A Philosopher's Blog

Free Speech & Feeling Unsafe

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 9, 2017

A somewhat recent talking point on the right is that “the liberals” are trying to violate the free speech rights of conservatives. On the one hand, this is a hasty generalization: the left counts among its numbers some of the staunchest advocates of free expression who defend the right of conservatives to engage in free expression. On the other hand, there are those on the left who are actively trying to silence conservative voices. That said, is important to distinguish between attempts to silence people and legitimate acts of protest.

To illustrate, the incident involving Charles Murray at Middlebury College illustrates how some people try to unjustly silence those they disagree with. In contrast, the students at Notre Dame who walked out on Vice President Pence’s speech were engaged in a legitimate protest—they expressed their disagreement without harassing or silencing pence. However, the Pence incident had an interesting twist that is well worth considering.

Two of the students who walked out on Pence’s speech explained their motivation: “The walkout was in response to the fact that members of our own community felt unwelcome, uncomfortable, and even unsafe…” I do understand why having Mike Pence speak would make some people feel unwelcome and uncomfortable—after all, Pence makes no secret of his views on various social and moral issues. No doubt some conservative students would feel just as unwelcome and uncomfortable in the presence of a liberal speaker. While I do think speakers should endeavor to make their audience welcome and comfortable, this is not a moral obligation on the part of speakers—especially on college campuses. A key part of education is being pushed outside of one’s comfort zone in terms of such things as values, beliefs and ideology. Students do, of course, have every right to resist being pushed out of this zone; but this is typically their loss when they succeed. The students might have benefited from enduring Pence’s words; but they did have the right to refuse to listen. After all, the right of free expression means that one should not be silenced, not that one can compel others to pay attention.

What is worrisome is the use of the term “unsafe.” When I first heard some vague details about this episode, I initially thought the students were concerned that there might be violence at the event—as has happened elsewhere. That would, of course, be legitimate grounds for concerns about safety. After all, to feel unsafe is to feel that one is at risk for harm. However, after listening to a discussion of the incident on NPR, I realized that the claim was that Pence’s mere presence as a speaker made people feel unsafe. They did not, obviously, think that Pence would attack them physically.

One way to interpret the matter is that people thought they would be harmed in some meaningful way by Pence’s presence and his words. While people can certainly inflict harm with words, it would seem to be an odd use of “unsafe” in the context of the Vice President giving a speech. But perhaps some people are so lacking in resilience that the expression of ideas they do not like or the presence of someone they disagree with can cause harm to them. In this case, they would thus be wise to leave the area before sustaining such harm. To use an analogy, if someone was so sensitive to noise that a speech would cause them pain, they should not attend the speech. They do not, however, have the right to insist that the speech not be made simply because they would experience pain.

A second, and more plausible way, to interpret this is that “unsafe” is referring to a stronger version of being uncomfortable and not a feeling that meaningful danger is imminent. While words mean what they do as a matter of convention, shifting the meaning of words in this manner is problematic for communication. As noted above, I initially thought the students feared a riot, which caused some confusion. Another potential problem is that using “unsafe” in this context makes the expression of ideas that one does not like seem dangerous. While this might be a rhetorical point the students were trying to make to justify walking out, this is a misuse of the language. To be specific, it is hyperbole that serves to distort the matter by conflating merely being uncomfortable with being in danger. Because of these problems, the term “unsafe” should not be used in such contexts. Instead, it should be used for cases in which there is an actual threat to safety and rights. Such as the push by some against free expression by conservatives.

 

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Bathroom Laws

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2017


One way to approach the moral issue of whether transgender people should be able to choose their bathrooms is to consider the matter in utilitarian terms. This would involve weighing the harms inflicted by denying this choice against the harms inflicted by granting it. In a democracy, this approach seems to a reasonable one—at least if it is believed that a democratic state should aim at the general good of the people.

A utilitarian assessment of the bathroom choice issue leads to an obvious conclusion: bathroom choice should be granted. As I have argued in another essay, the two main arguments against bathroom choice fail in the face of due consideration and facts. One argument is that allowing bathroom choice would put people in danger. Since some states have already allowed bathroom choice, there is data about the danger presented by such choice. Currently, the evidence shows that there is no meaningful danger. As some wits enjoy pointing out, more Republican lawmakers have been arrested for bathroom misconduct than transgender people. As such, those worried about misdeeds in bathrooms should be focusing on that threat. The other argument is the privacy argument, which falls apart under analysis.

While those advancing these arguments might honestly believe in them, it might be suspected that the prime motivation for opposing bathroom choice is a dislike of transgender people—the “transgender people are icky argument.” This “argument” has no merit on the face of it, which is why it is not advanced as a reason by opponents of bathroom choice.

