervene in man-made disasters would be unjustified.

The obvious problem with this objection is that it would entail that the state would have no legitimate role in defending citizens from enemies foreign or domestic. That is, the state would have no justification in regards to the military or police functions. After all, they exist to respond to man-made harms on both the small and the large scale.

It could be objected that the state has a legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people using force, violence, fraud (or other criminal means) but no legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people acting within the existing laws. So, if someone blows up your house, then the state has a legitimate role in addressing the problem. If the economy is wrecked by other people via legal means and you lose your home, then you are on your own.

While this distinction might have some appeal, it also seems rather absurd. After all, the legality of the actions that cost you your house seem to be outweighed by the fact that you lost your house due to harms inflicted by others. As such, whether a natural disaster or financial shenanigans beyond your control cost you your house you would still be a victim who deserves aid. Naturally, it would be rather another matter when the disaster is self-inflicted. If I lose my house because I quit my job out of laziness, then the fault is my own and the state owes me nothing beyond what I have earned.

In sum, if the state has a legitimate role to play in addressing natural disasters like Sandy, it also has a role in addressing man-made disasters, such as the current economic system.

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Sandy

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2012

Sandy has struck the United States, killing several people and doing billions in property damage. As is to be expected, we are now hard at work repairing the damage and getting things back to normal.

I am sorry for the losses and feel for the people directly impacted. I wish everyone the best and hope for a rapid return to normalcy.

The brave people who responded to the disaster to rescue and aid others deserve our thanks for their actions and the good that they have done. The people who are now hard at work setting things right also deserve our appreciation. While this storm will be costly, we have pulled together as a nation and have shown, once again, that we are a strong people when we work together for the general good. For at least a little while, we will think of ourselves as Americans and forget (at least for a moment) the political divisions and bickering. Perhaps this sort of thing should be remembered more often and not just during disasters (natural or man-made).

Be safe and well.

http://www.redcross.org/

 

 

 

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Mourdock, God & Rape

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2012
Getup Get God

Getup Get God (Photo credit: prettywar-stl)

In a recent debate, Republican Richard Mourdock was addressing the subject of abortion. After noting that he believes that abortion is acceptable only to save the life of the mother, he went on to say: “Life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”

As might be imagined, Mourdock has come under attack for his remarks. These attacks have primarily focused on what his claim indicates about his view of women and the sort of legislation he is likely to support.

Rather than address these matters, I will instead focus on his claim that if a woman gets pregnant from rape, then God intended it to happen. While this matter deals specifically with rape, it is part of the general problem of evil. This is, of course, the problem of reconciling a certain conception of God (all good, all powerful and all knowing) with the existence of evil (in this case rape). It also falls under the general subject of God’s causal relation to the world.

While he might not be aware of it, Mourdock is presenting a view of God that has been argued for by theologians and philosophers. To be specific, this is the view that God is the cause of all that occurs and that nothing occurs contrary to God’s intention.  For example, Hume in his essay on the immortality of the soul, writes  “as every effect implies a cause, and that another, till we reach the first cause of all, which is the Deity; every thing that happens is ordained by him…”

As far as things happening against God’s intention, this would seem impossible given the usual conception of God. After all, things could only go against His intention if He lacked the power to do otherwise or the event in question took place without His knowledge. On the assumption that He is all knowing and all powerful, then events happening contrary to His intention could not occur. Thus, if someone becomes pregnant from rape, then God (if He exists) intended that to happen-just as Mourdock claimed.

One reply to this is that God allows things to happen contrary to His intention, such as pregnancy arising from rape. The obvious reply is, of course, that if allows it and could prevent it, then He does intend for it to occur. If He cannot prevent it, then this would entail that God is rather different than the stock conception of a perfect deity.

It might be replied that God allows things to happen contrary to His intention because of free will. While this might get Him off the hook in regards to allowing rape, it does not do so in the case of pregnancy. After all, God could allow rapists the freedom to rape and still prevent rape from causing pregnancy. He could, for example, give women that pregnancy shut down system that Akin infamously mentioned. Or, even better, he could allow people the free will to chose to rape but prevent them from ever acting on that choice. As such, it would seem that if God exists and matches the stock description, then God does intent for the pregnancies that arise from rape.

