A Philosopher's Blog

Wedding Cakes & Freedom, Once Again

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 8, 2017

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The United States Supreme Court is, as of this writing, considering a case involving a wedding cake. The gist of the battle is between the right of freedom of expression and the right to not be discriminated against. One the one side is a Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding based on his religious belief that same-sex marriage is wrong. On the other side is the couple who claim that they are being discriminated against by this refusal.

A primary argument being advanced in the baker’s defense is based on the 1st Amendment: being forced to make a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his freedom of expression. This right of free expression has a clear legal foundation and has very strong moral foundations, courtesy of various philosophical arguments in its favor. But, of course, there are also strong legal and moral foundations for not allowing discrimination against potential customers.

While the freedom of expression is usually presented as a right against being silenced, it also provides the right not to be compelled to engage in an act of expression. This freedom from compelled expression provides a person with a moral (and a legal) right to refuse certain services.

This line of reasoning does have considerable appeal and I endorse it both on philosophical and selfish grounds. I operate a writing business in which I get paid to write books. I accept that I have no legal or moral right to refuse business from someone just because she is gay, Jewish, Christian, or a non-runner. However, my writing is an act of expression. So, my freedom of expression grants me a moral right to refuse to write in support of views I oppose. For example, I have the right to refuse to write a tract advocating the persecution of Christians. This is because the creation of such work entails endorsement of a view I oppose. If I write a tract in favor of persecuting Christians, I would be unambiguously expressing my support of the idea. In such cases, an appeal to freedom of expression would seem quite relevant and reasonable. This can be generalized into the principle that it is wrong to compel expression and that people have the right to refuse compelled expression.

Since I am consistent, I extend this principle to everyone and do not limit it merely to myself or those I agree with. So, if a fellow author believes that her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness, then she would be protected by the freedom of expression from being required to write in favor of same-sex marriage. If a LGBT group approached her with a lucrative offer to pen a piece in favor of gay marriage, she would have the moral right to reject it. They have no moral right to expect her to express views she does not hold, even for cash.

This principle does, of course, have limits. One obvious limit is that my right of freedom of expression does not entail that I have a right to forbid my books from being sold to people I disapprove of or disagree with. For example, it does not give me the right to forbid Amazon from selling my books to racists, smug liberals, or smokers. This is because selling a book to a person is not an endorsement of that person’s ideas and is thus not compelled expression. I do not endorse intolerant atheism just because an intolerant atheist can buy my book.

As such an author who believes her religion condemns same-sex marriage 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, 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. Likewise, if Donald Trump buys one of my books, it does not mean that I am endorsing Trump.

Not surprisingly, the case before the supreme court does not involve a Christian writer being asked to write pro-gay works—writers clearly have a right to refuse such jobs. As noted above, the case being considered involves a wedding cake. The key question, then, is selling a wedding cake more like being compelled to write in favor of a position one opposes or like someone buying a book one has written? If it like writing, then the freedom of expression would apply. If it is like someone buying a book, then the freedom of expression would not apply.

To get the obvious out of the way, refusing to bake a cake for a wedding because the people involved were Jewish, black, Christian, white, or Canadian would seem to be discrimination. If the person refusing to do so said that baking a cake for a Jew endorsed Judaism, that baking a cake for a  a black wedding endorsed blackness, or that baking a wedding cake for  Canadian endorsed Canada, they would be regarded as either joking or crazy.  But perhaps it can be argued that baking a wedding cake for a same-sex couple would be a compelled expression of agreement or endorsement.

On the face of it, making a wedding cake 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 D&D, I do not say “aha, Dominoes endorses role-playing games!” After all, they are just selling me pizza. Likewise, if a Nazi buys my books on Amazon, I am not therefore endorsing Nazi ideology.

In the case of the wedding cake, it could be argued that it is a special 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. If a baker makes a congratulatory cake, they do not require customers to prove that the congratulations is for something the baker agrees with. It also does not follow that a baker who bakes such a cake is therefore endorsing what the cake congratulates. For example, if someone gets a friend a cake congratulating them on their first murder, it does not follow that the baker approves of murder. As such, selling a person a wedding cake does not entail approval of the wedding. For example, if a baker sells a wedding cake to a person who has committed adultery and is remarrying so they can steal from their new spouse, this does not entail the baker’s approval of adultery or theft.

It can easily be argued that bakers do 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 rightly refuse to bake a sexually explicit wedding cake or one festooned with gay pride slogans.

However, creating a plain wedding cake would not seem to be an 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 I have written to a person because he is an intolerant atheist, but I can refuse a contract to write in support of atheism.

The obvious counter would be to argue that making a generic wedding cake is an act of creation and is thus an expression. As such, it would be protected by the freedom of expression. While this does have some appeal, it does run into some problems.

One obvious problem is that accepting this as a general principle would entail that anyone who creates anything would thus have the right to refuse to sell their work based on their values. So, for example, an atheist could forbid Amazon to sell their books to Christians, Muslims and Jews. As another example, a cook at a restaurant could refuse to sell a meal to people whose values they opposed. Perhaps even a surgeon could claim that they express their views via surgery and thus could not be compelled to perform surgery on someone whose values they reject. As should be clear, this would essentially be a license to discriminate and thus is problematic.

This problem can, of course, be addressed by carefully restricting what counts as expression. However, if baking a generic wedding cake would count, then this would open the door quite wide in terms of what would count as expression. After all, if a generic cake is expression, then it would seem to follow that so is a pizza, a piece of furniture, a shed, or a shirt.

It could be argued that making a wedding cake is special because of the event. But, the same principle would need to be extended to all things made for events that one might oppose. This would also seem to open the door wide to discrimination.

The problem can also be addressed by carefully restricting what counts as discrimination and what does not. For example, laws can easily be created that make it discrimination to not sell to someone based on their religion, but not discrimination to refuse based on their sexual orientation. This, of course, does not address the moral concerns about discrimination.

Another obvious problem is that this approach would entail that selling a person something one has created would be an act of endorsement towards that person. In the case of the wedding cake, the claim is that being forced to sell a generic cake would be to express approval of the wedding. But, as noted above, selling something to someone is not in itself an act of approval. If, for example, Nazi’s buy handmade Tiki torches to wave at their rally, then this does not entail that the maker is endorsing Nazis. Naturally, the torch maker has every right to refuse to carve Nazi symbols into their torches. Likewise, if a gay couple buys a wedding cake for their wedding, the baker is no more endorsing the wedding than the gas station that will sell them the gas they will use to drive to their wedding. Or the sub maker who will sell them the subs that will fuel them through their gay wedding night.

In light of the above, selling a generic wedding cake is not compelled expression and hence a baker does not have the right to refuse to sell one to a same-sex couple. But, a suitably custom wedding cake would be an act of expression and a baker has every right to refuse any design they do not endorse. To go back to the book analogy, my being unable to forbid sales of my books is not compelled expression—even though the books are expressive creations. However, being forced to write a custom book specifically for a view I do not endorse would be compelled expression.