One stock problem with utilitarian arguments is that they can be used to justify the violation of rights. This problem typically arises in cases in which the benefits received by a numerical majority come at the expense of harms done to a numerical minority. However, it can also arise in cases where the greater benefits to a numerical minority outweigh the lesser harms to a numerical majority. In the case at hand, those opposed to bathroom choice could argue that even if bathroom choice benefits transgender people far more than it harms people who oppose bathroom choice, the rights of anti-choice people are being violated. This then makes the matter a question of competing rights.

In the case of public bathroom facilities, such as student bathrooms at schools, members of the public have the right to use them—that is the nature of public goods. There are, however, reasonable limits placed on access. For example, people are generally not allowed to just wander off the street into schools to use the facilities. Likewise, the bathrooms in courthouses and government buildings are generally not open to anyone to wander off the street and use. So, there is a right to public bathrooms—but, like all rights, it does have its limits. It can thus be assumed that transgender people have bathroom rights as do people who oppose bathroom choice. What is in dispute is whether the right of transgender people to choose their bathroom trumps the right of anti-choice people to not be forced to use bathrooms with transgender people.

Disputes over competing rights are often settled by utilitarian considerations, but the utilitarian argument already favors bathroom choice. As such, another approach is needed and a reasonable one is the consideration of which right has priority. This approach assumes that there is a hierarchy of rights and that one right can take precedent over another. Fortunately, this is intuitively appealing. For example, while people have a right to free expression, the right to not be unjustly harmed trumps it—which is why libel and slander are not protected by this right.

So, the bathroom issue comes down to this: does the right of a transgender person to choose their bathroom have priority over the right of an anti-choice person to not encounter transgender people in the bathroom? My inclination is that the right of the transgender person has priority over the anti-choice person. To support this, I will use an analogy to race.

Not so long ago, there were separate bathrooms for black and white people. When the bathrooms were to be integrated, there were dire warnings that terrible things would occur if bathrooms were integrated. Obviously enough, these terrible things did not take place. Whites could also have argued that they had a right to not be in the same bathroom as blacks. However, the alleged white right to not be in a bathroom with blacks does not seem to trump the right of blacks to use the bathroom. Likewise, the right of transgender people to choose their bathroom trumps the right of anti-choice people to exclude them.

It can be objected that if this argument is taken to its logical conclusion, then gender mixing will occur in the bathrooms. For example, one common sight at road races (such as 5Ks and marathons) are long lines leading to the women’s bathrooms and short lines (or no lines) for the men’s bathrooms. Women runners, desperate to lighten their load, might start going into the men’s room (they already sometimes do). Then terrible things might happen. Specifically, I might need to wait longer to pee before races. This is a case where my selfishness must outweigh my moral principles: though I have no moral objection to gender mixing of bathrooms, my selfish bladder says that I cannot give up my right to a shorter line. This makes me a bad person, but a bad person with a happy bladder. Yes, this is satire. Maybe.

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Wedding Cakes & Cartoon of Muhammad

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2015
U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On May 3, 2015 the American Freedom Defense Initiative put on a contest in which cartoonists drew images of Muhammad for a cash prize. To most Muslims, such portrayals of Muhammad are deeply offensive—much in the way that many Americans find the burning of the American flag offensive. As such, it is reasonable to infer that the event was intended to be provocative—the event was certainly well protected with armed security forces. As such, it was hardly shocking when two gunmen attacked the event. These armored and heavily armed men were killed by a traffic officer armed only with a pistol. ISIS has claimed credit for the attack, although it is currently unclear if the terrorist group had a direct role.

As I have argued in previous essays, the use of violence in response to offensive artwork or other forms of expression is not warranted. As such, there is no need to re-hash those arguments to support the claim that the attack on the event was morally wrong. Outside of the realm of violent extremists, I doubt there is much dispute over this point. As such, I will proceed to the main matter I wish to focus on.

But a short while ago, Indiana was making headlines with its religious freedom act. There is also the recurring talking point that religious liberty and religion are under attack in America. One example given of the threat to religious liberty was the requirement that employers of a certain size provide insurance coverage that covered birth control for full-time employees. Another example of the threat is the steady march towards legalization in all 50 states by same sex-marriage. A third example is that many states have laws that forbid discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation. This is supposed to violate religious liberty by forbidding, for example, a Christian baker to discriminate against a same-sex couple that wants to buy a wedding cake.

Though I have written extensively about these specific matters, my general view is based on the principle that religious rights do not allow a person a right to violate the legitimate rights of others. To use an easy and obvious example, a faith that claimed human sacrifice as a basic tenet of its faith would justly be denied the right to engage in this practice. After all, the right to life trumps the right to practice one’s faith on others against their will.

