A Philosopher's Blog

Abstinence, Texas and Teen Pregnancy

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 7, 2017

While the United States has seen declining rates of teen pregnancy (along with a very slight reduction in self-reported teen sexual activity), Texas has the slowest rate of decline. In a typical year, 35,000 Texan teenagers and women under 20 get pregnant. Texas also leads the nation in repeat teen pregnancies. As would be suspected, researchers wondered why this was the case and investigated. The finding was hardly surprising. While many states have addressed the problem of unplanned teen pregnancies by education and social services support, Texas has elected to take a different approach. Most Texas schools offer either no sex education or abstinence only sex education. While many states offer contraception counselling to teen mothers, Texas generally does not—hence Texas leads the country in repeat teenage pregnancies. Texas also has rather restrictive policies regarding contraception for teenagers, although the evidence clearly shows that access to contraception reduces unplanned pregnancies (and hence also reduces the number of abortions). Despite the solid evidence linking Texas’ approach to its problem with teen pregnancy, the view of many social conservatives is that abstinence only education is the best approach. This is a rather problematic view.

Looked at in the context of the objective data on teen pregnancy, Texas’ abstinence only (or no sex education at all) approach is clearly not the best. If, of course, the best approach is the one that most effectively reduces unplanned teen pregnancies. To use the obvious analogy, it is as if Texas was trying to reduce automobile accidents, injuries and fatalities involving teenagers by offering them either no driver education or driver education that says not to drive or get in cars. Texas is also doing the equivalent of trying to ensure teens who do get in cars do so without access to seat belts, air bags and other safety equipment. The absurdity of this approach should be evident on the face of it. This, of course, assumes that the best approach is defined in terms of reducing unplanned teen pregnancies. However, there are other ways to evaluate approaches to addressing teen pregnancy.

One alternative approach is to select the method that is regarded as morally best, defined in terms of the moral principles used to make this assessment. For some conservatives, premarital sex is morally wrong. On this view, Texas is taking the right approach because unmarried teenagers should be practicing abstinence and enabling them to understand and access birth control would be to contribute to their immoral deeds. To use an analogy, consider murder. Since murder is wrong, schools should teach an abstinence only approach to murder and not enable people easy access to implements of murder (except guns; this is not only America but Texas).

The easy and obvious reply to this approach is to point out that the moral righteousness of those who deny teenagers proper sex education and access to contraceptives comes at the cost of considerable harm to the teenagers and society. Allowing this harm to occur to others simply so one can impose their own values seems to be morally unacceptable on utilitarian grounds.  There is also the moral concern about the rights of the teenagers to make their own informed choices about consensual sexual behavior. The imposition of the values of the social conservatives denies them this right and infringes on their freedom. Naturally, those who value abstinence and oppose contraception are free to act on this view themselves—they have every right to not engage in sex or to not use contraception when they do so. They do not, however, have the right to cause harm to others because of their views of sex.

Interestingly, the Texas approach can be seen as the best approach by considering an alternative set of goals. As noted above, if the goal is reducing unwanted teen pregnancies, then the Texas approach is a poor one. However, if there are different goals, then the approach could be regarded as a success. One possible goal is to ensure that the poor and uneducated remain that way. After all, unplanned pregnancies are most likely to occur among the poor and uneducated and they make it harder for people to rise out of poverty and also to achieve educational goals. Maintaining a poor and uneducated population confers some significant benefits to the upper classes and also meshes with some morally repugnant ideological views. Another possible goal is to “keep women in their place” by making it more likely that they will get pregnant as teenagers. This is a variant of the goal of maintaining an underclass; in this case the specific targets are girls and young women.

While a utilitarian case could, perhaps, be made for using these policies to help maintain the underclasses, the harms caused by them do seem to outweigh the advantages gained by the upper classes. As such, policies aimed at maintaining the underclasses would seem morally wrong.

In light of the above discussion, Texas’ approach to teenage pregnancy is either merely ineffective or immoral (or both). As such, the policies in Texas should be replaced by those that have proven effective elsewhere. Or not. Texas being the worst does have the benefit of allowing other states to look down at Texas and this does have a certain appeal.

 

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The Texas Anti-Abortion Law & Lies

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 2, 2016

English: Seal of Texas

In 2013 Texas passed a law imposing strict conditions on abortion providers and justified it by asserting that its intent was to improve patient safety. Opponents contend that it is aimed at restricting abortion and that there is no medical justification for the law. The issue has reached the Supreme Court which is currently down to eight justices due to the death of Antonin Scalia. As always, the battle over abortion is philosophically interesting.

One rather interesting matter is the fact that proponents of the law insist that it is solely intended to improve the safety of women. One reason for this is that openly asserting that the law is intended to restrict abortion would be politically and legally problematic. After all, the Supreme Court has consistently held that women do have a right to abortion and that laws cannot impose an undue burden on women. Hence, the law is presented as aimed at addressing a health issue rather than restricting abortion. This leads to the question of whether or not the claim about the intent of the law is plausible.

