A Philosopher's Blog

Trump & Mercenaries: Arguments Against

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 28, 2017


While there are some appealing arguments in favor of the United States employing mercenaries, there are also arguments against this position. One obvious set of arguments is composed of those that focus on the practical problems of employing mercenaries. These problems include broad concerns about the competence of the mercenaries (such as worries about their combat effectiveness and discipline) as well as worries about the quality of their equipment. These concerns can, of course, be addressed on a case by case basis. Some mercenary operations are composed of well-trained, well-equipped ex-soldiers who are every bit as capable as professional soldiers serving their countries. If competent and properly equipped mercenaries are hired, there will obviously not be problems in these areas.

There are also obvious practical concerns about the loyalty and reliability of mercenaries—they are, after all, fighting for money rather than from duty or commitment to principles. This is not to disparage mercenaries. After all, working for money is what professionals do, whether they are mercenary soldiers, surgeons, electricians or professors. A surgeon who is motivated by money need not be less reliable than a colleague who is driven by a moral commitment to heal the sick and injured. Likewise, a soldier who fights for a paycheck need not be less dependable than a patriotic soldier.

That said, a person who is motivated primarily by money will act in accord with that value and this can make them considerably less loyal and reliable than someone motivated by higher principles. This is not to say that a mercenary cannot have higher principles, but a mercenary, by definition, sells their loyalty (such as it is) to the highest bidder. As such, this is a reasonable concern.

This concern can be addressed by paying mercenaries well enough to defend against bribery and by assigning tasks to mercenaries that require loyalty and reliability proportional to what the mercenaries can realistically offer. This, of course, can severely limit how mercenaries can be deployed and could make hiring them pointless—unless a nation has an abundance of money and a shortage of troops.

A concern that is both practical and moral is that mercenaries tend to operate outside of the usual chain of command of the military and are often exempt from many of the laws and rules that govern the operation of national forces. In many cases, mercenaries are intentionally granted special exemptions. An excellent illustration of how this can be disastrous is Blackwater, which was a major security contractor operating mercenary forces in Iraq.

In September of 2007 employees of Blackwater were involved in an incident resulting in 11 deaths. This was not the first such incident. Although many believe Blackwater acted incorrectly, the company was well protected against accountability because of the legal situation created by the United States.  In 2004 the Coalition Provisional Authority administrator signed an order making all Americans in Iraq immune to Iraqi law. Security contractors enjoyed even greater protection. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which allows charges to be brought in American courts for crimes committed in foreign countries, applies only to those contracting with the Department of Defense. Companies employed by the State Department, such as was the case with Blackwater, are not covered by the law. Blackwater went even further and claimed exemption from all law suits and criminal prosecution. This defense was also used against a suit brought by families of four Blackwater employees killed in Iraq.

While there are advantages to granting mercenary forces exemptions from the law, Machiavelli warned against this because they might start “oppressing others quite contrary to your intentions.” His solution was to “keep him within the laws so that he does not overstep the mark.” This is excellent advice that should have been heeded. Instead, employing and placing such mercenaries beyond the law has led to serious problems.

The concern about mercenaries being exempt from the usual laws can be addressed simply enough: these exemptions can either be removed or not granted in the first place. While this will not guarantee good behavior, it can help encourage it.

The concern about mercenaries being outside the usual command structure can be harder to address. On the one hand, mercenary forces could simply be placed within the chain of command like any other unit. On the other hand, mercenary units are, by their very nature, outside of the usual command and organization structure and integrating them could prove problematic. Also, if the mercenaries are simply integrated as if they are normal units, then the obvious question arises as to why mercenaries would be needed in place of regular forces.

Yet another practical concern is that the employment of mercenaries can create public relations problems. While sending regular troops to foreign lands is always problematic, the use of mercenary forces can be more problematic. One reason is that the hiring of mercenaries is often looked down upon, in part because of the checkered history of mercenary forces. There is also the concern of how the local populations will perceive hired guns—especially given the above concerns about mercenaries operating outside of the boundaries that restrict regular forces. Finally, there is also the concern that the hiring of mercenaries can make the hiring country seem weak—the need to hire mercenaries would seem to suggest that the country has a shortage of competent regular forces.