 

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Replacing Scalia

Posted in Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 3, 2017

Scalia 2016After Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, the Republicans claimed Obama did not have the right to appoint a replacement and that this should be left to the next President.  The basis for this claim was that since Scalia died in early February, 2016 Obama had slightly less than one year left in office. Since the Republicans held the senate, they were able to refuse to even hold hearings and thus left the vacancy open for President Trump to fill.

While some expected Trump to make an unconventional nomination, he selected Judge Gorsuch as his first pick (at least after going through some absurd reality TV show style set up). While I obviously have philosophical and ideological differences with Judge Gorsuch, I do accept that my fellow Episcopalian is eminently qualified for the position and has impeccable academic and professional credentials. I would, of course, prefer a judge more in line with my own philosophical views, but accepting differing views is part of being a citizen in a diverse democracy.

While not all Democrats oppose Gorsuch, they still remember what the Republicans did to Obama and there has been considerable discussion about how the Democrats will oppose this nomination. Since the Democrats do not have enough votes to refuse to hold hearings, about the worst they can do is delay the process. As should be expected, some Republicans are outraged that the Democrats would dare do such a thing—after all, Trump is the president and has the Constitutional right to make the appointment.

Interestingly, some critics of the Democrats are quoting what they said about Obama’s attempt to nominate a justice back at them. The obvious problem with this tactic is that arguing that the Democrats should follow their own argument is that if the Democrats were right then, then this is effectively a stolen nomination and they can thus justly oppose it in a principled way.

Obviously enough, if Hillary Clinton had won, the same Republicans who blocked Obama’s nomination and who are criticizing the Democrats for their plans would be busy placing roadblocks in front of her nominee. When it looked like Clinton would probably win, John McCain made it clear that they would block all her nominees. McCain might regret saying this in public now that Trump has won, but politicians seem to be often untroubled by consistency and principles. I will, however, give McCain his due on his consistent opposition to torture and other principled stands that he has taken over the years.

Because of such remarks, Democrats can make the argument that they are doing exactly what the Republicans said they would do if Clinton had won. As such, the Republicans would seem to have no moral ground on which to criticize the Democrats for trying to block Trump’s nominee. They are no worse (and no better) than the Republicans.

From a logical perspective, it would be fallacious for the Democrats to argue that their blocking Trump’s nominee is right because the Republicans would have done the same to Hillary. After all, if blocking a nominee without legitimate justification is wrong, then it is wrong regardless of who does it. As such, the Republicans could say that it is wrong of the Democrats to block a nominee without legitimate justification. They would just be hypocrites for doing so.

Of course, the above discussion is largely irrelevant—most of the politicians are not operating on the basis of a consistent principle regarding nominations. Rather, they are endeavoring to do what they think is best for their party. But what would a consistent application of the Constriction look like? The first step is looking at the relevant text:

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

While I am not a constitutional scholar, I can read English well enough to see what the Constitution specifies about this matter. The president unambiguously has the power to nominate Judges of the Supreme Court. When Obama was the President, he had the constitutional right to make the nomination. Now that Trump is President, he has this power. But the opening is only there because the Republicans refused to even hold hearings on Obama’s nominee and this would indicate that they accept that the senate has the power to do just that. This view is based on what the text says about the role of the senatae.

The text is clear that the appointment of the Judges of the Supreme Court requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Since the constitution does not actually specify the process, the Senate has created its own confirmation rules. In general, the approval process has been relatively rapid in the past–so there was no real argument that there was not enough time to give an Obama nominee appropriate consideration. There have been other appointments made in the last year of a President’s term—so an appointment by Obama would have been consistent with past precedent.

That said, since the Senate makes its rules, they have every right to do what they wish within the limits of the Constitution. This would certainly open the door to running out the clock on hearings or even refusing to hold them. However, the Republican refusal to hold a hearing was problematic. The text certainly indicates the Senate is to provide its advice and give or withhold its consent. The text does not specify and option for refusing to consider a nominee or blocking them endlessly. This, as some would argue, would seem to be simply refusing to do their job.

However, it could be claimed that the refusal to hold hearings for Obama’s nominee was withholding consent, and thus was within their power. Following the precedent set by the Republicans, the Democrats would be just as justified in delaying proceedings. After all, if the Senate has the right to block or delay nominations, then it has that right regardless of whether it is the Democrats or the Republicans engaged in obstruction.

My own view is that since the President has the right to nominate and the Senate has the role of advice and consent (or refusal of consent), the Senate is obligated to consider the nomination made by the president. Refusing to do so or running out the clock would be a failure of their specified duty. As such, the Democrats of the senate are obligated to do their job, as per the Constitution.

The obvious objection to my view is to point out that the Republicans did not do their job when Obama put forth his nominee, hence the Democrats have the right to do what they can to interfere with Trump’s nomination.

On the one hand, I do agree with this argument: if the Republicans had done their job, then there would not be an opening. As such, the Democrats would seem to have moral grounds for striking back against the Republicans for their misdeed. That said, the Republicans could contend that they did do their job: they refused consent by not even holding a hearing. That, of course, is not very satisfying.

On the other hand, I believe that principles should be maintained even (or perhaps especially) when others act in unprincipled ways. Two wrongs, as they say, do not make a right. As such, I accept that the Democrats of the senate should do their job—just as the Republicans should have done their job. That would be the principled thing to do. However, I am rather tempted by the view that the Democrats should fight the Republicans on this nomination on the grounds that it was clearly stolen from Obama and thus could be justified on the those grounds.

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Buffer Zones & Consistency

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 8, 2014
English: United States Supreme Court building ...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the summer of 2014, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts law that forbid protesters from approaching within 35 feet of abortion clinics. The buffer zone law was established in response to episodes of violence. Not surprisingly, the court based its ruling on the First Amendment—such a buffer zone violates the right of free expression of those wishing to protest against abortion or who desire to provide unsought counseling to those seeking abortions.

Though I am a staunch supporter of the freedom of expression, I do recognize that there can be legitimate limits on this freedom—especially when such limits provide protection to the life, liberty and property of others. To use the stock examples, freedom of expression does not permit people to engage in death threats, slander, or panicking people by screaming “fire” in a crowded, non-burning theater.

While I do recognize that the buffer zone does serve a legitimate purpose in enhancing safety, I do agree with the court. The grounds for this agreement is that the harm done to freedom of expression by banning protest in public spaces exceeds the risk of harm caused by allowing such protests. Naturally enough, I do agree that people who engage in threatening behavior can be justly removed—but this is handled by existing laws. That said, I do regard the arguments in favor of the buffer zone as having merit—weighing the freedom of expression against safety concerns is challenging and people of good conscience can disagree in this matter.