Opponents of the law have pointed out a blatant inconsistency: procedures that impose more risk than abortion (such as a colonoscopy) do not face the restrictions imposed on abortion. If the true intent was to protect the health of patients, then the same restrictions would be applied to procedures that presented equal or greater risk. While it might be argued that the legislature decided to just address one procedure at a time, they have had ample time to advance bills covering other procedures. Their failure to act consistently shows rather conclusively that the law is an anti-abortion law, despite the claim that it is motivated by health concerns.

Opponents have also pointed out that the medical experts and professional medical organizations uniformly hold that there is no medical justification for the law. As should be expected, supporters of the law claim that they know better than the medical experts. While experts are not always right, the majority opinion of the qualified experts is the most reasonable thing to accept as true. Especially when the opposing view is put forth by non-experts who have a clear bias in the matter (they are anti-abortion). Thus, by the reasonable standards of freshmen level critical thinking, the rational choice is to believe the medical experts. As such, the medical justification for the bill is unfounded and this would seem to leave as its only plausible goal the restriction of abortion.

It could be argued that the supporters of the law are truly motivated by concerns about health and truly believe that the law is in accord with best medical practices. This would require attributing to such supporters the inability to understand the principle of consistency and either ignorance of the medical facts or an unfounded rejection of experts.

A more plausible explanation is that the supporters are being disingenuous—they are well aware of the inconsistency and medical facts and support the law because it is an effective means of creating undue burdens on women seeking abortion.

If supporters are engaged in lying to defend the law, then the moral matter of these lies becomes a point of concern. On the face of it, such deception would seem to be morally wrong—especially lies told by legislators to the public.  A moral person, one might argue, would be honest about the facts and her intent and would not resort to duplicity.

This could be countered by appealing to the consequences of the lies. The idea is that the good done (in terms of reducing the number of abortions) would outweigh any evil arising from the lying. That is, this could be defended on the grounds of lying for a good cause. This assumes many things, such as abortion being morally wrong and the principle that the consequences of a lie can morally justify the lie.

Another approach to justifying the lies is to accept that the lies are wrong, but that the evil of abortion cannot be countered if one is honest about the facts and one’s intentions. The Supreme Court has ruled that the state cannot constitutionally put an undue burden on a woman seeking an abortion. Justice Stevens has defined “undue burden” in terms of its severity as well as lacking “a legitimate, rational justification.” In the case of the Texas law, if the honest admission was made that the law was intended to make accessing abortion as difficult as possible and that there is no medical basis for the law, then it would be easy enough to show that it would fail the undue burden test. After all, this admission would be a direct admission of such a failure.

However, if the claim is made that the law is intended to protect the health of women and is based on medical considerations, then it becomes more difficult to establish the existence of an undue burden. It could thus be argued that opponents of abortion are required to lie in order to limit abortion. As such, it is the law of the land (as interpreted) that is making them lie—so they are not morally to blame. They have no choice if they are to oppose what they regard as a great evil.

One counter is that the law is not making them lie—they can be truthful about their anti-abortion law. They just need to provide a legitimate, rational justification for imposing the restrictions they wish to impose. This seems like a reasonable requirement for any law. After all, if no legitimate, rational justification can be provided, then the law would be illegitimate and unjustified.

A possible counter to this is to claim that Roe v. Wade has set a precedent making it impossible to provide legitimate, rational justifications for the restrictions they wish to impose. As such, they must lie to achieve their end.

The reply to this is that they do not need to lie—they need to try to get Roe v. Wade overturned. This, of course, will result in the counter that this either cannot be done or, at the very least, will take too long—hence they need to lie now and perhaps forever in order to achieve their goal of restricting abortion. While this can be seen as a reasonable position, there is certainly something problematic about using systematic lying to achieve an allegedly moral end.

 

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Local Control

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 1, 2015

While casting Democrats as wanting to impose the power of big government, the Republicans profess to favor small government and local control. However, as J.S. Mill noted, people rarely operate on the basis of consistently applied principles regarding what the state should or should not do. As such, it is hardly surprising that Republicans are for local control, except when the locals are not doing what they want. Then they are often quite willing to use the power of the state against local government. One recent and clear example of this is the passage of laws in states such as Oklahoma and Texas that effectively forbid local governments from passing laws aimed at restricting fracking.

Even in oil industry friendly states such as Oklahoma, there have been attempts by local governments to impose restrictions on fracking. As might be imagined, having a fracking operation right next door tends to be disruptive—the lights, noise, heavy truck traffic and contamination are all concerns. In Oklahoma there is also the added concern of earthquakes that have been causally linked to disposal wells. Since places that did not have earthquakes before the wells were dug generally do not have earthquake resistant structures, these new quakes can pose threats to property and public safety.

In general, local governments have stepped in because the local people believed that the state government was not doing enough to protect the well-being of the local citizens. In general, state legislatures tend to be very friendly with the oil and gas industry—in part because they tend to make up a significant proportion of the economy of many states. While lobbying state legislatures is not cheap, it is obviously more cost effective to have the state legislatures pass laws forbidding local governments from acting contrary to the interests of the oil and gas industry. Otherwise, the industry would need to influence (or purchase) all the local governments and this would costly and time consuming.