A somewhat abstract argument against the United States employing mercenaries is based on the notion that nation states are supposed to be the sole operators of military forces. This, of course, assumes a specific view of the state and the moral right to operate military forces. If this conception of the state is correct, then hiring mercenaries would be to cede this responsibility (and right) to private companies, which would be unacceptable. The United States does allow private armies to exist within the country, if they have the proper connections to those in power. Blackwater, for example, was one such company. This seems to be problematic.

This concern can countered with an alternative view of the state in which private armies are acceptable. In the case of private armies within a country, it could be argued that they are acceptable as long as they acknowledge the supremacy of the state. So, for example, an American mercenary company would be acceptable as long as it operated under conditions set by the United States government and served only in approved ways. To use an obvious analogy, there are “rent-a-cops” that operate somewhat like police. These are acceptable provided that they operate under the rules of the state and do not create a challenge to the police powers of the state.

While this counter is appealing, there do not seem to be any compelling reasons for the United States to cede its monopoly on military force and hire mercenaries. Other than to profit the executives and shareholders of these mercenary companies, of course.

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Trump & Mercenaries: Arguments For

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on July 24, 2017

The Trump regime seems to be seriously considering outsourcing the war in Afghanistan to mercenaries.  The use of mercenaries, or contractors (as they might prefer to be called), is a time-honored practice. While the United States leads the world in military spending and has a fine military, it is no stranger to employing mercenaries. For example, the security contractor Blackwater became rather infamous for its actions in Iraq.

While many might regard the employment of mercenaries as repugnant, the proposal to outsource military operations to corporations should not be dismissed out of hand. Arguments for and against it should be given their due consideration. Mere prejudices against mercenaries should not be taken as arguments, nor should the worst deeds committed by some mercenaries be taken as damning them all.

As with almost every attempt at privatizing a state function, one of the stock arguments is based on the claim that privatization will save money. In some cases, this is an excellent argument. For example, it is cheaper for state employees to fly on commercial airlines than for a state to maintain a fleet of planes to send employees around on state business. In other cases, this argument falls apart. The stock problem is that a for-profit company must make a profit and this means it must have that profit margin over and above what it costs to provide the product or service. So, for a mercenary company to make money, it would need to pay all the costs that government forces would incur for the same operation and would need to charge extra to make a profit. As such, using mercenaries would not seem to be a money-saver.

It could be countered that mercenaries can have significantly lower operating costs than normal troops. There are various ways that costs could be cut relative to the costs of operating the government military forces: mercenaries could have cheaper or less equipment, they could be paid less, they could be provided less (or no) benefits, and mercenaries could engage in looting to offset their costs (and pass the savings on to their employer).

The cost cutting approach does raise some concerns about the ability of the mercenaries to conduct operations effectively: underpaid and underequipped troops would tend to do worse than better paid and better equipped troops. There are also obvious moral concerns about letting mercenaries loot.

However, there are savings that could prove quite significant: while the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has faced considerable criticism, veterans can get considerable benefits. For example, there is the GI Bill. Assuming mercenaries did not get such benefits, this would result in meaningful cost savings. In sum, if a mercenary company operated using common business practices of cost-cutting, then they could certainly run operations cheaper than the state. But, of course, if saving money is the prime concern, the state could engage in the same practices and save even more money by not providing a private contractor with the money needed to make a profit. Naturally, there might be good reasons why the state could not engage in these money-saving practices. In that case, the savings offered by mercenaries could justify their employment.

A second argument in favor of using mercenaries is based on the fact that those doing the killing and dying will not be government forces. While the death of a mercenary is as much the death of a person as the death of a government soldier, the mercenary’s death would tend to have far less impact on political opinion back home. The death of an American soldier in combat is meaningful to Americans in the way that the death of a mercenary would not.

While the state employing mercenaries is accountable for what they do, there is a distance between the misdeeds of mercenaries and the state that does not exist between the misdeeds of regular troops and the state. In practical terms, there is less accountability. It is, after all, much easier to disavow and throw mercenaries under the tank than it is to do the same with government troops.