There is, of course, still the question of whether not women should be legally compelled to endure such God intended  pregnancies. It could be argued that since God intended the woman to get pregnant from rape, then abortions should not be allowed since God’s intent should not be violated.  The easy and obvious reply to this is that the same logic would entail that we should do nothing in response to anything other than to accept it rather than go against God’s intent.

It can also be argued that we can determine  God’s intent by allowing abortion in such cases. After all, if God intends for the pregnancy to go through, then God can make that happen. If the abortion succeeds, then either God intended for it to succeed (and thus the abortion should have been conducted) or God is lacking in some manner (or does not exist).

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Voter Fraud

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 1, 2012
Republican Party (United States)

Republican Party (United States) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Republicans warned America about the dangers of voter fraud and worked to pass various laws allegedly aimed at countering the microscopic level of fraud that has occurred. However, while the eyes of the Republican guardians of the republic were gazing outward, treachery was occurring within the walls of their own political castle.

In a scenario that will remind some folks of the 2008 ACORN incident, Strategic Allied Consulting is being investigated for fraud in multiple Florida counties (10 at last count). The company is run by Republican consultant Nathan Sproul. The Republican party apparently paid the company $2.9 million to run voter registration drives in the swing states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia.

The first signs of fraud appeared in Palm Beach County in my state of Florida. 108 potentially fraudulent forms were found among those submitted by Strategic Allied Consulting. The fraud was hardly masterful-for example, one of the addresses used was that of a gas station. In other counties, there are reports of dead people registering to vote. This suggests either fraud or the start of the zombie apocalypse.

While Romney has tried to distance himself from Sproul, but there are clear links. Romney’s campaign paid another one of Sproul’s firms (Lincoln Strategy Group) $80,000 for signature gathering services, apparently in 2011. In 2012 Romney’s campaign paid a much smaller amount ($889.44) to Lincoln Strategy group for rent and utilities.

Interestingly, Sproul has also been accused of tampering with Democratic voter registration forms in various states over the years. For example, there were accusations that the forms filled out by Democrats were discarded by the company.

In addition to Florida, Colorado has seen questionable activities by Strategic Allied Consulting. The Republican party in that state payed Sproul’s company $466,643. There are also concerns about his company’s activities in his own state of Arizona.

Just as the ACORN scandals had their video, the current scandal has its defining YouTube video:

When ACORN was under attack for alleged voter fraud and other problems, I wrote a series of posts  on these matters. Being a consistent person, I am applying the same standards to the current incident. In fact, I can copy and paste my original post on ACORN and then modify it just a bit.

The claim that SAC has turned in fake voter registration forms seems to be true. It is, however, important to keep the following fact in mind: by law, SAC cannot decide what forms it will turn in to the officials. After all, it is not up to SAC or other such voter registration organizations to decide which forms are valid and which are fakes. That is the responsibility of the state. As such, if fraudulent forms are turned into SAC, they must be turned in to the state.  Of course, there is concern about why SAC has apparently gathered so many fraudulent forms. There is also the concern that SAC seems to have been attempting to register only Romney voters.

One possibility is that people in SAC intended to engage in voter fraud by creating a number of fake voter identities and then using them to influence the election. This practice is not unheard of. After all, it used to be joked that the dead were a major voting block in Chicago. As such, it is reasonable to be concerned about attempts at voter fraud. In support of this is the fact that SAC was paid millions of dollars by the Republican party and it would be somewhat odd if they did not expect that their spending would yield them an advantage. While the Republican party has severed ties with SAC and condemned the company, the complete facts are yet to be determined.

Of course, there is a big difference between turning in fake voter registration forms and actual voting fraud. For a fake form to enable someone to vote, the form would have to get past the verification process. Further, the person going to cast the vote under a fake identity would need the documentation to support this false identity. As such, if SAC was going to conduct voter fraud, they would need to take steps to get the fake registrations through the verification process and then get the fake voters through the verification process at the polls. However, some of the fake forms allegedly turned in by SAC were rather easily spotted.  As such, either SACS was not involved in a conspiracy or it was a rather lame one. Then again, perhaps there are fake forms that were cleverly filled out and managed to get through the verification process. This does remain a possibility.

As second possibility is that certain people employed by SACS created fraudulent voter forms on their own and turned them in to SACS. Since people are paid to register people to vote and going around to register real voters can be a lot of work, there is a clear incentive for some unethical people to simply fill out forms on their own. As such, some of the fraudulent forms can be explained in this manner without there being a conspiracy on the part of SACS. While this might get SACS off one hook, it does raise concerns about who SACS hires and what steps are taken to ensure that these people follow the law and are properly educated in the process. Given the evidence of fraud, it is clear that SAC and other organizations need to take steps to deal with this problem.