In the case of discrimination against same-sex couples, I follow the same principle: the freedom of religion is bounded by the principle of harm. Since same-sex couples are members of the civil society and being able to engage in free commerce is a basic right in capitalism, to deny them the right to goods and services because of their sexual orientation would harm them. While it might be countered that selling a cake to a same-sex couple would harm the Christian baker, it is not clear what harm is being done. After all, she is making a sale and the sale of an item is not an endorsement of the purchaser. If, for example, Nazis are buying my books on Amazon, I am not thereby endorsing Nazism.

In the case of a company being required to provide coverage that covers birth control, the company does not seem to be harmed by this. The company is not required to use birth control, directly hand it to the employees, or endorse birth control. They are merely required to provide employees with the opportunity to have such coverage if they so desire it. It is, in fact, a form of compensation—it certainly does not violate the rights of an employer if employers spend their salaries as they wish—even on birth control.

While the laws that are purported to defend religious freedom do not, for obvious reasons, specify that they are aimed at defending a specific variety of Christianity, it does seem fairly evident that the concern is not about defending religion in general. If it were, the event in which people competed to draw cartoons of Muhammad would have been condemned by all the folks supporting the religious “freedom” laws and those who claim religion is under attack in America. After all, holding an event explicitly aimed at mocking a religion and provoking members of a faith would seem to be an attack on religion. This sort of event would certainly seem more of an attack on religion than forbidding bakers from discriminating against same-sex couples.

While I think people should not engage in such offensive behavior (I also believe that people should not burn American flags or piss on crosses), my consistency requires that I must accept the freedom of people to engage in such offensive behavior. This is, as with the case of the wedding cake, based on the principle of harm: restricting freedom of expression because the expression is offensive creates more harm than it prevents. Part of this is because while there is a right to freedom of expression and it can be wrong to offend people, there is no right to a freedom from being offended. That said, members of civil society do fall under moral expectations of polite behavior. So, while there is no right to forbid people from pissing on crosses, burning American flags or drawing cartoons of Muhammad, a decent human being will consider her actions and act with respect for the views of others. That is what good people do. I admit, I have not always lived up to that myself and that is a failing on my part.

It is, of course, possible to cross from mere offense to actual harm. This boundary is, unfortunately, not always sharp and admits of many gray zones. Fortunately, though, the principle is clear: mere offensiveness does not warrant forbiddance and religious freedom does not warrant unjustly imposing on the rights of others.

 

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Is Baking a Gay Wedding Cake an Endorsement of Same Sex Marriage?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on April 10, 2015

Indiana’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act set off a firestorm of controversy. Opponents of the law contended that it would legalize discrimination while some proponents argued that it would do no such thing. Some proponents contended that it would allow people and businesses to refuse certain services to homosexuals, but that this should not be considered discrimination but a matter of freedom of expression. This approach is both interesting and well worth considering.

In the United States, freedom of expression is a legally protected right. More importantly, from a philosophical perspective, it is also a well-supported moral right. As such, an appeal to freedom of expression can be a useful defense.

In the case of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the argument from freedom of expression would certainly not work in regards to justifying general discrimination in regards to goods and services. For example, the owner of a pizzeria would be hard pressed to claim that not being allowed to refuse service to a person just because she is gay violates his freedom of expression. However, freedom of expression might be applicable in certain cases.

While the freedom of expression is typically presented as a right against being silenced, it also provides the right not to be compelled to express views (specifically views that one does not hold or that one opposes). The right to not be compelled in one’s expression would thus seem to give a person a moral (and a legal) right to refuse certain services.

This line of reasoning does have considerable appeal. For example, I operate a writing business—I write books to be sold and I do freelance work. I obviously have no moral right to refuse business from someone just because she is gay, Jewish, Christian, or a non-runner. However, my writing is clearly an act of expression. As such, my freedom of expression grants me a clear moral right to refuse to write a tract endorsing Nazism or one advocating hatred of Christians. I also design book covers and do some graphic work (graphic as in visual, not as in adult content). Since these are clearly expressions, I would have the moral right to refuse to do a book cover for book expressing ideas I regard as morally wrong, such as eliminating religious freedom in favor of enforced atheism. This is because the creation of such work entails a clear endorsement and expression of the ideas. If I write a tract in favor of white supremacy, I am unambiguously expressing my support of the idea. If I knowingly do a cover for a book on white supremacy, then it would be reasonable to infer I agreed with the ideas. In such cases, an appeal to freedom of expression would seem quite relevant and reasonable.