Since I favor individual autonomy, it is hardly surprising that I also favor local autonomy. As such, I regard these laws to be wrong. However, considering arguments for and against them is certainly worthwhile.

One obvious set of arguments to deploy against these laws are all the general arguments that Republicans advance in favor of local control when the locals are doing what Republicans want them to do. After all, if these arguments adequately show that local control is good and desirable, then these arguments should apply to this situation as well. But, as noted above, the “principle” most follow is that people should do what they want and not do what they do not want them to do. Consistency is thus rather rare—and almost unseen when it comes to politics.

One argument in favor of having the state impose on the local governments is based on the fact that having a patchwork of laws is problematic. The flip side of this is, obviously, that having a consistent set of laws across the state (and presumably the entire country) is generally a good thing.

In the case of the regulation of the oil and gas industry, the argument rests on the claim that having all these different local laws would be confusing and costly—it is better to have laws for the industry that cover the entire state (and, to follow the logic, the entire country…or world). Interestingly, when the EPA advanced a similar argument for regulating water, the Republicans rushed to attack. Once again, this is hardly a shock: the patchwork argument is not applied consistently, just when a party wants to prevent local control.

Applied consistently, the patchwork argument certainly has its appeal. After all, it is true that having laws vary with each locality can be rather confusing and can have some negative consequences. For example, if the color of traffic lights was set by localities and some decided to go with different colors, then there would be problems. As another example, if some local governments refused to recognize same sex-marriage when it is legal in the state, this could lead to various legal problems (such as inheritance issues or hospital visitation rights). As such, there seem to be good reasons to have a unified set of laws rather than a patchwork.

That said, it can be argued that the difficulties of the patchwork can be outweighed by other factors. In general terms, one can always apply a utilitarian argument. If it can be shown that allowing local autonomy on a matter creates more good than the harm created by having a patchwork of laws, then that would be an argument in favor of local autonomy in this matter. In the case of local control of the gas and oil industry, this would be a matter of weighing the harms and the benefits to all those involved (and not just the oil and gas industry shareholders). I am inclined to think that allowing local control would create more good than harm, but I could be wrong about this. Perhaps the benefits to the state as a whole outweigh the damage done locally—that is, the few must sacrifice for the many (albeit against their will). But perhaps the many are suffering for the few stockholders, which would seem to be wrong.

Another moral argument worth considering is the matter of property rights. In the case of fracking, the oil and gas companies do own the mineral rights. As such, they do have legitimate property rights to the resources located under the property in question. However, the people who own the property above the minerals also have rights. These presumably include a right to safety from environmental contamination, a right to not have their property values degraded, a right to a certain quality of life in regards to noise and light, and so on for other rights. The moral challenge is, obviously enough, balancing these rights against each other. Working this out is, in the practical sense, a matter of politics.

Since local governments tend to be more responsive to locals than the state government, it could be argued that they would be biased against the oil and gas industry and hence this matter should be settled by the state to avoid an unfair resolution. However, it can be argued that state governments are often influenced (or owned) by the oil and gas industry. This would seem to point towards the need for federal regulation of the matter (assuming that the federal government is more objective)—which is something that Republicans tend to oppose, despite it being the logical conclusion of their argument against local control. Interesting, arguments advanced to claim that the federal government should not impose on the local control of the states would seem to apply to the local government. That is, if the federal government should not be imposing on the states, then the states should not be imposing on the local governments.

 

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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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The Confederacy, License Plates & Free Speech

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 27, 2015
Louisiana Sons of Confederate Veterans special...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Early in 2015 some folks in my adopted state of Florida wanted three Confederate veterans to become members of the Veterans’ Hall of Fame. Despite the efforts of the Florida Sons of Confederate Veterans, the initial attempt failed on the grounds that the Confederate veterans were not United States’ veterans. Not to be outdone, the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans want to have an official Texas license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag. While custom license plates are allowed in the United States, the states generally review proposed plates. The Texas department of Motor Vehicles rejected the proposed plate on the grounds that “a significant portion of the public associate[s] the Confederate flag with organizations” expressing hatred for minorities. Those proposing the plate claim that this violates their rights. This has generated a legal battle that has made it to the US Supreme Court.

The legal issue, which has been cast as a battle over free speech, is certainly interesting. However, my main concern is with the ethics of the matter. This is, obviously enough, also a battle over rights.

Looked at in terms of the right of free expression, there are two main lines of contention. The first is against allowing the plate. One way to look at an approved license plate is that it is a means of conveying a message that the state agrees with. Those opposed to the plate have argued that if the state is forced to allow the plate to be issued, the state will be compelled to be associated with a message that the government does not wish to be associated with. In free speech terms, this could be seen as forcing the state to express or facilitate a view that it does not accept.