One rather interesting fact is that the Supreme Court has its own buffer zone—there is a federal law that bans protesters from the plaza of the court.  Since the plaza is a public space, it would seem analogous to the public space of the sidewalks covered by the Massachusetts law. Given the Supreme Court’s ruling, the principle seems to be that the First Amendment ensures a right to protest in public spaces—even when there is a history of violence and legitimate safety concerns exist. While the law is whatever those with the biggest guns say it is, there is the matter of the ethics of the matter and this is governed by consistent application.

A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that people are initially morally equal and hence must be treated as such. This requires that moral principles be applied consistently.  Naturally, a person’s actions can affect the initially equality. For example, a person who commits horrible evil deeds would not be morally equal to someone who does predominantly good deeds.

Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.

Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.

Given that the plaza of the court is a public space analogous to a sidewalk, then if the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest in public spaces of this sort, then the law forbidding protests in the plaza is unconstitutional and must be struck down. To grant protesters access to the sidewalks outside clinics while forbidding them from the public plaza of the court would be an inconsistent application of the principle. But, of course, there is always a way to counter this.

One way to counter this in a principled way is to show that an alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. If the Supreme Court wishes to morally justify their buffer while denying others their buffers, they would need to show a relevant difference that warrants the difference in application. They could, for example, contend that a plaza is relevantly different from a sidewalk. One might point to a size difference and how this impacts protesting. They could also contend that government property is exempt from the law (much like certain state legislatures ban the public from bringing guns into the legislature building even while passing laws allowing people to bring guns into places where other people work)—but they would need to ground the exemption.

My own view, obviously enough, is that there is no relevant difference between the scenarios: if the First Amendment applies to the public spaces around private property, it also applies to the public spaces around state property (which is the most public of public property).

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Hobby Lobby Repost

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on July 1, 2014
English: A typical contraceptive diaphragm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Supreme Court has continued along its “corporations are people that are more important than you” march with its recent ruling about the right of corporations to impose religious values on its employees. Beyond condemning the ruling, I have nothing new to say, but will re-post two posts I wrote earlier about the matter:

In the case of Hobby Lobby,  CEO David Green and his family claimed that their and Hobby Lobby’s freedom of religion is being “substantially burdened” by being compelled to provide insurance that would cover “morning-after pills” and IUDs for employees who wanted such them. The Greens claim that these specific types of contraception prevent implantation of fertilized eggs and are thus equivalent to abortion, which they regard as being against their religious beliefs. There are also those who oppose contraception regardless of the type on religious grounds.

The legal foundation for this challenge is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which allows a person to seek exemption from a law if it substantially burdens her free exercise of religion. The government can deny this exemption if it can prove both a compelling reason to impose the burden and evidence that the law is narrow enough in scope.

From a moral standpoint, this exemption does seem acceptable if it is assumed that freedom of religion is a moral right. After all, there should be a presumption in favor of freedom and the state would need to warrant such an intrusion. However, if it can do so properly, then the imposition would be morally acceptable. The stock example here is, of course, limitations on the right of free speech.

From both a moral and legal standpoint, there seem to be two main points of concern. The first is whether or not a for-profit corporation is an entity that can be justly ascribed a right to freedom of religion. The second is whether or not such the contraceptive coverage imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion. Obviously, if a corporation cannot be justly ascribed this right, then the second concern becomes irrelevant in this context. However, since it is a simpler matter, I will address the second concern first and then move on to the main point of interest regarding corporations and religious freedom.

For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that those bringing the lawsuit are sincere in their claim that contraception is against their religion and that this is not merely cover for an attack on Obamacare. I will also assume that their religious belief is about the use of contraception.

On the face of it, being compelled to follow the law would seem to not impose any substantial burden in regards to such a belief. After all, those impacted by the law are not required to use contraception. This would, of course, be a clear imposition on their freedom (religious and otherwise). They are also not required to directly give their employees contraception. This could be seen as an imposition by giving them a somewhat direct role in the use of contraception.  However, they are merely required to provide a health plan that covers contraception for those who are exercising their freedom to choose to use said contraception. As such, the burden seems minimal—if it exists at all.

It might be objected that to be forced to have any connection to a means by which employees could get contraceptives would be a significant imposition on the corporation. The rather obvious reply to this is that the corporations pay employees with money that can be used to buy contraceptives. So, if an employee would use contraception, then she would most likely just purchase it if it were not covered by her insurance. In cases where the contraceptive medicine is being used for medical reasons (as opposed to being used as contraception) the employee would probably be even more likely to purchase it (which raises the question of whether such use counts as using contraception in a way that would violate these religious beliefs).

As such, if a corporation can insist that health care plans not cover contraception on the grounds that they would be forced to play a role in situation in which an employee might get contraception by means connected to the corporation, it would seem that they could make the same claim in regards to the paychecks they issue. After all, paychecks might be used to acquire all manner of things that are against the religious views of the corporation’s owner(s). This is, of course, absurd and would be a clear violation of the rights and freedoms of the employees.

As such, the second issue is easily settled: being compelled to offer insurance that covers contraception is not a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of corporations.

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

(Photo credit: Wikipedi

As noted above, the corporations that are challenging Obamacare on the matter of contraception are doing so on the legal basis of the is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which allows a person to seek exemption from a law if it substantially burdens her free exercise of religion. The government can deny this exemption if it can prove both a compelling reason to impose the burden and evidence that the law is narrow enough in scope.

Since the act applies to person who hold religious beliefs, it is tempting to simply assert that corporations are not people and hence not covered by the act. However, in the United States corporations are taken to be people in regards to the law.

In fact, the status of corporations as people was critical in the Citizens United ruling that banned restrictions on corporate spending in politics. The general idea is that since a corporation is a person and a person has a right to free speech, then a corporation has the right to free speech.

Given this precedent (and argument), it would certainly seem to follow that a corporation has the right to freedom of religion: Since a corporation is a person and a person has a right to freedom of religion, then a corporation has the right to freedom of religion. This would thus seem to settle the legal matter.

There is an easy and obvious way to reduce this sort of “corporations are people” reasoning to absurdity:

Premise 1: A corporation is a person (assumed).
Premise 2: Slavery is the ownership of one person by another.
Premise 3: The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids slavery.
Conclusion: The ownership of a corporation is forbidden by the constitution.

This seems completely airtight. After all, if corporations get the right to free speech and the right to religious freedom because they are persons, then they also get the right not to be owned because they are persons. Naturally, this will seem silly or absurd to the very people who easily embrace the notion of corporation personhood in the case of unlimited campaign spending. However, this absurdity is exactly the point: it is okay to own corporations because they are not, in fact, people. They also do not get the right to free speech or religious freedom because they are not, in fact, people.