Obviously, an author or cover designer who believes that her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness would also be protected by the freedom of expression from being required to express views she does not hold. If a LGBT group approached her and offered her a fat stack of cash to pen a piece in favor of gay marriage, she would have the moral right to reject their offer. After all, they have no moral right to expect her to express views she does not hold, even for fat stacks of cash.

In contrast, I could not use freedom of expression as a reason to not sell one of my books or works to a person. For example, freedom of expression does not grant me the right to forbid Amazon from selling my books to Nazis, racists, intolerant atheists, or non-runners. After all, selling a book to a person is not an endorsement of that person’s ideas. I do not endorse intolerant atheism just because an intolerant atheist can buy my book.

Likewise, the author who believes her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness could not use freedom of expression to demand that Amazon not sell her books to homosexuals. While buying a book might suggest agreement with the author (but it obviously does not entail it—I have plenty of philosophy books whose contents I regard as being in error), it does not suggest that the author is endorsing the purchaser. So, if a gay person buys the author’s anti-same-sex marriage book, it does not mean that the author is endorsing same-sex marriage.

Not surprisingly, no one has claimed that religious freedom acts are needed to protect Christian writers from being forced to write pro-gay works. However, it has been argued that the acts are needed to protect the freedom of expression for people such as caterers, bakers, and photographers.

The argument is that catering a wedding, baking a wedding cake, doing a wedding or engagement photo shoot and similar things are expressions and are thus covered by the right to freedom of expression.

Obviously enough, if these activities are expressions analogous to the paradigm cases of speech and writing, then the freedom of expression does protect them. As such, the key question is whether or not such actions are acts of expression such that engaging in them in relation to a same-sex wedding would express an endorsement of same-sex marriage.

To get the obvious out of the way, refusing to cater, photograph or bake a cake for a wedding because the people involved were Jewish, black, Christian, white, or Canadian would clearly be discrimination. If the person refusing to do so said that baking a cake for a Jew endorsed Judaism, that catering a black wedding endorsed blackness, or that photographing Canadians being married was an endorsement of Canada, she would be regarded as either joking or crazy.  But perhaps a case could be made that catering, baking and photographing are expressions of agreement or endorsement.

On the face of it, catering food for a wedding would not seem to be expressing approval or agreement with the wedding, regardless of what sort of wedding it might be. Selling someone food would seem to be like selling them a book—their buying it says nothing about what I endorse or believe. When the pizza delivery person arrives with a pizza when I am playing Pathfinder, I do not say “aha, Dominoes endorses role-playing games!” After all, they are just selling me pizza.

In the case of the wedding cake, it could be argued that it is a specific sort of cake and creating one does express an endorsement. By this reasoning, a birthday cake would entail an endorsement of the person’s birth and continued existence, a congratulations cake would entail an endorsement of that person’s achievement and so on for all the various cakes.  This, obviously enough, seems implausible. Making me a birthday cake does not show that Publix endorses my birth or continued existence. They are just selling me a cake. Likewise, selling a person a wedding cake does not entail approval of the wedding. Obviously enough, if a baker sells a wedding cake to a person who has committed adultery, this does not entail her approval of adultery.

It could be argued that bakers have the right to refuse a specific design or message on the cake. For example, a Jewish baker could claim that he has the right to refuse to create a Nazi cake with swastikas and Nazi slogans. This seems reasonable—a baker, like a writer, should not be compelled to create content she does not wish to express. Given this principle, a baker could refuse to bake a sexually explicit wedding cake or one festooned with gay pride slogans and condemnations of straight “breeders.” However, creating a plain wedding cake is not the expression of ideas and would be on par with selling a person a book rather than being forced to write specific content. By analogy, I cannot refuse to sell a book to a person because he is an intolerant atheist, but I can refuse contract to write in support of that view.

Since photography is a form of art (at least in some cases), it is certainly reasonable to regard it is a form of artistic expression. On this ground it is reasonable to accept that photography is protected by the freedom of expression. The key issue here is whether taking pictures commercially is like writing words—that is, photographing something is an endorsement of the activity or if it is like selling a book, which is merely selling a product and not an endorsement.

On the face of it, commercial photography would seem to be like selling a book. A person who is paid to cover a war or a disaster is not taken to be endorsing the war or the disaster. One would not say that because a person took a photo of a soldier shooting a civilian that he endorse that activity. Likewise, a person photographing a wedding is not endorsing the wedding—she is merely recording the event. For money.

It might be countered that a wedding photographer is different from other commercial photographers—she is involved in the process and her involvement is an expression of approval. But, of course, commercial photographers who take photos at sports events, political events, protests and such are also involved in the process—they are there, taking pictures. However, a photographer hired to take pictures of Hilary Clinton does not thus express her support (or vote) for Hilary. She is just taking pictures.  Fox News, after all, takes video and photos of Hilary Clinton, but they do not thereby endorse Hilary. As such, the freedom of expression would not seem to grant a commercial photographer the right to refuse to photograph a same-sex wedding on the basis of an appeal to freedom of expression since taking photos does not involve endorsing the subject.