It will be interesting to see what Fox News says about this matter. Given their harsh criticism of ACORN, they should be equally harsh with SACs.

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Losing to the Obama that Isn’t

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 24, 2012
Official photographic portrait of US President...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I wrote in a previous post, politicians and pundits often craft alternative realities that do not correspond to the actual world. Rather than being a few lies or distortions, sweeping fictional narratives have been presented.

One interesting impact of this tale telling is that some people have come to believe in the fictional world they themselves have fabricated. I am not sure if they believed in that world first and then attempted to get everyone else to try the Kool Aid or if they drank too much of their own beverage and came to believe. Either way, the result seems to be the same: a belief in the existence of an Obama that isn’t (nicely illustrated by Clint Eastwood speaking to a “Harvey” Obama that apparently only certain people can see).

One clear indicator of this is the shock and dismay on the part of conservative pundits such as Laura Ingraham. She recently said “if you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party.” Other pundits and spinions have expressed incredulity at Obama’s ability to stay ahead of Romney in the polls. This is understandable. On their narrative, Obama is the worst president in history. He has divided the country, brought socialism to America, destroyed jobs, played the race card against all opponents, gone on a worldwide apology tour, weakened America and might be a secret Muslim who was born outside of the United States. Obviously enough, such a terrible person should be extremely easy to defeat and Americans should be clamoring if not for Romney, then at least to be rid of Obama. As such, it makes sense why the people who accept the alternative reality in which Obama is all these things (or at least most of them) are shocked by what is actually happening.

It also makes sense that they would believe that the Republican Party is to blame for the failure to beat such an easy opponent. To use an analogy, imagine that fans of a team believe that an opposing team is pathetic but as the game is played, the “pathetic” team gets ahead and stays there. Rather than re-assess the other team, the fans are likely to start blaming their team, the coaches and so on for doing so poorly against such a “pathetic” opponent. However, if the opposing team is not as they imagined, then they have the explanation wrong: they are losing because the other team is better.  Put another way, their team is not playing against the team they think they are playing against-the pathetic team is a product of their minds and not an objective assessment of the actual team.

In the case of Obama, the conservatives an Republicans would be rightfully dismayed if they were losing to someone as bad as their idea of Obama. However, they are not running against that alternative Obama. They are running against the actual Obama and he is not as bad as they claim. Hence, it makes sense that they are not doing as well as they think they should be doing.  To be fair, the Democrats also have an Obama narrative that is not an unbiased account of the president.

As might be imagined, while the Republicans have a good reason to try to get people to accept their alternative Obama some of them seem to have come to believe that the alternative is the actual. This has a rather practical impact in that to the degree they believe in this Obama that isn’t, their strategies and tactics will be distorted. After all, when one goes into battle accurate intelligence is vital and distorted information is a major liability. It does seem that some folks have fallen victim to their own distortions and it is actually having a negative impact on Romney’s chances.

Romney might, of course, be able to turn things around. While Obama is doing well, the contest is still very close and one should never underestimate the power of distortion in politics. If Romney can get enough people to accept his narrative, then he can win. If not, the actual Obama will win.

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Mittens

Posted in Humor by Michael LaBossiere on September 22, 2012
There once was a kitten named Mittens.
Who went around giving people shoves.
When asked to say he was sorry, he made up quite the story:
“I guess I should have worn white gloves.”

Illustration of the kittens with the puddle-du...

“Stay back you 47%!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Legitimate Rape & Punishment

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 7, 2012
Republican Party (United States)

Republican Party (United States) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In August of 2012 Ted Akin, a Republican representative from Missouri, created quite a stir when he said, “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy from rape) is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

While primarily regarded as a political matter, this does raise some important philosophical concerns.

One point of concern is a matter of both ethics and epistemology. To be specific, his making the claim that the female body can “shut down” a pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape” raises the question as to whether or not a person in his position (a member of congress who gets to make decisions about women’s health) is morally obligated to make the effort to know what he is talking about.