This does have a certain appeal since the state can be seen as representing the people (or, perhaps, the majority of the people). If a view is significantly offensive to a significant number of citizens (which is, I admit, vague), then the state could reasonably decline to accept a license plate expressing or associated with that view. So, to give some examples, the state could justly decline Nazi plates, pornographic plates, and plates featuring racist or sexist images. Given that the Confederate flag represents to many slavery and racism, it seems reasonable that the state not issue such a plate. Citizens can, of course, cover their cars in Confederate flags and thus express their views.

The second line of contention is in favor of the plate. One obvious line of reasoning is based on the right of free expression: citizens should have the right to express their views via license plates. These plates, one might contend, do not express the views of the state—they express the view of the person who purchased the plate.

In terms of the concerns about a plate being offensive, Granvel Block argued that not allowing a plate with the Confederate flag would be “as unreasonable” as the state forbidding the use of the University of Texas logo on a plate “because Texas A&M graduates didn’t care for it.” On the one hand, Block has made a reasonable point: if people disliking an image is a legitimate basis for forbidding its use on a plate, then any image could end up being forbidden. It would, as Block noted, be absurd to forbid schools from having custom plates because rival schools do not like them.

On the other hand, there seems to be an important difference between the logo of a public university and the battle flag of the Confederacy. While some Texas A&M graduates might not like the University of Texas, the University of Texas’ logo does not represent states that went to war against the United States in order to defend slavery. So, while the state should not forbid plates merely because some people do not like them, it does seem reasonable to forbid a plate that includes the flag representing, as state Senator Royce West said, “…a legalized system of involuntary servitude, dehumanization, rape, mass murder…”

The lawyer representing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, R. James George Jr., has presented an interesting line of reasoning. He notes, correctly, that Texas has a state holiday that honors veterans of the Confederacy, that there are monuments honoring Confederate veterans and that the gift shop in the capitol sells Confederate memorabilia. From this he infers that the Department of Motor Vehicles should follow the state legislature and approve the plate.

This argument, which is an appeal to consistency, does have some weight. After all, the state certainly seems to express its support for Confederate veterans (and even the Confederacy) and this license plate is consistent with this support. To refuse the license plate on the grounds that the state does not wish to express support for what the Confederate flag stands for is certainly inconsistent with having a state holiday for Confederate veterans—the state seems quite comfortable with this association.

There is, of course, the broader moral issue of whether or not the state should have a state holiday for Confederate veterans, etc. That said, any arguments given in support of what the state already does in regards to the Confederacy would seem to also support the acceptance of the plate—they seem to be linked. So, if the plate is to be rejected, these other practices must also be rejected on the same grounds. But, if these other practices are to be maintained, then the plate would seem to fit right in and thus, on this condition, also be accepted.

I am somewhat divided on this matter. One view I find appealing favors freedom of expression: any license plate design that does not interfere with identifying the license number and state should be allowed—consistent with copyright law, of course. This would be consistent and would not require the state to make any political or value judgments. It would, of course, need to be made clear that the plates do not necessarily express the official positions of the government.

The obvious problem with such total freedom is that people would create horrible plates featuring pornography, racism, sexism, and so on. This could be addressed by appealing to existing laws—the state would not approve or reject a plate as such, but a plate could be rejected for violating, for example, laws against making threats or inciting violence. The obvious worry is that laws would then be passed to restrict plates that some people did not like, such as plates endorsing atheism or claiming that climate change is real. But, this is not a problem unique to license plates. After all, it has been alleged that officials in my adopted state of Florida have banned the use of the term ‘climate change.’

Another view I find appealing is to avoid all controversy by getting rid of custom plates. Each state might have a neutral, approved image (such as a loon, orange or road runner) or the plates might simply have the number/letters and the state name. This would be consistent—no one gets a custom plate. To me, this would be no big deal. But, of course, I always just get the cheapest license plate option—which is the default state plate. However, some people regard the license plate as important and their view is worth considering.

 

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Should Two Year Colleges be Free?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2015
Tallahassee County Community College Seal

Tallahassee County Community College Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Germany has embraced free four year college education for its citizens, President Obama has made a more modest proposal to make community college free for Americans. He is modeling his plan on that of Republican Governor Bill Haslam. Haslam has made community college free for citizen of Tennessee, regardless of need or merit. Not surprisingly, Obama’s proposal has been attacked by both Democrats and Republicans. Having some experience in education, I will endeavor to assess this proposal in a rational way.

First, there is no such thing as a free college education (in this context). Rather, free education for a student means that the cost is shifted from the student to others. After all, the staff, faculty and administrators will not work for free. The facilities of the schools will not be maintained, improved and constructed for free. And so on, for all the costs of education.

One proposed way to make education free for students is to shift the cost onto “the rich”, a group which is easy to target but somewhat harder to define. As might be suspected, I think this is a good idea. One reason is that I believe that education is the best investment a person can make in herself and in society. This is why I am fine with paying property taxes that go to education, although I have no children of my own. In addition to my moral commitment to education, I also look at it pragmatically: money spent on education (which helps people advance) means having to spend less on prisons and social safety nets. Of course, there is still the question of why the cost should be shifted to the rich.