That said, another approach would be to argue that while taking a photo of an event does not entail endorsement of the event, an artist cannot be compelled to create a work of art that she does not wish to create. Since a photograph is art, a wedding photographer cannot be compelled to create an image of a same-sex wedding, just as a writer cannot be justly compelled to write a certain sort of book. This certainly has considerable appeal. After all, a photographer would seem to have every right to refuse to take photos of a wedding orgy or even of a tastefully nude wedding on the basis of the content.

Of course, this would also seem to allow commercial wedding photographers to refuse to take photos of blacks, Christians, Jews, or anything on the grounds that she does not want to create, for example, a photographic work including crosses or black people. So, consistency would seem to require that if wedding photographers can refuse to serve gay clients on the basis of artistic content, then a wedding photographer could refuse anyone on the same grounds. Thus, wedding photographers should be permitted to have “whites only”, “straights only” or “gays only” signs on their business. For artistic reasons, of course. This does seem a bit problematic in regards to commercial wedding photographers.

 

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A Six-Gun for Socrates in Print

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 25, 2013

A_Six-Gun_for_Socrat_Cover_for_Kindle

 

This short book presents a series of philosophical essays written in response to gun violence in the United States. While the matters of guns, violence and rights are often met with emotional responses, my approach has been to consider these matters from a philosophical standpoint. This does not involve looking at them without emotion. Rather, it involves considering them in a rational way and this requires considering how our emotions affect our views of these vital matters.

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Contraception, Yet Again

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 19, 2012
English: Picture Of Ortho Tri-Cyclen oral cont...

Could this get you fired?

While wars rage on and the economy continues to limp along for the working class, considerable attention is still focused on contraception. On the one hand, this can be seen as a mere distraction from what should be regarded as more important matters. On the other hand, it can be regarded as a fundamental struggle over rights.

One key conservative talking point regarding contraception coverage is that the real issue is whether or not the state has the right to require health insurance providers to cover contraception. This, of course, falls under the more general issues of whether or not the state has the right to compel health insurance providers to cover anything at all. Naturally, this falls under the very general topic of the legitimate limit of the state’s compulsive powers.

Since I just wrapped up discussing John Locke in my Modern Philosophy class, my inclination is to say that the state’s legitimate purpose is the good of the people and it is limited in what it should do on the basis of the rights to life, liberty and property. As might be imagined, this general guide is not very helpful in this matter. After all, it can be effectively argued that compelling such coverage would be for the good of the people and it can also be effectively argued that doing so would be an imposition on the liberty of the providers.  As in most such cases, my inclination is to take the stock approach of weighing the good of the imposition against the badness of said imposition. For example, some people argue that the state should have the right to use its compulsive power to ensure that a person can only marry one other person (at a time) and that the other person must be of the opposite sex. In supporting such a view, the usual argument (apart from the appeals to religion and tradition) is that same sex marriage and polygamy are harmful to society. As such, the liberty to marry as one pleases must be taken away using the compulsive power of the state. Interestingly, many of the folks who are opposed to compelling  contraceptive coverage are in favor of using the compulsive power of the state in the domain of marriage. As such, they apparently do not have a principled objection against the state compelling people in regards to their moral beliefs. Rather, their view seems to be that as long as the state is compelling the right people, then such compulsion is fine. Of course, a person can be against contraception coverage and not be against, for example, the state using is compulsory power to impose a specific moral view in regards to marriage. In fact, one way to argue against the compulsion of contraceptive coverage is to argue against state compulsion in all matters other than those that involve harming others. So, for example, a person could be consistently against the state compelling a specific religious/ethical view of marriage and against the state compelling the coverage of contraception.

In regards to the matter of coverage, I am willing to accept (and in fact insist on) the principle that the burden of the proof is on the state in regards to compelling such coverage. That is, it is up to the state to show that such coverage should be compelled by law. This is a general principle that I accept, mainly on the assumption that there is a presumption in favor of liberty.

One standard way to argue for the legitimacy of state compulsion is to show that something is harmful (generally to others rather than just to oneself) and thus the state, under its legitimate role as protector of the life, liberty and property of the citizens, has the right to compel. This approach seems quite reasonable and is used to justify such things as the state compelling people to not murder, rape, or steal. As should be clear, this approach does not justify compelling coverage. After all, it is not preventing someone from wrongfully inflicting harm on another. Of course, this is a rather minimalist view of the state and one that only the most ardent libertarians seem to hold.