It could be countered that corporations are very special sorts of people that get certain rights but can be denied other rights in a principled way. Obviously enough, those who own corporations and their defenders might be inclined to hold that corporations get the rights that are useful to the owners (like the right to free speech) but do not get a right that would be a serious problem—like the right not to be owned. However, there is a serious challenge in regards to doing this in a principled manner (and the principle of what is good for me is not a principled principle). That is, the problem is to show that corporations are entities that can justly be ascribed freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but not freedom from ownership. Ironically, as I will endeavor to argue, claiming that corporations are such that they can be justly ascribed the qualities needed to ground a right to freedom of religion would also seem to involve claiming that they have the qualities that would forbid ownership.

In order to exercise religion and thus be entitled to freedom of religion, an entity would seem to require the capacity for religious belief. Belief is, of course, an intentional mental state—a belief is about something and it is mental in nature (although the mental might be grounded in the physical, such as in a nervous system). Being legal fictions, corporations have no mental states and no intentional states. That is, a corporation has no beliefs—religious or otherwise. As such, a corporation is not entitled to freedom of religion—since it has no capacity for religious belief.

This could be countered by claiming that the owner of the corporation provides the intentional states of the corporation. In the case of religion, the religious beliefs of the owner are the religious beliefs of the corporation. Thus, the personhood of the corporation rests on the personhood of the owner. However, if the corporation has the identical mental states as the owner, then it is the owner and vice-versa. While this would handle the freedom of religion matter, it would entail that the corporation is not a separate person in regards to freedom of speech and that ownership of the corporation would be ownership of the owner. If the owner is the sole owner, this would be fine (a person can self-own)—but if the corporation is owned by stockholders, then there would be a problem here since owning people is unconstitutional.

It could be replied that the above is mere philosophical cleverness (as opposed to the legal cleverness that makes a corporation a person) and that the beliefs of a corporation are simply those of the owner.

The obvious problem is that this would entail that the corporation does not have a religious belief that it can exercise. To use an analogy, if the Supreme Court ruled that my left running shoe is a person that I own like a corporation and that thus has my religious beliefs as its own, this would obviously be madness. My shoe, like a corporation, does not itself have any beliefs—religious or otherwise. The mere fact that I own it and it is legally a person does not grant it the capabilities needed to actually possess the foundation for the right to religious freedom. Or speech, for that matter—thus also showing that the idea that corporations have the capability to engage in free speech is absurd. What they do is, in effect, serve as legal puppet “people” manipulated by the hands of actual people. Obviously, if I put an actual puppet on my hand, it is not a person. Likewise, if I create a legal entity as my puppet, it is still not an actual person—its beliefs are just my beliefs and its words are just my words.

The actual person who owns a corporation has the rights of a person—because she is a person. Thus, the owner of a corporation can contend that her religious freedom has been violated. But it is absurd to claim that a for-profit, secular corporation can have its religious freedom violated—it is simply not an entity that can have its own religious beliefs. This distinction between the owner and the corporation certainly seems fair. First, the owner still has all her rights. Second, having a distinction between the owner and the corporation is exactly the point of many of the laws government corporations (such as finances).

If someone insists on claiming that the corporation is not a legal puppet and that it has the capabilities that provide a foundation for these freedoms, then they would run afoul of the argument regarding the ownership of persons. After all, an entity that can hold religious beliefs would thus seem to be a person in a meaningful sense that would forbid ownership.

Thus, the dilemma seems to be this: if a corporation is a person and thus gains the rights of being a person, then it is unconstitutional to own a corporation. If a corporation is not really a person, then it is legal to own it but it is not entitled to the rights of a person, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

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Michigan & Affirmative Action

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 28, 2014
Michigan State University wordmark

Michigan State University wordmark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The matter of affirmative action once again hit the headlines in the United States with the Supreme Court upholding Michigan’s civil rights amendment, which had been overturned. The amendment specifies that:

 

(1) The University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and any other public college or university, community college, or school district shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

(2) The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

 

On the face of it, these two things seem to be exactly what civil rights laws should state, namely that discrimination and preferential treatment of the sorts specified is forbidden. As such, it might surprise some that the amendment has faced opposition from civil rights supporters and liberals. The main reason is that the amendment is aimed at ending affirmative action in public education and public sector jobs. Before the amendment, race could be used as a factor in college admissions and in hiring when doing so would address perceived racial disparities.

Despite being often cast as an academic liberal (with all attendant sins), I have long had a somewhat mixed view of affirmative action in education and employment. As an individualist who believes in the value of merit, I hold that college admission and hiring should be based entirely on the merit of the individual.  That is, the best qualified person should be admitted or hired, regardless of race, gender and so on. This is based on the principle that admission and hiring should be based on earning the admission or job and this is fairly and justly based on whether or not an individual merits the admission or job.

To use a sports analogy, the person who gets the first place award for a 5K race should be the person who runs the race the fastest. This person has merited the award by winning. To deny the best runner the award and give it to someone else in the name of diversity would be both absurd and unfair—even if there is a lack of diversity in regards to the winners. As such, the idea of engaging in social engineering at the expense of the individual tends to strike me as wrong.

However, I also am well aware of the institutionalized inequality in America and that dismantling such a system can, on utilitarian grounds, allow treating specific individuals unjustly in the name of the greater good. There is also the matter of the fairness of the competition.

In my 5K analogy, I am assuming that the competition is fair and victory is a matter of ability. That is, everyone one runs the same course and no one possesses an unfair advantage, such as having a head start or being able to use a bike. In such a fair competition, the winner fairly earns the victory. Unfortunately, the world outside of a fair 5K is rather different.

Discrimination, segregation and unjust inequality are still the order of the day in much of the United States. As such, when people are competing for admission to schools and for jobs, some people enjoy considerable unfair advantages while others face significant and unfair disadvantages. For example, African-Americans are more likely to attend underfunded and lower quality public schools and they face the specter of racism that still haunts America. As such, when people apply for college or for state jobs they are not meeting on the starting line of a fair race which will grant victory to the best person. Rather, people are scattered about (some far behind the starting line, some far ahead) and some enjoy unfair advantages while others unfair burdens.

Interestingly, many of these advantages and burdens involve employment and education. For example, a family that has a legacy at a school will have an advantage over a family whose members have never attended college. As such, affirmative action can shift things in the direction of fairness by, to use my racing analogy, pushing people backwards or forwards to bring everyone closer to the starting line to allow for a fairer competition.

To use a somewhat problematic analogy, 5K races divide the trophies up by age and gender (and some have wheelchair divisions as well). As such, an old runner like myself can stand a chance of winning an age group award, even though the young fellows enjoy that advantage of youth. The analogy works in that the 5K, like affirmative action done properly, recognizes factors that influence the competition that can be justly compensated for so that people can achieve success. The analogy, obviously enough, does start to break apart when pushed (as all analogies do). For example, affirmative action with trophies will never make me as fast as the youth, whereas affirmative action in college admission could allow a disadvantaged student match those who have enjoyed advantages.   It also faces the obvious risk of suggesting that the competitors are actually inferior and cannot compete in the open competition. However, it does show that affirmative action can be squared with fair competition.