One obvious answer is that they, unlike the poor and what is left of the middle class, have the money. As economists have noted, an ongoing trend in the economy is that wages are staying stagnant while capital is doing well. This is manifested in the fact that while the stock market has rebounded from the crash, workers are, in general, doing worse than before the crash.

There is also the need to address the problem of income inequality. While one might reject arguments grounded in compassion or fairness, there are some purely practical reasons to shift the cost. One is that the rich need the rest of us to keep the wealth, goods and services flowing to them (they actually need us way more than we need them). Another is the matter of social stability. Maintaining a stable state requires that the citizens believe that they are better off with the way things are then they would be if they engaged in a revolution. While deceit and force can keep citizens in line for quite some time, there does come a point at which these fail. To be blunt, it is in the interest of the rich to help restore the faith of the middle class. One of the nastier alternatives is being put against the wall after the revolution.

Second, the reality of education has changed over the years. In the not so distant past, a high-school education was sufficient to get a decent job. I am from a small town and Maine and remember well that people could get decent jobs with just that high school degree (or even without one). While there are still some decent jobs like that, they are increasingly rare.

While it might be a slight exaggeration, the two-year college degree is now the equivalent of the old high school degree. That is, it is roughly the minimum education needed to have a shot at a decent job. As such, the reasons that justify free (for students) public K-12 education would now justify free (for students) K-14 public education. And, of course, arguments against free (for the student) K-12 education would also apply.

While some might claim that the reason the two-year degree is the new high school degree because education has been in a decline, there is also the obvious reason that the world has changed. While I grew up during the decline of the manufacturing economy, we are now in the information economy (even manufacturing is high tech now) and more education is needed to operate in this new economy.

It could, of course, be argued that a better solution would be to improve K-12 education so that a high school degree would be sufficient for a decent job in the information economy. This would, obviously enough, remove the need to have free two-year college. This is certainly an option worth considering, though it does seem unlikely that it would prove viable.

Third, the cost of college has grown absurdly since I was a student. Rest assured, though, that this has not been because of increased pay for professors. This has been addressed by a complicated and sometimes bewildering system of financial aid and loads. However, free two year college would certainly address this problem in a simple way.

That said, a rather obvious concern is that this would not actually reduce the cost of college—as noted above, it would merely shift the cost. A case can certainly be made that this will actually increase the cost of college (for those who are paying). After all, schools would have less incentive to keep their costs down if the state was paying the bill.

It can be argued that it would be better to focus on reducing the cost of public education in a rational way that focuses on the core mission of colleges, namely education. One major reason for the increase in college tuition is the massive administrative overhead that vastly exceeds what is actually needed to effectively run a school. Unfortunately, since the administrators are the ones who make the financial choices it seems unlikely that they will thin their own numbers. While state legislatures have often applied magnifying glasses to the academic aspects of schools, the administrative aspects seem to somehow get less attention—perhaps because of some interesting connections between the state legislatures and school administrations.

Fourth, while conservative politicians have been critical of the general idea of the state giving away free stuff to regular people rather than corporations and politicians, liberals have also been critical of the proposal. While liberals tend to favor the idea of the state giving people free stuff, some have taken issue with free stuff being given to everyone. After all, the proposal is not to make two-year college free for those who cannot afford it, but to make it free for everyone.

It is certainly tempting to be critical of this aspect of the proposal. While it would make sense to assist those in need, it seems unreasonable to expend resources on people who can pay for college on their own. That money, it could be argued, could be used to help people in need pay for four-year colleges. It can also be objected that the well-off would exploit the system.

One easy and obvious reply is that the same could be said of free (for the student) K-12 education. As such, the reasons that exist for free public K-12 education (even for the well-off) would apply to the two-year college plan.

In regards to the well-off, they can already elect to go to lower cost state schools. However, the wealthy tend to pick the more expensive schools and usually opt for four-year colleges. As such, I suspect that there would not be an influx of rich students into two-year programs trying to “game the system.” Rather, they will tend to continue to go to the most prestigious four year schools their money can buy.

Finally, while the proposal is for the rich to bear the cost of “free” college, it should be looked at as an investment. The rich “job creators” will benefit from having educated “job fillers.” Also, the college educated will tend to get better jobs which will grow the economy (most of which will go to the rich) and increase tax-revenues (which can help offset the taxes on the rich). As such, the rich might find that their involuntary investment will provide an excellent return.

Overall, the proposal for “free” two-year college seems to be a good idea, although one that will require proper implementation (which will be very easy to screw up).

 

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Open Carry Protests

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 4, 2014
Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine

Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I have noted in my other essays on guns, I grew up in what most would regard as a gun culture. I learned to shoot as soon as I could handle a firearm and have been shooting ever since. I am comfortable around guns (but not too comfortable—complacency leads to accidents) and around armed people. This is due to years of hunting and also due to the fact that my family participated in the revolutionary war re-enactments that were popular in the 1970s. As such, I grew up spending some of my summers around plenty of armed folks and even participated in several mock battles. As such, I am certainly not an anti-gun person. That said, I do have some concerns about the current trend in open carry protests.