On the face of it, someone who is in a position to create and pass laws regarding rape and abortion certainly seems obligated to know the actual facts about rape and pregnancy. After all, passing such laws from a position of ignorance will tend to do more harm than good (and any good done would seem to be a matter of accident) since they would not be based on reality. In the case of rape and pregnancy, anyone who has taken a high school level class in anatomy and physiology (which I did) or a competent sex education class would be aware that the female body lacks these “shut down” mechanisms. It hardly seems unreasonable for a congressman to have at least a high school level knowledge regarding the human reproductive system.

Of course, it could be argued that such classes do not typically explicitly state that the female body lacks these mechanisms and someone might claim that the occurrence of pregnancy from “legitimate rape” is very low. However, this claim would be at odds with the known facts. Back in 1996 the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston conducted a large (4008 women) study over three years and found that there is a national average of a 5% rate of pregnancy among rape victims. This results in an estimated 32,101 cases of pregnancy per year in the United States. As such, Akin was wrong about the facts.

While having just one congressman being wrong about this is a matter of concern, there is also the general concern regarding the extent to which views about abortion are based on beliefs that are mistaken. After all, to the degree that opposition to abortion in cases of rape is based on the mistaken belief that women are all but immune to being impregnated by “legitimate” rape this opposition is unjustified. Naturally, there can be other justifications presented, but clearly Akin’s “shut down” view fails to justify his view that abortion should not be allowed even in cases of rape.

Akin does allow that the “shut down” mechanism might fail, thus allowing for a presumably slight possibility that a woman could be impregnated by “legitimate” rape. However, he asserts that even in such cases abortion should not be permitted. As he sees it, “there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

I, not surprisingly, agree that rapists should be punished. I am reasonably sure that this is a non-controversial position. However, the matter of not “attacking the child” is more controversial.

As Akin presents the matter, a woman who has an abortion after being “legitimately” raped is “attacking” and presumably punishing the child (Akin seems to be saying that the rapist should be punished and not the child). While the idea of punishing a child seems horrible, there is the question of whether or not this occurring.

One key point is whether or not the entity in question (which might be just a fertilized egg) is actually a child. This, of course, is a matter that is disputed in the course of the larger debate over abortion and addressing it would expand the essay far beyond its intended scope. As such, let it be assumed for the sake of this argument that the entity is a child. Let it also be assumed, obviously enough, that abortion kills this entity.

As might be suspected, casting the abortion as punishing the child is a clever rhetorical move since it seems terrible to punish a child for the action of another. It also allows those who oppose abortion rights to cast abortion in the case of rape as a woman punishing a child rather than a woman deciding not to bear the child imposed on her against her will by a rapist. While this has some rhetorical punch, it falls apart under examination.

While the entity (or child, if one prefers) is killed by the abortion, the entity is not being punished. Punishment entails a retribution in response to wrongdoing and requires that the entity in question be capable of being punished (and not merely harmed). In the case of the entity, it has done no wrong—mainly because it does not seem to be an agent capable of wrongdoing (or even a moral agent at all). That is, it simply lacks the attributes needed to be wrong doer. To use an analogy, a very young kitten who scratches a person and infects him with cat scratch fever is not a wrongdoer—it has no understanding of what it is doing nor intent to cause harm. To use another analogy, cancer cells might cause a person harm, but they are not doing wrong—they have no moral agency. Naturally, a person can inflict harm on the kitten or destroy the cancer, but neither the kitten or the cancer are being punished. They lack the attributes needed to understand that they are being punished and hence cannot be punished, although they can be harmed or killed.

Likewise, a zygote and even a fetus lack the agency and understanding to be wrongdoers. They can, of course, be harmed but they cannot actually be punished. After all, they lack the attributes needed to understand that what is being done is punishment and hence they can be harmed but not punished.

Naturally, it can be countered that although the claim that the entity is being punished because of the crime of the rapist is a rhetorical point, what actually matters is that the entity is being harmed. That is, a woman who is raped should not be allowed to have an abortion because doing so would harm the entity. The assumption is, obviously enough, that the fact that the woman was raped is morally irrelevant. This is, as might be imagined, a rather extreme position. However, it is worth considering because people like Akin and Paul Ryan, the Republicans VP pick for 2012, hold to that view.

Roughly put, the principle that Akin and Ryan seem to be operating on is that it does not matter how the woman was impregnated, what matters is that she is pregnant and that the abortion would kill the entity. More generally, it does not matter how an innocent life got there, the right to life of that entity overrides the rights of the host. One interesting way to look at this matter is to look at illegal immigration in the United States.