This is not to say mercenaries provide a “get out of trouble” card to their employer—as the incidents in Iraq involving Blackwater showed, employers still get caught in the fallout from the actions of the mercenaries they hire. However, having such a force can be useful, especially when one wants to do things that would get regular troops into considerable trouble.

A final argument in favor of mercenaries is from the standpoint of the owners of mercenary companies. Most forms of privatization are a means of funneling public money into the pockets of executives and shareholders. Privatizing operations in Afghanistan could be incredibly profitable (or, rather, even more profitable) for contractors.

While receiving a tide of public money would be good for the companies, the profit argument runs directly up against the first argument for using mercenaries—that doing so would save money. This sort of “double vision” is common in privatization: those who want to make massive profits make the ironic argument that privatization is a good idea because it will save money.

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Trump’s Election Integrity Commission

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 5, 2017

The Trump regime recently created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and has requested information about voters from the states. As of this writing, 44 states and the District of Columbia have refused to provide all of the requested information. While ensuring the integrity of elections is a laudable goal, there are certainly important concerns about this commission, the motivations behind it, and the true goals.

While speculating about motivations is always problematic, there is adequate information to ground some reasonable explanations as to why Trump has created this commission. While the motivations for creating the commission are distinct from the desirability of its goals, motives are certainly relevant to moral assessment. Also, motivations generally involve goals. To avoid needless repetition, I will consider both motivations and goals at once.

One obvious motivation is Trump’s ego.  Trump infamously claimed, without any evidence, that he lost the popular election because there were 3-5 million illegal votes cast for Hillary Clinton. While Trump seems generally content to dwell within a realm of unsupported claims and untruths, he does have a clear motivation to find some evidence to back up his absurd and unsupported claim. While it might be tempting to dismiss this motivation as lacking in consequences, it would be a rather serious matter. After all, John Locke notes that tyranny occurs “…When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.” This can, obviously enough, be countered by arguing that Trump is not acting from “irregular passion” or by arguing that even if he is, the concern about election integrity does serve the good of the people. That is, despite the motivation the act is not tyrannical because of its intended goal. If the true goal is real election integrity, then this reply would be quite reasonable—although Trump’s doing the right thing for the wrong reasons should still be condemned.

A second motivation can be found in the fact that the Republican party has long used the specter of voter fraud to justify polices that are aimed at voter suppression. While voter fraud does occur at a non-zero level, it is just barely above zero. There is also the fact that the usual Republican proposals, such as voter ID, would generally not be effective at countering the voter fraud that does occur. This is not to say that voter fraud should not be considered, just that it occurs at such a microscopic rate that the only rational explanation for the Republican policies is voter suppression targeted at those who they regard as likely to vote for Democrats, such as minority voters. It should be noted that the Democrats need not be regarded as moral saints here; they utilize other morally problematic methods when they can gain an edge.

The creation of the commission helps support the narrative of voter fraud in that some will believe that there must be fraud because otherwise Trump would not have created the commission. The fact that some states have been resisting the commission’s requests is already being spun as evidence that the states are covering up fraud (even though Republican controlled states are also not fully cooperating). The commission does not need to find any actual evidence of meaningful voter fraud to support the narrative—after all, the myth of significant voter fraud has already been embraced without any evidence at all.

While it might be tempting to think that the information being requested by the Trump commission could expose voter fraud, it is important to be clear about the distinction between the accuracy of voter rolls and the existence of voter fraud. This can be illustrated by using an analogy.

Whenever I teach a class, I get a roster of the students who are enrolled in the class. This can be seen as analogous to the list of registered voters. Since students can add or drop my course, the roster I have for the class is often inaccurate. There are sometimes students who think they have enrolled, but have not. There are also those who think they have dropped the class, but who are still enrolled. Likewise, the list of voters is often inaccurate. For example, people move to a new state and legitimately register to vote there while they remain on the list in their old state. As another example, people die and are not automatically removed from the list. There are also various other errors that can occur with any lists of people. Having an inaccurate list is obviously a problem, but it is not the same thing as fraud. To continue the analogy, consider the sort of fraud that occurs in class, namely cheating. If I happen to have an inaccurate roster of those enrolled in my class at the time, it does not follow that students are cheating in my class. Likewise, the voter lists in states could have many inaccuracies, but this does not prove that voter fraud is occurring.