While the exact legal details vary, open carry is when a person is (obviously enough) carrying a firearm openly. This is in contrast with concealed carry—when a person is hiding her weapon from sight, typically under concealing clothing. Most states require that a person get a concealed weapons permit to legally carry a concealed firearm and often prohibit open carry in many circumstances (hunting being an obvious exception). Some states allow those with concealed weapon permits to openly carry a fire arm. Some states do not. Complicating matters even more is that local laws can vary considerably, even within the same state. For example, some cities have bans against carrying loaded weapons within city limits. As another example, Florida resident Doug Varrieur was featured on the Colbert Report for (legally) having an open air shooting range in his residential neighborhood.

In an interesting form of civil disobedience, some gun owners have started engaging in open carry protests. That is, they openly carry their guns to protest a gun law or gun related matter that they regard as unjust. For example, gun owners in San Antonio recently engaged in an open carry protest after a man was tased and arrested for openly carrying a loaded rifle in city limits. Other open carry protestors have taken to openly carrying their guns when patronizing businesses, such as restaurants and coffee shops. Some businesses, such as Chipotle, Sonic, Starbucks and Wendy’s have asked protestors to not openly carry weapons in their businesses, sparking some outrage from some protestors. As another example, some gun owners favor what has been called “constitutional carry” that would allow gun owners to openly carry guns without any license and stage open carry protests in support of this proposal.

What is very interesting is that the NRA has been critical of open carry protests conducted in restaurants and home improvement stores. The organization has even gone so far as to call such protests “weird.” The NRA also noted that “using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners.” One reason for this approach is practical—the NRA is aware that these open carry protests can frighten people and thus have a negative impact on the NRA’s efforts in regards to achieving its goals. Some of those supporting open carry have condemned the NRA for this chastisement and some have even expressed the view that the NRA is not sufficiently pro-gun. The NRA thus finds itself in a situation parallel to that of the Republican Party, namely being pulled towards extreme positions and being criticized for not being extreme enough. While I disagree with the NRA on many issues, I do agree with them in this matter: using guns in this way seems to be a bit less than sensible and it also seems counterproductive in that it will tend to scare more people than it wins over. That said, I do have some sympathy for the protestors.

As I mentioned above, I grew up in “the gun culture” and I actually totally get the appeal of being able to walk down the street packing iron and swinging heat. Of course, this is purely emotional and, as such, is hardly the basis for a considered position on the issue.

Some of my concerns are practical. One is, as also noted by the NRA, that people openly carrying guns in a Starbucks or Home Depot will tend to scare people and this could lead to unfortunate situations in which a protestor is mistaken as someone who has come to engage in a mass shooting. I freely admit that if I were to see someone coming into a restaurant openly carrying an AR-15, my first thought would be “this guy could be here to try to kill us all…” Until I heard of open carry protests, that would have been my only thought—and I would be calling 911 and working on a plan to kill him as quickly as possible should it come to that. After all, as the NRA notes, walking into a restaurant or store openly carrying a weapon is weird, not sensible and likely to frighten people—or trigger a potential shooter response. And I say this a person who grew up with guns.

Another concern is that armed people wandering about in a crowded store or restaurant can be a recipe for disaster. While most gun owners know how to safely handle weapons and would hopefully not walk into a business openly carrying a loaded weapon, it is easy enough to imagine someone forgetting to properly check her gun (or even intentionally loading it) and having a terrible accident occur. I am actually a bit surprised that this has not happened yet.

On the one hand, I think there are legitimate grounds for such protests. The obvious legal ground is the 1st Amendment and the obvious moral ground is the moral right of citizens to engage in peaceful protests against laws and actions they regard as unjust.

Interestingly enough, if gun owners intentionally violated open carry laws in order to protest them and did not engage in violent resistance when arrested, they would be acting within the tradition of civil disobedience first advocated by Henry David Thoreau. Given the moral pedigree of civil disobedience, this would seem to be moral acceptable and perhaps even praiseworthy (though some might regard the goal as ethically problematic).

On the other hand, the use of guns in the protests is a point of moral concern. On the face of it, it might be tempting to regard such protests as forms of bullying or threat making. After all, a gun is an instrument of violence and carrying it openly can easily be seen as expressing an intention to coerce or threaten. To some, armed people “occupying” a business or gathered in front of a police station would be seen not as an act of protest but as an act of intimidation—the message being “I have a gun…so give me what I want.” Citizens do not have the moral right to use the tools of threats and intimidation against other citizens and, as such, this would seem to indicate that such protests are morally wrong. This, of course, assumes that the protests are actually intended to intimidate or coerce.

However, it is worth considering that a threat might be implicit in many forms of legitimate protests—although the presence of guns would seem to make the threat rather less implicit. It is also worth noting that the protest is about guns—so the presence of guns would seem to be relevant, on par with people advocating legalizing marijuana bringing marijuana to their protests against marijuana laws they regard as unjust. Of course, a gun is rather more coercive than a joint.

My considered view is that open carry protests are, if safely conducted, morally legitimate protests and that they could be a form of civil disobedience (the irony of this is not lost on me). However, I do have the above mentioned concerns: the safety issues, the view that such protests are actually counterproductive to the avowed causes, and the clear potential that such protests could be legitimately regarded as acts of coercion rather than acts of protest.