Suppose that the United States is looked at as being analogous to a woman and that people trying to get into the United States illegally are looked upon as being analogous to rapists (yes, this is horrible comparison but is not intended to degrade illegal aliens). The children that the illegal immigrants bring with them or give birth to in the United States are, obviously enough, analogous to the child in a pregnancy.

Given the principle that Akin and Ryan seem to be operating on, children that end up in the United States cannot be deported if doing so would harm them. After all, this would be comparable to aborting them.

The obvious counter is, of course, that the illegal children have parents that can take care of them and hence the abortion analogy breaks down because the United States cannot be expected to take care of children when there are parents who can do that. After all, to expect Americans to bear the cost of raising someone else’s children would be wrong.

Of course, Akin and Ryan are expecting women impregnated by rape to do just that—that is, to bear the cost of taking care of children they did not choose and that were forced upon them. Naturally, it would be morally commendable for a woman to elect to raise the child—but it hardly seems reasonable to say that a woman is obligated to do so.

To use another analogy, the principle that Akin and Ryan seem to accept would seem to obligate people to raise any child that someone was able to get onto their property. So, if someone managed to sneak into Ryan’s house and leave behind babies, then Ryan would be obligated to raise them. After all, while the trespasser broke it, the rights of the babies trump the rights of the property owner. It would not do, of course, to attack the babies because of the crime of the trespasser.

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Are the Politicians Just F@cking With Us?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 5, 2012

Official portrait of Congressman .

As I have noted in other posts, both the Democrats and the Republicans seem to be somewhat truth averse. Or, at the very least, willing to take a flexible approach to matters of fact. A quick look at Politifacts shows this to be the case.

While some non-truths can be attributed to honest errors or ignorance (especially ones that occur in spontaneous or otherwise unprepared remarks), this surely cannot be the explanation for all cases. Unless, of course, politicians are to be attributed sweeping incompetence and broad ignorance.

In some cases, politicians no doubt fall victims to their own narratives and cognitive biases and they no doubt feel that what they are saying is true, even when it is not. While this is still a problem, it can be somewhat forgiven on the grounds that these biases are difficult to counter, we are all subject to them and they are typically not intentional deceits (unless the person is also intentionally deceiving himself/herself).

In other cases, the politicians are no doubt aware that they are saying things that are not true and they are doing so with an intent to mislead. That is, they are lying. As noted in an earlier post, Paul Ryan’s speech contained numerous untruths and distortions. Not surprisingly, some of his fellow Republicans came to his defense and said that what mattered were his broader points and larger message.

On the one hand, they do make a reasonable general point: when considering a matter it is rather critical to sort out what is important and what is a minor point. After all, pointing out errors or defects in some of the minor points need not show that the whole is defective in significant ways. For example, if Ryan had said that Obama had cut $771 million from a program and he had actually cut $717 million, then pointing out this error would hardly show that Ryan’s overall narrative was flawed.

On the other hand, Ryan’s overall narrative seemed to be supported by critical claims that were untrue or distortions. That is, his evidence for his main claim turned out to be mostly defective. While this does not prove that his main claim is not true, it does show that his defective evidence should not be accepted as evidence for his claims. Obviously enough, if Obama is as bad as Ryan claims, then he should have been able to present true and un-distorted evidence for his view. After all, why lie and bend the truth if the facts would suffice?

One possibility is that the facts would not suffice-that is, in reality Obama is not as bad as Ryan claims. In short, Ryan needed to support his straw man and alternative reality with fictional “evidence.” This, obviously, is rather unethical.

Another possibility is that Ryan and other politicians are f@cking with us. That is, they think that they have no real need to tell the truth, that they can spin a narrative with impunity and that there is nothing the critics can do about it. This might well be the case. After all, I infer that Ryan knows that he was making false and misleading claims (the alternative is that he is willfully ignorant or detached from reality) yet he does not seem to think it matters. He might be right. After all, many folks in the Republican party defended him, essentially saying that the facts do not matter, just the narrative (which they, oddly enough, claim is true). Other folks just accept what he says and if questioned attribute the criticism to the biased media. As such, he can just lie to these people and not worry about any consequences. The Democrats who reject the narrative are note going to vote for Ryan and Romney so he probably does not care what they think.  In fact, it might be sort of funny to lie blatantly and get away with it just because he can. As far as the independents go, perhaps he figures that they will not bother to check the facts, they will just forget about the deceit when the election arrives or that they will not care.