Obviously enough, an inaccurate roster for a class could be used to facilitate cheating and a student lying about being enrolled in the class would be a form of fraud. Likewise, inaccurate voter lists could be exploited to commit fraud. For example, if someone had a list of dead people who are still registered, this information could be used to engage in “ghost voting.” Fortunately, there is no evidence that the problems with the voter lists are being exploited to commit significant fraud. As such, the concerns about the voter lists is rather like that of concerns about the class rosters: they should be accurate, but their inaccuracy does not entail cheating or fraud is taking place.

This is not to say that the defects of the current system should be ignored or tolerated—the system does need a major overhaul. However, Trump’s commission does not seem aimed at assisting the states improve their registration systems nor aimed at ensuring that the elections are conducted with integrity. Rather, this seems to be part of Trump’s theater of fraud.

 

 

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Truth, Loyalty & Trump

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 12, 2017

While the first hundred (or so) days of a president’s reign is something of an arbitrary mark, Trump seems to have ignited more controversy and firestorms than most presidents. Since Lincoln’s election lead to the Civil War, he still leads here—but Trump is, perhaps, just getting warmed up.

The most recent incident in the Trump reign is the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The narrative of why Comey was fired has served as yet another paradigm example of the nature of the Trump reign. The initial reason given was that Comey was fired for how he handled the Clinton email scandal. This story would convince only the most deluded—Trump and his fellows had praised Comey for his role in crashing Hillary’s chance of being elected. Trump’s minions also deployed to assert that Comey was fired because he had lost the confidence of the people at the FBI. This, like most assertions originating from the Trump regime, seems to be untrue. Trump himself seems to have presented what might be a real reason for Comey being fired: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ” These claims are contrary to the reasons advanced by his minions; the claim that he decided to “just do it” is contrary to the earlier narrative that Trump had acted on the advice of others.

There is also reason to believe that Comey’s refusal to pledge personal loyalty to Trump at a dinner. Public officials, at least in the ideal, pledge their loyalty to the Constitution and not to specific individuals. Comey did promise to always be honest, apparently leading Trump to ask him to pledge “honest loyalty” which could be something that just emerged from Trump’s mouth rather than an actual thing. Trump seems rather worried that Comey might have recorded conversations with him; at least Trump is threatening Comey about such hypothetical tapes on Twitter.

When writing about the Trump reign, I feel as if I am writing about a fictional universe—what happens in Trump space seems to be stuff of bad alternative reality fiction. However, it is quite real—and thus needs to be addressed.

Starting on the surface, the Comey episode provides (more) objective evidence that the Trump regime engages in the untrue. As noted above, Trump’s minions presented one narrative about the firing that was quickly contradicted by Trump. Since all these claims cannot be true, a plausible explanation is that either Trump’s minions were lying or Trump was. Alternatively, those involved might have believed what they were saying. In this case, they would not be lying—although at least some of them would have said untrue things. This is because a lie requires that the liar be aware that what they are asserting is not true; merely being in error about the facts is not sufficient to make a person a liar.

Digging a bit deeper, Trump’s request for a pledge of loyalty seems to reveal his view of how the government should work—loyalty should be to Trump rather than to the Constitution. This is consistent with how Trump operates in the business world and the value he places on loyalty is well known.

While loyalty is generally a virtue, the United States professes to be a country that follows the rule of law and that places the constitution on the metaphorical throne. That is, public officials pledge their loyalty (as public officials) to the constitution and not to the person who happens to be president. This principle of loyalty to the constitution is critical to the rule of law in the United States. If Trump did, in fact, expect Comey to pledge loyalty to him, Trump was attacking a basic foundation of American democracy and our core political philosophy.

This is not to say that officials should lack all personal loyalty; just that their loyalty as public officials should be first and foremost to the Constitution. It could be argued that Trump was merely asking for an acceptable level of professional loyalty or that he was asking Comey to pledge his loyalty to the Constitution. While not impossible, it seems unlikely that Trump would ask for either of those things.