Another standard way to argue for the legitimacy of state compulsion is to show that compelling it creates a public good that warrants the imposition on liberty. For example, drafting people in times of war can be justified on the grounds that the public good requires such service. As another example, the compelled  paying of taxes to provide for roads, police, defense, fire departments, schools, bridges, and so on is justified on the grounds that this serves the general welfare and the common good. John Locke argues for the state using its power to serve the general good and, of course, American government is supposed to have a legitimate role in providing for the general welfare. In general, it seems fair to say that the idea that the state should compel people to act for the general good only seems odd when it is proposed that the state compel something that a person does not like (like contraceptive coverage). When the state is compelling people to do what someone wants, it generally seems perfectly reasonable to that person. However, it would be rather nice for folks to have a consistent general principle regarding under what conditions the state can compel (other than “in cases in which the state is doing what I want”).

As with all conflicts between liberty and the general good, one key part of the dispute is whether or not the imposition on liberty is warranted by the gain to the public good. For example, compelling me to pay my taxes is warranted by the fact that my contribution is needed for the general good.

In the case of contraceptive coverage, the argument rests on the assumption that preventative care should be covered (this is already a matter of law, but naturally can be challenged on moral grounds) for the general good. If this assumption is accepted, then the question that remains is factual: should contraception be considered preventative care? The experts at the bipartisan  Institute of Medicine have claimed that this is the case. Given their expertise, I am inclined to accept their opinion over that of non-experts. As such, it would seem that contraception should thus be covered.

Of course, it can be countered that the coverage preventative care should not be compelled by the state and that the insurance providers should be free to cover or not cover what they wish.

This does, of course, have a certain appeal. No doubt folks in all industries feel imposed on by the state compelling them in regards to what they can do or not do. For example, those in the food industry probably are not thrilled that the state imposes restrictions on what they can sell as meat and that they are required to divulge the contents of their products to the consumers. However, these compulsions are justified by an appeal to the common good. Likewise, the imposition of contraceptive coverage can be warranted on similar grounds. After all, such coverage is claimed to have numerous benefits for the people covered as well as the general public (such as lowering the number of unwanted pregnancies and all that entails).

It might be countered that the coverage of contraception violates the ethics of some employers (such as the Catholic Church) and thus contraceptive coverage is a very special case. In fact, Arizona is considering a bill that would seem to allow employers to fire employees for using contraception. In these cases, the argument is that this is a matter of religious liberty. As I have argued at length in other posts about this, I will not repeat my arguments here. I will, however, add that these cases are not clear cases of a cruel state imposing on the liberty a hapless church, insurance company or employer. Rather, there is also the rather important matter of the liberty of the employees and their rights.

There is, of course, a stock view that employees have no right to expect their employers to respect their rights or liberties as the state is supposed to respect them. On this view, our rights and liberties exist relative to the state and not relative to employers. However, I am inclined to follow Locke here and take the view that our rights are not merely against the state, but also against each other. As such, it is just as wrong for my employer to compel me in ways that violate my rights and liberty as it is for the state. At the very least, if the state lacks the right to compel them to provide coverage because they disagree, then they would seem to lack the right to compel their employees to conform to the ethics of their employer.

It might be countered that such rights are only for the powerful (churches and employers) and that the weaker folks (such as employees) must take it or leave it. That is, an employee who wants to work has to be willing to accept the moral imposition of his employer in this matter while his employer has a perfect right to not be imposed on in such a way by the state. If the employee doesn’t like that her employer  refuses to include coverage of contraception in the health care benefits, she can just go and find another job. If she cannot, then she will have to accept being unemployed or she must conform to the religion/morality of her employer.  This, of course, seems to be rather wrong. After all, it seems rather absurd to justify an imposition on liberty on the basis of an appeal to liberty. Of course, this is nothing new: in the pre-Civil War South people routinely argued that forcing the southern states to give up enslaving people would be a violation of their liberties.

In light of the above discussion, mandating the coverage of contraceptives does seem to be morally acceptable.

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Reproduction Restrictions?

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on February 13, 2009

While I had hoped to avoid writing about the mother of the octuplets, I’ve decided to yield to the temptation.

In various discussions, people have suggested that there “ought to be a law” to prevent such things from happening in the future. I’ll be focusing on this issue.

One of the best arguments for having laws limiting reproduction is that the state is sometimes called upon to support such children. For example, the mother of the octuplets is relying on public aid to take care of her children. In such cases, it could be argued that if the state (that is, the taxpayers) is expected to provide support for such children, then the state would have the right to limit reproduction in such cases. One could even argue that by being cast into a provider role, the state also takes on some parental rights-including the right to make decisions regarding reproduction.