In closing, I do believe that a person of good conscience can be concerned about the ethics of affirmative action. After all, it does seem to run contrary to the principles of fairness and equality by seeming to grant a special advantage to some people based on race, gender and such. I also hold that a person of good conscience can be for affirmative action—after all, it is supposed to aim at rectifying disadvantages and creating a society in which fair competition based on merit can properly take place.

 

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Unlimited Campaign Contributions

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 4, 2014
Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. R...

Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. Roberts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a young political science/philosophy major I learned about the various types of governments. Among these is the plutocracy—rule by the wealthy. I recall thinking, in my young anarchist days, that all governments were, are and will be plutocracies. After all, the rich always have influence proportional to their wealth and society tends to head in the direction desired by the wealthy. I was aware, of course, that there can be momentary disruptions of the plutocracy. For example, a rebellion or revolution might result in the old rich being killed, exiled or stripped of their wealth. However, history clearly shows that a new rich always emerges (or the old rich return). Even in the allegedly communist states, a wealthy class has always appeared. As such, the plutocratic system seems to be eternal.

As might be imagined, my cynical view was countered by some of my fellows—they insisted that America was a democracy and not a plutocracy. After all, it was argued, the rich do not always get their way in everything and money did not always decide elections. In fact, it was pointed out that there were strict restrictions on political spending. A plutocracy would obviously not have such limits.  As such, it was reasonable to conclude that my younger anarchist self was in error. But perhaps I was right after all—there is an ongoing trend to make America into a plutocracy by eliminating restrictions on political spending.

One major move in this regards was the Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited campaign spending by corporations on the grounds that corporations are people, spending is speech and people have a right to free speech. The idea that corporations are people can be easily disproven by a simple reduction ad absurdum: If corporations have the right to free speech because they are people, then they cannot be owned. After all, the constitution expressly forbids slavery (that is, the ownership of people). To contend that corporations can be owned yet are people who have freedom of speech is to either accept slavery or to fail to grasp the logical notion of consistency. So, a corporation can have freedom of speech, provided it is set free from being owned. Since it is blindingly obvious that corporations are things that can be justly owned, it should be blindingly obvious that they are not people. As such, they do not get freedom of speech. Naturally, the actual people associated with corporations have their right to freedom of speech. What remains is, of course, the matter of whether spending is speech or not.

The Supreme Court, or at least five of the current judges, holds that spending is speech. On 4/2/2014 the aggregate campaign contribution limits were struck down. This was based, not surprisingly, on the Citizens United ruling in 2010.  That ruling included the apparently absurd claim that the influence and access offered by such unlimited spending is not a concern in regards to corruption.

The case at hand was brought by Shaun McCutcheon—a very wealthy Republican donor. The impact of his victory is that a single donor, such as McCutcheon, will be able to contribute millions to parties, candidates and PACs. The ruling does leave some limits in place: an individual can give:  $2,600 per candidate, per election; $32,400 to political party committees per year; and $5,000 per PAC, per year. The main change is that there is no longer an overall cap to the total donations. Previously, a donor could not give more than $123,200 to all political committees, with limits of $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to political parties and PACs.

McCutcheon claims that this is a grassroots victory against the status quo:  “With the ruling, we continue to chip away at the long entrenched status quo from the grassroots—a status quo that has kept challengers, better ideas, and new entrants to the political arena mostly locked out. Ensuring that citizens are able to contribute to multiple candidates or causes who share their views only provides further support to a system in which ‘We the People’ hold the ultimate reins of power.”

This seems like an odd claim, given that it primarily benefits those who are wealthy enough to make such donations as opposed to the average citizen who will lack the funds to take advantage of this ruling. This ruling would seem to weaken what little grasp the people still have on the reins of power and give the very wealthy a stronger grip. Not surprisingly, this ruling will be a boon for the Republican party. In recent years it has done poorly with small donors (that is, the vast majority of the citizens) and relies very heavily on large donors. This ruling will allow the Republicans to greatly reduce the need for grassroots financial support and instead rely on a few very wealthy donors for financial support. While it is true that the Democrats also have their wealthy supporters, the Democrats rely more heavily on large numbers of small donations.

As might be imagined, there are concerns that this ruling will lead to increased corruption and increased influence on politics by the wealthy. On the face of it, these seem to be the obvious consequences of lifting such restrictions and allowing the money to flow more freely into politics. After all, the original purpose of the restrictions was to address problems with corruption and influence buying. While those who support it insist that corruption and influence buying will not be increased (which seems patently false and unsupported by evidence) they also appeal to a core principle, namely that of freedom. As Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner said, “What I think this means is freedom of speech is being upheld. Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give.”

The basic issue, then, is whether such spending is speech.  In regards to spending being free speech, that seems dubious. Suppose that spending money for political purposes is considered speech. Now, it is clearly acceptable to try to persuade a politician by speaking to him or her. If spending is speech, then I should be able to try to persuade politicians by speaking to them with money. However, this sort of thing already has a name, specifically bribery. But, if spending is a form of free speech, it would seem that bribery should be acceptable as a form of free speech. This seems absurd, to say the least.

It might be countered that the contributions cannot be direct bribes in that there can be no direct giving of money in return for specific actions or promises to act. However, it would be extremely naive to believe that campaign financing is not intended to do just that—namely to influence behavior by providing money and support. After all, it would seem rather ludicrous to imagine that millionaires and billionaires would donate millions of dollars and expect nothing in return. While this is not logically impossible, it is exceptionally unlikely.

However, suppose that spending is taken as a form of speech and thus protected by the right of free expression. It does not, of course, follow that such speech should be free of limits. After all, limits are justly placed on speech in other cases. The stock example is the yelling of “fire” in a crowded theater in which there is no fire. In the case of allowing this sort of spending, it would do serious harm to the political process by increasing the influence of an individual based on his wealth and thus proportionally decreasing the influence of those who are less wealthy. To use an analogy, it is on par with having a public discussion in which the wealthy are allowed to use a powerful sound systems up on the stage and less wealthy individuals are expected to try to shout out their views from the crowd.

To counter arguments like this, Roberts made an analogy to newspaper endorsements. As he said, there is no limit to the number of candidates a newspaper can endorse. As such, by analogy, it should follow that there should not be a limit on the number of candidates a person can donate money to. There are two easy and obvious replies. The first is to go back to the original argument that spending is not speech. While a newspaper endorsement is clearly speech—it is the expression of ideas and views, handing people money does not seem to qualify as an expression of ideas and views. When I buy a pair of running shoes or pay my entry to a race, I am not engaged in expression—I am trading money for goods and services. Likewise, when a person donates to a political cause, they are trading money for goods and services. But, if it is accepted that spending is speech, there is still a significant difference. A newspaper endorsement works by persuasion—one is either swayed by it or not. In contrast, large sums of money have far more impact: money allows people to become viable candidates and it allows them to run campaigns. As such, the influence of money is clearly more significant than the influence of a newspaper endorsement and this increases the likelihood of corruption.