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30 More Fallacies in Print

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 15, 2013

30_More_Fallacies_Cover_for_Kindle

Now available in print on Amazon and other book sellers.

30 Fallacies is a companion book for 42 Fallacies. 42 Fallacies is not, however, required to use this book. It provides concise descriptions and examples of thirty common informal fallacies.

Accent, Fallacy of
Accident, Fallacy of
Amphiboly, Fallacy of
Appeal to Envy
Appeal to Group Identity
Appeal to Guilt
Appeal to Silence
Appeal to Vanity/Elitism
Argumentum ad Hitlerum
Complex Question
Confusing Explanations and Excuses
Cum Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc
Equivocation, Fallacy of
Fallacious Example
Fallacy Fallacy
Historian’s Fallacy
Illicit Conversion
Incomplete Evidence
Moving the Goal Posts
Oversimplified Cause
Overconfident Inference from Unknown Statistics
Pathetic Fallacy
Positive Ad Hominem
Proving X, Concluding Y
Psychologist’s fallacy
Rationalization
Reification, Fallacy of
Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy
Victim Fallacy
Weak Analogy

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God & Punishment

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 4, 2012
Governor Rick Perry of Texas speaking at the R...

Image via Wikipedia

A while back I saw Rick Perry receive thunderous applause for the number of executions in the state of Texas. More recently I saw his video in which he claims that he is not ashamed to admit he is  a Christian. Thanks to Rick, I started thinking about God and punishment.

On many conceptions of God, God punishes and rewards people for their deeds and misdeeds when they reach the afterlife. This afterlife might be in Heaven or Hell. It might also be a post first life Resurrection in the flesh followed by judgement and reward or punishment. In any case, those who believe in God generally also believe in a system of divine rewards and punishments that are granted or inflicted post death.

Interestingly, people who believe in such a divine system generally also accept a system of punishment here on earth. Some, like Perry, strongly support capital punishment here on earth while also professing to be of the Christian faith (and thus believing in divine punishment).

The stock justifications for punishment (like executions) include retribution, reparation, and deterrence. In the case of retribution, the idea is that a misdeed warrants a comparable punishment as a just response. In the case of reparation, the idea is that the wrongdoer should be compelled to  provide compensation for the damage done by his/her misdeeds. Deterrence, obviously enough, aims at motivating the wrongdoer to not do wrong again and to motivate others not to do wrong.

When it comes to punishment, it seems reasonable to accept certain moral limits. At the very least, the severity and quantity of punishment would need to be justified. At the very least, the punishment should be on par with the crime in terms if its severity and quantity (otherwise it merely creates more wrong). Punishment without adequate moral justification would seem to be morally unacceptable and would seem to be wrongdoing under the name of punishment rather than justice.

Getting back to God, suppose that God exists and does inflict divine punishments for misdeeds. If this is the case, then it would seem to be unreasonable, perhaps even immoral, for human courts to inflict punishment for crimes that God also punishes.

First, if God punishes people for their misdeeds, then there is no need to seek retribution for crimes here on earth. After all, if someone believes in divine justice, they would also need to believe that mortal retribution is unnecessary-after all, whether we punish the wrongdoer or not, just retribution shall occur after the wrongdoer dies. If we do punish a wrongdoer, then God would presumably need to subtract out our punishment from the punishment he inflicts-otherwise He would be overdoing it. As such, mortal retribution is simply a waste of time-unless, of course, it takes some of the load of an allegedly omnipotent being.

Second, if God rewards good deeds and punishes misdeeds, then there would seem to be no need for reparations here on earth. After all, if someone steals my laptop, then God will see to it that s/he gets what s/he deserves and so will I. That is, all the books will be balanced after death. As such, if someone believes in divine justice, then there seems to be little sense in worrying about reparation here on earth. After all, if we will just be here for a very little while then what will my laptop matter in the scope of eternity? Not a bit, I assure you.

Third, if God inflicts divine punishments and hands out divine rewards, it would seem absurd to try to deter people with mortal punishments. If someone believes that murderers are not deterred by the threat of Hell (or the hope of Heaven), then they surely would not think that the mere threat of bodily death would have deterrent value. To use an analogy, if I knew that a friend of mine would shoot anyone who tried to hurt me, it would be odd of me to tell someone who threatened to harm me that I would poke them with a toothpick. After all, if the threat of being shot would not deter them, the threat of a poke with a toothpick surely would not work.

It might be argued that we need to punish people here because not everyone believes in God. To use an analogy, if I told people that I am protected by  a sniper armed with a .50 caliber rifle, they might still make a go at me if they did not believe in the sniper. As such, I would want to show them my pistol to deter them. Likewise, to deter non-believers we would want to have jails and lethal injections to scare them away from misdeeds. After all, while some people might not believe in God, everyone believes in prison.

Of course, the fact that we rely on prisons and other punishments for deterrence does seem to indicate that we regard God’s divine justice as having very little deterrence value-unless, of course, it is claimed that criminals are atheists or agnostics.