One obvious concern is that a law based on the financial well being of the parent(s) would discriminate against the poor and this might be regarded as unjust. Naturally, concerns about racism would no doubt be raised in regard to such a law (because of the association of poverty with certain minorities).

Of course, it could be argued that a general law should be put in place limiting reproduction. This would avoid the charges of discrimination based on income (but might lead to other charges of discrimination).

One problem for such a law is the general concern about having the state “interfere” with the family.  Having the state limit reproduction in this manner would seem to be a harsh intrusion into the private concerns of citizens (although the state often engages in such harsh intrusions). The right to reproduce can be seen as a very basic right and one that the state should not interfere with.

Another problem with such a law is that there would seem to be no justification for such a restriction (at least in the United States) once the financial aspect is removed. After all, we do not have an over population problem here (yet).

My view is that no such general law is needed.

First, having a law restricting reproduction would be reasonable if the problem the law is intended to solve is common and serious enough to warrant such regulation. While the octuplet case has stirred up emotions, one rather important fact is that this case is a rather rare event. That is, after all, why it has been such a news sensation. This raises the obvious question: is the problem significant and serious enough to warrant a law? The answer seems to be “no.” While the news coverage makes the event seem significant and important, one incident hardly justifies creating such a law.

Second, there seem to be adequate motivating forces that incline people not to over do their reproduction.  For example, most people do not want huge families.  As such, there seems to be little compelling reason to create a law to restrict reproduction. After all, why create a law to deter behavior that is already effectively deterred?

Of course, I do need to address the concern that got this started in the first place: what about the fact that the state will probably be paying support for the octuplets?

This is, of course, a reasonable concern. On one hand, the state should not pay for the kids. After all, the mother intentionally chose to have them and was quite aware of her lack of employment. As such, it would be hard to argue that the state is obligated to take care of her children. There is, of course, some evidence that she expected to make money (a book deal, interviews, and employment) because of the kids. But expecting such a windfall is hardly responsible. The state’s job is not to bail people out of bad decisions. Then again, perhaps that is the state’s job these days.

On the other hand, the kids are innocent parties in this situation and it would certainly seem heartless and wrong to let them go without support. Children are, to engage in some hyperbole, perfect hostages that all but guarantee that the state will hand over money and services. This fact shows another problem with having a law to limit reproduction: what sort of punishment should be imposed on those who break it? Obviously, the kids should not be punished. Jailing parents would require that the state take care of the kids. Imposing fines would effectively make the law discriminate against the poor. Sterilizing the parents would create a furor. Perhaps there is a way to work out an effective punishment system, but that seems rather challenging.

Fortunately, there seems to be little reason to work out such a system. While the state will have to pick up the tab in some cases, there are (as noted above) already sufficient deterrents in place that already limit reproduction in the United States. Some cynical folks might contend that having children is punishment enough for most people.

My main point is, of course, that we should not let one extreme case push us towards creating needless laws and restrictions.

Strip Searching Students

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on January 17, 2009

In 2003 8th grade student Savana Redding was strip searched by school officials. Her case has made it to the Supreme Court.

The strip search was the result of another student claiming that Redding, an honor student who had no history of disciplinary action, was distributing prescription strength ibuprofen. Redding denied having the drug and the strip search failed to turn up any drugs. It did, however, humiliate the young woman.

On the face of it, strip searching Ms. Redding seems to be a clear violation of her rights and a wrongful action. After all, the word of a student caught with drugs can hardly be considered adequate evidence on which to justify such a search. Further, it seems rather inappropriate for school officials to have the authority to conduct strip searches at all. While school personal do act in disciplinary capacities, strip searching seems to be an activity that   should require actual police authority.

Naturally, Ms. Redding’s case is a specific matter but it does raise questions about student rights and the limits of the authority of school officials. Traditionally the courts have given school officials significant leeway. Students have long been subject to restrictions and treated in ways that would not be tolerated outside of the school setting.

Not surprisingly, the school district position is that holding school officials to the legal standard of “probable cause” for such searches would create a “roadblock to the kind of swift and effective response that is too often needed to protect the very safety of students, particularly from the threats posed by drugs and weapons.”

On one hand, this does have some appeal. After all, children are not adults and this can (and has) been used to justify a difference between the rights possessed by children and those enjoyed by adults. Further, the school setting is also a different setting than the outside world and this often requires a difference in such matters. For example, consider the matter of hall passes. Outside of school, 18 year old students are free to go about as adults. Inside school, their movements are restricted by a system of permissions and passes. This is considered an acceptable practice because of the need to restrict student movement within school hours. Like wise, the school setting would justify violating the normal rules governing searches.