This returns to the corruption issue. My contention is that such a flow of money will lead to corruption and grant the wealthy even more influence, while reducing the political influence of the less wealthy even more. The competing claim is that allowing this sort of spending will not have any negative impact. Given the usual effect of large sums of money, I would claim that increased corruption seems to be the likely outcome. However, I will consider any arguments and evidence to the contrary.

 

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Trigger Point

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 22, 2013
M1911A1 by Springfield Armory, Inc. (contempor...

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One rather important matter is determining the appropriate trigger point for regulation and law. The basic challenge is determining the level at which a problem is such that it warrants the creation and enforcement of regulations and laws.

While it would be unreasonable to expect that an exact line can be drawn in all or even any cases (to require such an exact line would be to fall into the line-drawing fallacy, a variation on the false dilemma fallacy), a general level can presumably be set in regards to tolerance of harm.

Naturally, the level of reasonable tolerance would involve many variables, such as the number of cases of harm, the severity of the harm, the cost of regulation/laws, and so on. For example, paying a cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes no harms would seem to be unreasonable and wasteful.  As such, the various “morality” laws that regulate consensual sex between adults would be unreasonable and wasteful. As another example, paying a modest cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes considerable harm in both numbers and severity would seem reasonable. Thus, the regulation of alcohol and tobacco seems reasonable.

While the specifics will vary from case to case, there should be a consistent approach to these determinations based on general principles regarding costs, number of incidents, severity of the harm and so on. In general, a utilitarian approach would be sensible—weighing out the likely benefits and harms for the various approaches to determine the most reasonable approach.

Not surprisingly, people tend to approach the trigger point of law and regulation very inconsistently. As with most matters of law and regulation, people tend to assess matters based on what they like and dislike rather than rationally assessing the relevant factors.

As a matter of comparison, consider the gun related deaths of children and voter fraud. While there is some dispute about the exact number of children who die from accidental gunshot wounds children obviously do die in this manner.  Not surprisingly, some people have endeavored to strengthen the regulation of guns and pass laws that are aimed at preventing the accidental death of children from gunshots. It is also not surprising that the National Rifle Association (and other similar organizations) have lobbied against such efforts and have argued about the statistics regarding the gun related deaths of children. While the N.R.A. is obviously not in favor of the death of children, the approach taken has also included the standard method of contending that the problem is not at the trigger point at which new regulation or laws should be created and enforced. The general idea is that the harm being done is not significant enough to warrant new regulation or laws regarding guns, such as rules for the safe storage of weapons. In support of this, the N.R.A argues that the death rate from accidental shootings is less than falls, poison or “environmental factors.” That is, not enough children are dying to warrant new laws or regulation (I will assume that the death of a child is regarded as being a serious harm).

There is also considerable dispute about voter fraud, although even those who regard voter fraud as a serious problem admit that the number of incidents is tiny. However, after the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding the Voting Right Act several states enacted laws alleged to be aimed at addressing voter fraud. These laws include those requiring voters to have the proper ID (which former Speaker of the House Jim Wright was not able to get) and those aimed at reducing or eliminating such things as early voting. In general, these laws seem to be ineffective in regards to actual fraud and the existing laws seem to be adequate for catching fraud. For example, eliminating early voting would not seem to have any capacity to deter fraud. While the voter ID laws might seem to have the potential to be effective, actual voter fraud typically does not involve a person voting in person as someone else. Even if it did have some value in preventing voter fraud, it would do so at a great cost, namely disenfranchising many voters. Overall, the main impact of these laws is to not reduce voter fraud (which is miniscule already) but to disenfranchise people. In some cases politicians and pundits admit that these laws are intended to do just that and in some cases they get in trouble for this.

Given the low number of incidents of voter fraud and the considerable harm that is done by the laws allegedly created to counter it, it would seem that such laws would be rather unjustified when using a rational approach to setting a trigger point for new laws or regulations. It could, of course, be argued that the harm done by allowing a miniscule amount of voter fraud is so serious that it warrants disenfranchising people—that is, trying to prevent a few fraudulent votes is worth preventing many legitimate votes from being cast.

Interestingly enough, some of the folks who are pushing hard for new laws to “prevent” voter fraud are the same folks who push hard to prevent new laws to reduce the deaths of children. This presents an interesting look at how people actually make decisions about trigger points.

 

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Corporations & Religious Freedom II: That Person Thing

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 8, 2013
U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay on corporations and religious freedom, I addressed the issue of whether or not being compelled to provide a health plan that covers contraception is a violation of a corporation’s religious freedom. My conclusion was that it was not. I now turn to the more general issue of whether or not a for-profit corporation is the sort of legal (fictional) entity that can be justly ascribed the capacity for religious belief and hence a right to exercise religious freedom.

As noted in the previous essay, the corporations that are challenging Obamacare on the matter of contraception are doing so on the legal basis of the is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which allows a person to seek exemption from a law if it substantially burdens her free exercise of religion. The government can deny this exemption if it can prove both a compelling reason to impose the burden and evidence that the law is narrow enough in scope.

Since the act applies to person who hold religious beliefs, it is tempting to simply assert that corporations are not people and hence not covered by the act. However, in the United States corporations are taken to be people in regards to the law.

In fact, the status of corporations as people was critical in the Citizens United ruling that banned restrictions on corporate spending in politics. The general idea is that since a corporation is a person and a person has a right to free speech, then a corporation has the right to free speech.

Given this precedent (and argument), it would certainly seem to follow that a corporation has the right to freedom of religion: Since a corporation is a person and a person has a right to freedom of religion, then a corporation has the right to freedom of religion. This would thus seem to settle the legal matter.

There is an easy and obvious way to reduce this sort of “corporations are people” reasoning to absurdity:

Premise 1: A corporation is a person (assumed).
Premise 2: Slavery is the ownership of one person by another.
Premise 3: The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids slavery.
Conclusion: The ownership of a corporation is forbidden by the constitution.

This seems completely airtight. After all, if corporations get the right to free speech and the right to religious freedom because they are persons, then they also get the right not to be owned because they are persons. Naturally, this will seem silly or absurd to the very people who easily embrace the notion of corporation personhood in the case of unlimited campaign spending. However, this absurdity is exactly the point: it is okay to own corporations because they are not, in fact, people. They also do not get the right to free speech or religious freedom because they are not, in fact, people.