As might be imagined, this sort of lying and distortion bothers me. First, there are the ethical concerns about lying. Second, there is the damage it does to the democratic process. Third, there is the practical concern: if Paul Ryan will lie about matters that can easily be checked, how can he be trusted as vice president?

Naturally some folks will accuse me of bashing Republicans and giving Democrats a pass. While I do contend that the Republicans lie and distort more (check out Politifacts), the Democrats also lie and distort. This is not to say the Democrats are as bad-they are not. However, they are still bad and that is still a problem.

When the DNC rolls around, I will be critical of their lies and distortions as well.

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The Abortion Issue

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2012

, member of the United States House of Represe...

Thanks to Todd Akin, the issue of abortion is once again in the political spotlight. While the Republican leadership uniformly chastised Akin for his remarks about “legitimate rape”, the social conservatives in the Republican party still support Akin’s (and Ryan’s) view of abortion.

This year the Republicans platform is supposed to (once again) include a person hood plank. While the final wording has yet to be set, CNN received a leaked version that states:“Faithful to the ‘self-evident’ truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”

Lest anyone think this is something entirely new, similar (though less extreme) planks have been included in 2000, 2004, and 2008. These did not get much attention, but Akin’s words have brought the spotlight to this plank.

While the social conservatives regard this as a very important matter, the Republican leadership clearly wants to push the spotlight off this issue and onto the economy. After all, the economy is seen as Obama’s weak point and the Republicans stand a better chance of winning on this issue. However, if abortion continues to be an issue, this could bode ill for the Republicans.

Naturally, people do point out that there are anti-abortion women. I am well aware of this and I even know women who oppose abortion on moral or religious grounds. However, most Americans believe that abortion should remain legal. This alone makes abortion something of a losing battle for the Republicans.

It might be replied that the Republicans can still win over women who are pro-life with their pro-life position and win over pro-choice women by their claims about the economy. This is, of course, a good strategy. In the past, the Republicans have been able to include a pro-life agenda while winning over women voters, in part because some women are pro-life and in part because pro-choice Republican women could rest assured that nothing would come of the pro-life agenda. The Republican party was also regarded as not being hostile to women, at least by most people in the mainstream. However, things have changed.

One substantive change has been the push to severely restrict abortion and even eliminate it. While a small number of pro-life woman might favor this, there are still plenty of  pro-life women (and men) who believe that abortion should still be allowed in cases of rape, incest and when it is necessary to save the life of the mother. As might be imagined, pushing such a restrictive view of abortion would not play well on the national stage. However, one thing that favors the Republicans here is the fact that people tend to believe, based on the past, that this position was just thrown in as a bone to the social conservatives and that Romney would not really make it so. As such, people who might be dismayed by this view can also feel they can safely ignore it.

On stylistic change has been the language and approach of certain Republicans, especially Ryan and Akin. In  the legislation penned by Ryan and Akin, the term “forcible rape” was introduced and this created the impression that Ryan and Akin think that only certain types of rape are “rapey” enough to allow for a woman or girl to have an abortion. Akin obviously tossed gasoline  on this fire when he used “legitimate rape” and made false claims about the female body’s ability to defend against being impregnated by rape. I would imagine this sort of language is unappealing to women and creates a rather negative impression of the Republican party. Interestingly, while the mainstream Republicans rushed to distance themselves from Akin and to condemn his words, the Republican party seems to be sticking with Akin’s principles regarding abortion. As such, they seem to be sending the message that women’s rights should be restricted but politicians should not talk about it that way.

Since the election is still a few months away, the Republicans have time to do damage control and to attempt to make this a non-issue for the election. Presumably they want it to be important and not important at the same time-important for the social conservatives, yet ignored by everyone else.

While some are casting Akin’s remarks as an error in which he misspoke, it is tempting to some to think that what was seen was a moment of honesty-that is, the true face of this sort of social conservatism was revealed in all its ignorance and misogyny.

In closing, the  abortion issue is such that Obama cannot win on it, yet Romney could lose on it. That is, Obama will not win the election by holding to his pro-choice view. However, the way the Republicans handle (or mishandle) the issue can antagonize enough voters (especially women) to cause Romney to lose. Obama is currently ahead with women voters and incidents like these can only help him.

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