There is also the usually concern that God does not seem particularly concerned with deterring misdeeds. After all, while religious texts present various threats of divine punishment, there is no evidence that God actually punishes the wicked and this certainly cuts into the deterrence value of His punishments. To use an analogy, imagine if I told my students that cheating in my class would be punished by the Chair of Student Punishments for Philosophy Classes and the punishment would take place after graduation. Imagine that a student turned in a plagiarized paper and cheated like mad on the tests, yet I did nothing and simply entered in grades as if everything was fine and nothing happened.  Imagine that the students never see the alleged chair and the only evidence they have for her existence is the fact that she is listed on my syllabus and a little sign I put up on an empty office. As might be imagined, the students would not deterred from cheating.

If there really was a Chair of Student Punishment for Philosophy Classes, she would make an appearance in the class and administer punishments as soon as she was aware of the violations. The same would seem to be true of God. Crudely put, if He does exist and metes out justice, then we would not need to punish (at least in the case of the misdeeds that concern Him). If we do need to punish, then it would seem that either He does not exist or He does not dispense divine justice.

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Disenfranchising

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 4, 2011
Ballot box with flag

Image by joebeone via Flickr

The right to vote is supposed to be a fundamental right in a democracy like the United States. However, denying people the right to vote has been something of an American tradition. Women were, of course, denied the right to vote until 1920. In the late 1800s Jim Crow laws were passed by southern Democrats to systematically deny blacks their voting rights. The various tactics used in these laws also sometimes excluded poor whites from voting, but steps were often taken to “correct” that problem.

Recent times have seen a significant surge of laws that would seem to have an impact on voting. The overwhelming majority of these laws have been put forth by Republicans, but Democrats have also had a role to play. These laws are typically presented as measures that are needed to counter voting fraud, although many critics contend that the sort of fraud these measures are intended to counter is extremely rare. It has been estimated that the new measures “could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.” As such, there seems to be a real issue here.

One point of concern is the matter of motivation. It seems likely that that the poor, the young and African-Americans will be most affected by the new laws. Since these demographics tend to vote for Democrats, it might be suspected that these laws are an attempt to disenfranchise such voters, thus reducing the likelihood that Democrats will be elected. Those supporting the laws, as noted above, claim that they are motivated solely by their desire to prevent voter fraud. Presumably, the fact that people who tend to vote for Democrats will be people most impacted by the laws is purely a matter of coincidence. I am inclined to think that the Republicans are, in fact, intending to use such laws to their political advantage. That said, the morality of an action and its consequences can be assessed independently of motives and this seems worth doing.

As noted above, the main argument for the new laws is based on the idea that they will reduce voter fraud. While it is laudable to reduce such fraud, such incidents seem to be rather rare and there is also the obvious question of whether or not the harm prevented by these laws will outweigh the harm done by these laws. After all, if voting is a very important thing, then laws that make it less likely that legitimate voters will participate in the democratic process is a matter of significant concern. Given the rarity of such fraud and the likely impact of the laws, it would seem that such laws would create more harm than good, thus making them morally dubious (at best).

One of the most widespread changes is the requirement for voters to show photo identification. Previously, only two states had this requirement. Now 34 states have such laws in the works. This is a point of concern because a large number of voters lack the identification needed. For example, South Carolina is estimated to have over 200,000 voters (8% of the total) who lack such identification.

Proponents of the laws contend, as noted above, that this requirement is needed to prevent fraud. However, the sort of fraud identification would prevent seems rare or even non-existent, hence there is the obvious question of why there is such a compelling need to implement such laws when they would most likely reduce the number of people who vote. It might, of course, be countered that it is better that  hundreds or thousands not vote than there be a single fraudulent vote cast. Of course, this can be countered that it is better for democracy that the risk of fraud be tolerated for the sake of allowing more people to exercise one of the most fundamental rights of a democracy.

It can also be contended that the requirement to show proper identification is not an onerous burden. After all, such identification is required to cash a check, to travel by air, and to operate a motor vehicle and in such cases is not considered asking too much to require identification. Also, some states plan to provide the identification people need in order to vote at no cost to the voters who need them. It can also be argued there is no compelling reason why anyone eligible to vote would be incapable of acquiring such identification with minimal effort. As such, the idea that such a requirement would wrongfully deny people the right to vote might seem absurd.

That said, given the horribly low voter turnouts, it is not unreasonable to think that there would be a significant number of voters who would simply not vote if even this additional  minor obstacle were placed in their way. As such, there is some concern that this seemingly reasonable requirement would reduce the number of people voting. However, it could be countered that while voting is a right, people should be willing to take at least some effort to exercise that right. As such, someone who is unwilling to acquire an appropriate identification has been disenfranchised, but by himself or herself and hence has no one else to blame. Naturally, if the identification requirements were burdensome, then this would be another matter.

As a final point, we should always be on guard against attempts to rob people of their right to vote. History has shown that people are quite willing to engage in this sort of misdeed and there is no reason to believe that people will not do such things again.

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