It could be countered that corporations are very special sorts of people that get certain rights but can be denied other rights in a principled way. Obviously enough, those who own corporations and their defenders might be inclined to hold that corporations get the rights that are useful to the owners (like the right to free speech) but do not get a right that would be a serious problem—like the right not to be owned. However, there is a serious challenge in regards to doing this in a principled manner (and the principle of what is good for me is not a principled principle). That is, the problem is to show that corporations are entities that can justly be ascribed freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but not freedom from ownership. Ironically, as I will endeavor to argue, claiming that corporations are such that they can be justly ascribed the qualities needed to ground a right to freedom of religion would also seem to involve claiming that they have the qualities that would forbid ownership.

In order to exercise religion and thus be entitled to freedom of religion, an entity would seem to require the capacity for religious belief. Belief is, of course, an intentional mental state—a belief is about something and it is mental in nature (although the mental might be grounded in the physical, such as in a nervous system). Being legal fictions, corporations have no mental states and no intentional states. That is, a corporation has no beliefs—religious or otherwise. As such, a corporation is not entitled to freedom of religion—since it has no capacity for religious belief.

This could be countered by claiming that the owner of the corporation provides the intentional states of the corporation. In the case of religion, the religious beliefs of the owner are the religious beliefs of the corporation. Thus, the personhood of the corporation rests on the personhood of the owner. However, if the corporation has the identical mental states as the owner, then it is the owner and vice-versa. While this would handle the freedom of religion matter, it would entail that the corporation is not a separate person in regards to freedom of speech and that ownership of the corporation would be ownership of the owner. If the owner is the sole owner, this would be fine (a person can self-own)—but if the corporation is owned by stockholders, then there would be a problem here since owning people is unconstitutional.

It could be replied that the above is mere philosophical cleverness (as opposed to the legal cleverness that makes a corporation a person) and that the beliefs of a corporation are simply those of the owner.

The obvious problem is that this would entail that the corporation does not have a religious belief that it can exercise. To use an analogy, if the Supreme Court ruled that my left running shoe is a person that I own like a corporation and that thus has my religious beliefs as its own, this would obviously be madness. My shoe, like a corporation, does not itself have any beliefs—religious or otherwise. The mere fact that I own it and it is legally a person does not grant it the capabilities needed to actually possess the foundation for the right to religious freedom. Or speech, for that matter—thus also showing that the idea that corporations have the capability to engage in free speech is absurd. What they do is, in effect, serve as legal puppet “people” manipulated by the hands of actual people. Obviously, if I put an actual puppet on my hand, it is not a person. Likewise, if I create a legal entity as my puppet, it is still not an actual person—its beliefs are just my beliefs and its words are just my words.

The actual person who owns a corporation has the rights of a person—because she is a person. Thus, the owner of a corporation can contend that her religious freedom has been violated. But it is absurd to claim that a for-profit, secular corporation can have its religious freedom violated—it is simply not an entity that can have its own religious beliefs. This distinction between the owner and the corporation certainly seems fair. First, the owner still has all her rights. Second, having a distinction between the owner and the corporation is exactly the point of many of the laws government corporations (such as finances).

If someone insists on claiming that the corporation is not a legal puppet and that it has the capabilities that provide a foundation for these freedoms, then they would run afoul of the argument regarding the ownership of persons. After all, an entity that can hold religious beliefs would thus seem to be a person in a meaningful sense that would forbid ownership.

Thus, the dilemma seems to be this: if a corporation is a person and thus gains the rights of being a person, then it is unconstitutional to own a corporation. If a corporation is not really a person, then it is legal to own it but it is not entitled to the rights of a person, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

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Shutting it Down

Posted in Business, Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 2, 2013
English: President Barack Obama's signature on...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once again, the United States government has been shut down. As is to be expected, the politicians and pundits are engaging in the blame game. A key Republican talking point is that Obama and the Democrats are to blame because they would not compromise on the matter of Obamacare. If, say the Tea Party Republicans, Obama had been willing to defund or delay Obamacare, then they would not have been forced to do what they did.

The obvious counter to this is that Obamacare became a law via the proper constitutional process and hence this is no longer a compromise situation. It should also be noted that the proposed compromise is a rather odd one. It is as if the Republicans in question are saying: “here is our compromise: we get our way on Obamacare and, in return, we will not shut down the government.” That hardly seems like a reasonable compromise. To use an analogy, it would be like being in a bus heading to an event that was voted on by the people on the bus. Then some folks say that they do not like where the bus is going and one of them grabs the wheel. He then says “here is my compromise: we go where I want to go, or I’ll drive us into a tree.” That is hardly a compromise. Or even sane.

It could be argued that Obama and the Democrats should have done a better job in the past in terms of getting Republican buy-in on Obamacare. Or that the fact that the Republicans are a majority in the house shows that Americans want to be rid of Obamacare. These are not unreasonable points. However, they do not justify shutting down the government.

While I believe that Obamacare is chock full of problems and will have a variety of unpleasant consequences, I also believe in the importance of following the constitution. That is, I believe in the process of law. Obamacare went through that process and properly became a law. As such, there do not seem to be any grounds for claiming that it should be stopped because it is somehow an improperly passed law.

There have been claims that Obamacare is unconstitutional. There are some merits to these claims, but the matter was properly settled by the Supreme Court. Presumably the matter could be reconsidered at a later date, but the constitutional process has been properly followed. As such, the rhetorical points that Obamacare is unconstitutional lack merit. However, even if there was new and most excellent legal argument for this claim, this would not warrant shutting down the government to block the law. It would warrant having the Supreme Court consider the argument. That is proper procedure—that is how a system of government should operate. Using the threat of a shutdown against a law is certainly not how things should be done. That is essentially attempting to “govern” by threats, coercion and blackmail.

To use an analogy, imagine a night baseball game in which one side is losing. That side has argued every call repeatedly and used all the rules of the game to try to not lose. But it is still losing. So the coach of the losing team says that his team will turn out the lights, take all the balls, rip up the bases, and throw away the bats unless the other team “compromises” and gives them all the points they want. That would obviously be absurd. Likewise for the Tea Party Republican shut down.

A possible approach to warranting the shutdown is based on the idea of popular democracy. Some have argued that Obamacare is unpopular with most Americans. While this seems true, it also is true that most Americans do not seem to have enough of an understanding of Obamacare to have a rational opinion and much of the alleged dislike seems to stem from how the questions are asked. Interestingly, many people seem to really like things like the fact that people cannot be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions and that children can stay on their parents’ insurance until they are 26.

Since this is supposed to be something of a democracy, considering the will of the people (however confused and ill-informed the people might be) seems reasonable. However, this would need to be a consistent principle. That is, if the Tea Party Republicans say that they are warranted in shutting down the government because a majority of Americans are opposed to Obamacare, then they would need to accept that the same principle applies in the case of other laws as well. So, if most Americans believe that X should be a law or that X should not be a law, then that is what must be done—and if it is not done, the government must be shut down. Given the overwhelming support for certain gun control laws that congress refused to pass, if this principle is accepted then these laws must pass—or the government must be shut down.