Comey’s unwillingness to pledge loyalty to Trump points to another likely reason for his firing. Trump presumably hoped that a loyal Comey would drop the investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump campaign. It seems likely that when it became clear that Comey was not going to let the matter go away, Trump fired him. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov engaged in a bit of wit about the Comey firing, asking reporters if Comey was fired and then responding with “You’re kidding, you’re kidding,” when the answer was given.

While some have claimed that Trump has created a constitutional crisis, this is clearly not the case. As others have pointed out, Trump has the authority to fire the director of the FBI for any reason or no reason. As such, Trump has not exceeded his constitutional powers in this matter. At the very least, the firing created “bad optics” and certainly created the impression that Trump fired Comey because Trump has something to hide. Since the Republican controlled congress seems to be generally unconcerned with the matter, Trump might be able to ride out the current storm and get an FBI director confirmed who will pledge loyalty to him and do to the investigation what Putin allegedly does to his political opponents. However, there are some Republicans who are concerned about the matter and they might be willing to work with Democrats and keep the investigation alive. It might turn out that Trump is innocent of all wrongdoing and that his angry blundering about was just that—angry blundering about rather than an effort to conceal the truth. Only a proper investigation will reveal the answer; unless the Russians decide to spill the vodka.

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Making Government Like a Business: Skills & Methods

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 29, 2017

President Trump assigned his son-in-law Jared Kushner to head up the effort to make the federal government more like a business. Trump has already been a leader in this effort by engaging in the same sort of nepotism that occurs in business. While it is certainly tempting to dismiss this appointment as more nepotism, it is worth considering whether government should be more like a business.

The idea that government should be more like a business is certainly appealing to those who education, experience and values relate to business. It is natural for people to see the world through the lens of their experiences and education. It is also natural to want to apply the methods that one is most familiar with to as many areas as possible. For example, my education is in philosophy and I have extensive experience in critical thinking, logic and ethical reasoning. As such, I tend to see the world through the philosophical lens and I want to apply critical thinking, logic and ethical reasoning whenever I can. Likewise, those who are educated and experienced in business see the world through the business lens and wish to broadly apply their business skills and methods.

A reasonable case can be made as to why this business focused approach has some merit. One way to argue for this is to point out that many skills that are developed in the context of business can be applied to government. For example, negotiating and deal making skills can be applied to politics—although there are certainly differences between the specifics of each area. As another example, business leadership and management skills can also be applied in government, although there are clearly relevant differences between the two areas. It would thus be a mistake to claim that government is nothing like a business. That said, those enamored of business often make mistakes in their zeal to “businessform” government (that is, transform it into business).

One basic mistake is to think that just because there are positive qualities of business that are also positive qualities of government, making government more like a business will bring about those positive qualities. Obviously enough, making one thing more like another only results in positive qualities if they are made alike in those positive ways. Merely making them alike in other ways does not do this. To use an analogy, dressing like a runner makes one like a runner, but this does not confer the health benefits of running.

There is also the fact that although things that have similar positive qualities are thus similar, it does not follow that they are thus otherwise alike in relevant ways. For example, efficiency is a positive quality of business and government, but merely making government like business need not make it more efficient. There are, after all, business that are very inefficient.

Also, the fact that efficiency can be a positive quality of both business and government does not entail they are thus alike in other ways or that the way business is made more efficient is the way to make government more efficient. To illustrate, a business might be very efficient at exploiting customers and workers while enriching the stockholders, but that is presumably not the sort of efficiency one would aim for in government.

Avoiding this mistake involves resisting the mythology and fetishizing of “businessifictaion” and giving due consideration to which skills, methods and approaches transfer well from business to government and which do not.

A second basic mistake is similar to that made by Ion in Plato’s dialogue Ion. The rhapsode Ion believes, at the start of the dialogue, that poets have knowledge and mastery about almost everything. His reasoning is that because poets write about, for example military matters, they have an expertise in military matters. As such, poets should be able to teach people about these matters and serve as leaders in all these areas.