On the other hand, this sort of justification can be seen as defective. First, if it is a reasonable principle, then it would justify doing away with probable cause requirements across the board. After all, a case can almost always be made that a search was needed to protect someone from something. However, the requirements for probable cause are in place for excellent reasons. Hence, this principle seems to be unacceptable. Second, while the school setting can be seen as justifying differences in certain matters, the setting does not seem to justify such an extreme violation of a basic principle of law. Obviously schools do need to maintain a safe and orderly environment. But, this should not be taken to justify such things as strip searches. Rights do not simply end at the school door and the proper rule of law must apply even within the walls of schools.

Marines vs Berkley

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 11, 2008

The Daily Show’s Rob Riggle went to Berkley to investigate why the city wants to get rid of the Marine recruiting center. The is video entertaining but also raises some interesting issues.

Mr. Riggle, a former Marine, did the usual Daily Show approach to such mocking interviews: sarcastic yet blended with reason and insight.  In doing so, he raised some rather philosophical points.

Those opposed to the presence of the Marine recruiting center seemed to be primarily driven by their emotional response. They feel bad about war and violence and since they associate the Marines with war and violence, they feel bad about the Marines and want them to go away. The bearded fellow bedecked in buttons did put forth the view that it would be better to resolve matters through peaceful conflict resolution.

I also feel bad about war and violence. It pains me to know that people are being hurt and killed. I also believe that it is preferable to resolve disputes through peaceful means. Killing and violence are best viewed as undesirable and hence things to be avoided.

Some of the protesters espoused the not uncommon view that getting rid of guns would solve the problem of war. Obviously, if no one had weapons, then war would be less likely and far less destructive. But a lack of weapons would not end wars. People do not fight because they have weapons. People have weapons because they are inclined to fight. That this is show is nicely shown by the fact that humans created weapons to aid them in an activity they already engaged in, namely combat.  Thus, the way to properly address the problem of war is not to get rid of weapons but to deal with the true, underlying causes of war. Naturally enough, it is worthwhile to place limits on weapons so as to limit the extent and nature of the destruction. But that is merely dealing with the symptoms and not the cause of war.

When one of the protesters made a remark about crime, Riggles cleverly suggested that, given her reasoning, getting rid of the police would put and end to crime. This seemed to baffle the woman, but she did seem to regard it as a possibility. Once again, this shows the basic flaw in the reasoning of such people. We have the police because people commit crimes and we need a way of preventing and limiting crime. If the police were removed, crime would increase. To think otherwise would be like thinking that the way to prevent disease is to get rid of medicine.

That said, there are thinkers, such as the anarchist Emma Goldman, who have claimed that the state and the police are the cause of crime. In oppressive states that can be seen as a plausible claim. Further, there are cases in which the imposition of unjust laws have caused people to become criminals on moral grounds. However, in the United States, the main function of the police is to protect the citizens from the misdeeds of other citizens.

In another part of the discussion, a protester was talking about the right of free speech. Riggles asked her if it would be good if an organization existed to protect this right. She agreed it was. His point, obviously enough, was that the American military protected these rights.

Riggles’ is quite right. While some people accuse the military of being mere tools of the capitalist state, the American military has stood up against those who would bring genocide and crushing oppression to the world. The protesters advocate kissing and hugging. That is all well and good among people who are peaceful. But, such tactics only work against those who are unwilling to resort to violence to get what they want. Imagine, if you will, a swarm of pink garbed protesters trying to stop the Panzers as they sped across Europe. Imagine protesters in pink scarves trying to hug SS troops as they were exterminating the Jews. Imagine pink clad protesters trying to stop ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass rape around the world. They would, sadly, just be more corpses piled up before the guns.

Being a peaceful hugger is a wonderful thing. But a peaceful hugger is something of a helpless creature and can only survive when protected from people who would be willing to oppress and kill them. It would be a better world if there was no evil. This is something of a truism. But, it would be a far worse world if there were no people who were willing to take up arms in the defense of those who cannot or will not defend themselves.

It might be replied that peace can conquer war. Witness, one might say, the success of Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a reasonable point-peaceful methods can work and are in fact preferable to war. But, such methods require the presence of a conscience and an unwillingness to simple stick with violence until the end. There is an interesting story, “The Last Article”, by Harry Turtledove in which he explores what might have happened if Germany had won and driven the British from India. In the story, the non-violent methods of Ghandi are met with contempt and the Germans act as they did against others-they simply exterminate the problem.

The protesters, though perhaps acting from good intentions, fail to have a sufficient understanding of evil and reality. As sad as it is, the unarmed, the weak and the unprotected are little more than potential victims. As such, America must have a military. On the day when everyone is good and no one will wage war, then we can set aside the weapons and hug everyone.