However, the Tea Party Republicans are clearly not operating on a principle here, unless it is the principle of “we’ll shut down the government if we don’t get what we want”—but that is hardly a reasonable or democratic principle.

Another plausible approach to countering this is to argue that a shutdown can be justified on the grounds that a legitimately passed, Supreme Court tested law is so bad that action must be taken. While this could not be warranted on constitutional grounds, it could be justified on moral grounds, most likely utilitarian grounds. The idea would be that the consequences of allowing the law to go into effect would be so dire that the consequences of shutting down the government are offset by the achievement of a greater good. Or, rather, the prevention of a greater bad.

Interestingly, this could be seen as a variation on civil disobedience. But, rather than have citizens breaking an unjust law to get arrested, there are lawmakers breaking the government—or at least the parts that don’t pay their salary.

Since I find Thoreau’s arguments in favor of such civil disobedience appealing, I have considerable sympathy for lawmakers deciding to serve the state with their consciences. However, what needs to be shown is that the law is so unjust that it warrants such a serious act of civil disobedience.

Ted Cruz and other Tea Party Republicans have made various dire claims about Obamacare—it will result in people being fired, it will cause employers to cut hours so that workers become part-time workers, and so on. Cruz even brought out a comparison to the Nazis, which did not go over well with the Republican senator John McCain. Interestingly, Cruz and others have attributed backwards causation powers to Obamacare: the stock talking points well before Obamacare went into effect included claims that Americans were already suffering under Obamacare—despite the fact that it was not in effect.

When pressed on the damage that Obamacare will do, the Tea Party Republicans tend to be rather vague—they throw out claims about how it will come between a patient and her doctor and so on. However, they never got around to presenting an obective coherent, supported case regarding the likely harms of Obamacare. This is hardly surprising. As a general rule, if someone busts out a Nazi analogy, then this is a fairly reliable sign that they have nothing substantial to say. This is, I think, unfortunate and unnecessary: Obamacare no doubt has plenty of problems and if it is as bad as the Tea Party Republicans claim, they should have been able to present a clear list without having to resort to rhetoric, scare tactic, hyperbole and Nazi analogies. So, I ask for such a clear case for the harms of Obamacare.

As a final point, Obama has made the reasonable point that he has been asking the Republicans for their input and their alternative plan for health care for quite some time. Some Republicans have advocated the emergency room, which I wrote about earlier, but their main offering seems to be purely negative: get rid of Obamacare. In terms of a positive alternative, they seem to have nothing. But, I am a fair person and merely ask for at least an outline of their alternative plan.

 

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VRA

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 26, 2013
Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. R...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was critical in making American democracy a reality. Before the law passed, disenfranchisement was the order of the day in some states and the law was intended to prevent citizens from being unjustly denied their right to vote.

On 6/25/2013, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 and ruled that Section 4 of the VRA is unconstitutional.  Section 4 specifies which states must get federal preclearance  before making changes to voting procedures. Not surprisingly, the states covered by Section 4 were predominantly southern states with an established history of disenfranchising minority voters.

Chief Justice Roberts’ main argument against Section 4  focused on his claim that it is “based on 40-year-old facts having no relationship to the present day.” Roberts does accept that Congress can determine which states require preclearance, but this must be based on current data. The court left Section 5, which defines the preclearance requirement, intact. However, by striking down Section 4 the court has neutralized Section 5.  This is because Section 5 now applies to no states. Congress can, however, pass a new bill to replace Section 4.  Justice Thomas wanted to strike down Section 5 as well and it seems possible that if congress did pass a new bill to replace Section 4, then the court would strike down Section 5 as well (assuming the make-up of the court remains the same). However, it seems unlikely that this will happen-given the nature of congress, the chance of such a bill passing is rather low.

By striking down Section 4, the court has not given states a free hand to do whatever they wish in regards to voting.  That is, all the other laws governing voting rights remain intact. The main impact is that the states once covered by Section 4 no longer need to get federal approval to make changes in regards to such matters as voter ID requirements or early voting. Such changes can, obviously enough, still be challenged-but only after the changes have taken place. The obvious concern is that this opening will be used to disenfranchise voters using methods that will be found to be illegal, but only after the damage is done.

Roberts’ line of reasoning does have a certain appeal. The gist of his argument is that the federal intrusion into the states in question is based on old data (from 40 years ago) and this data fails to warrant such an intrusion. Somewhat ironically, those who agree with Roberts’ point to the election of Obama (especially the turnout of black voters in the states in question) as evidence that there is no longer  a need for Section 4. The court has previously upheld the VRA on the grounds that it was needed to address the efforts of Southern officials to disenfranchise black voters. Since, according to Roberts, there is only old data to support this need, the intrusion is no longer warranted. Crudely put, the argument is that since the South has changed, there is no longer a justification for treating it as if it was acting in the old, bad ways.

However, there are some concerns with Roberts’ reasoning. One obvious point of concern is that Roberts’ argument seems to be that since the data is old, we should assume that the Southern officials no longer have any intention to disenfranchise minority voters. Thus, Section 4 is unconstitutional.  However, it is rather a leap from the data being old to the inference that the VRA has permanently solved the problems it was created to address. Also, given the attempts to disenfranchise voters it seems reasonable to think that the problem still remains.

A reasonable reply to this is that it does not need to be assumed that the South is fully reformed in terms of voting rights. What is needed is merely the fact that the data is out of date and hence can no longer warrant a continued disparity between the states. If a bill can be passed using current data, then the intrusion could be justified once again.  However, it seems likely that no such bill will be passed and thus this aspect of the VRA has been nullified.

My own view is somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, having a disparity between the states in terms of what they can and cannot do without federal approval seems unfair. After all, one may ask, why should Massachusetts have more liberty than Texas? On the other hand, there is the principle of relevant difference: if a state is significantly different from another state in regards to voter disenfranchisement, then a difference in treatment can be justified on this ground. While the notion of states’ rights does have some appeal, it seems self-evident that an appeal to states’ rights cannot be used to warrant denying an individual his or her legitimate individual rights. That is, a state does not have the right to deny the rights of individual citizens just because it is a state.

As might be guessed, I tend to favor having a consistent system in regards to voting rights that does not single out states but, at the same time, guarantees that individuals will not be robbed of their right to vote. To this end, having nationwide laws about relating to voting would seem to be sensible. As far as the justification, the obvious approach would be to focus on the federal elections-this would warrant a national approach. I also agree that legitimate concerns about voter fraud should be addressed by such a nationwide policy.

Getting back to the main issue, I am rather concerned about the impact of the ruling. In general, I suspect the effect will be a significant increase in efforts to disenfranchise voters in various ways (as we saw with the voter ID proposals and related endeavors to suppress voting). While these efforts will be met with after the fact law suits, this will involve fighting a multitude of small battles after damage has already been done. This ruling, I think, is a bad one for those who value the right of all citizens to vote.

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