Socrates, as would be expected, shows that the poets (as poets) do not have such knowledge. The gist of his argument is that each area is mastered by mastering the subject of that area and all these areas “belong” to others and not to the poets. For example, knowledge of waging war belongs to soldiers. The poets touch but lightly on these other areas and understand only the appearances and not the depth. Socrates does note that a person can have multiple domains of mastery, so a medical doctor could, for example, also be skilled at mathematics or art history.

The error in the case of business is to think that because there are many types of business and almost everything has some connection to business, then an alleged mastery of business confers mastery over all these things. However, business skills are rather distinct from the skills that are specific to the various types of businesses. To illustrate, while a manager might believe that their managing skills are universal, managing a software company does not confer software skills nor does managing a hospital confer medical skills. One might pick up skills and knowledge, but this would not be as a businessperson. After all, while a business person might be a runner, that does not make running a business. The fact that there are businesses associated with running, such as Nike, does not entail that skill in business thus confers skill in running. As such, for someone to think that business skills thus confer mastery over government would be a mistake. They might believe that they have such mastery because government interacts with business and some businesses do things like what government does, but they would be as mistaken as someone who thinks that because they manage a Nike outlet they are thus an athlete.

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Trump Supporters as Moral Heroes

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on March 20, 2017


While Trump claimed that he would help the forgotten people of America, his rural and small town supporters will most likely be harmed by the implementation of his agenda. Trump also ran hard on repealing Obamacare and engaging in what some would characterize as trade wars. If the administration makes good on these promises, many of his supporters will be harmed. Some have gone as far as asserting that Trump’s presidency will prove to be a disaster for the white working class.

Since these are factual claims, they can be countered by evidence to the contrary and it is worth considering that the predictions of woe might prove to be in error. That is, the Trump administration will lead the working class and forgotten people to a new age of prosperity, health and wellbeing. While not logically impossible, this does seem unlikely. As such, the most reasonable bet is that the Trump administration will prove to be good for Trump and his fellow economic elites but not so good for everyone else.

After Trump won, a cottage industry of writing articles explaining why people supported him when doing so seemed contrary to their interests. It is, of course, tempting to liberal intellectuals to explain this support in terms of such things as racism. It is also tempting to think that people were willfully ignorant of Trump’s long history of misdeeds (such as how students were exploited by Trump University), that many of his supporters were pathologically delusional in believing that he would truly act in their interests or that they were simply stupid. I will, however, advance a different account, that the Trump supporters who will be hurt by Trump and the other Republicans are moral heroes.

While there are many ways to be a moral hero, one standard way is for a person to willingly suffer harm for the sake of the good of others. The stock philosophy 101 example is, of course, the soldier who throws themselves upon a grenade to save their fellows. This is often presented in utilitarian terms: the willing suffering of the few is outweighed by the good this generates for the many. If the Trump supporters knew they would be hurt by his policies, but believed that their suffering would make America great again, then they could be regarded as moral heroes for their sacrifice. If, however, they thought they would benefit from Trump’s policies and got it wrong, then they would not be moral heroes, but merely have been acting from self-interest.

While a noble sacrifice for the good of the many would be heroic, it does not seem that Trump’s policies will be good for the many Americans. Rather, it seems that Trump and his fellow Republicans will be crafting policies that benefit the rich at the expense of the many. For example, his tax plan will be amazing for the rich but harmful to those who are not well off. As such, without an assumption of ignorance, those who supported Trump and will be harmed by his policies cannot be considered moral heroes. At least in the context of utilitarianism. However, there are other moral theories and one of these might make them moral heroes.

Trump, like most people, does not seem to operate based on a considered moral theory. This is no more surprising than the fact that most people do not operate based on considering theories in physics, biology, medicine or engineering. However, these theories still apply to what people do and it is reasonable to consider what sort of moral theory Trump and his fellows would fit into.

The way Trump has treated contractors, students at Trump University, women and others indicates that Trump operates from selfishness. This would suggest that the most likely moral theory to apply to Trump would be ethical egoism. This is the view that a person should act to maximize value for themselves. Alternatively, that each person should act entirely in their own interest. This is in contrast with altruistic ethics, which include the view that each person should not always act solely in their own self-interest, but should consider others.

Ethical egoism seems to fit many Republicans and hence it is no surprise that the frat-bro Republican philosopher Paul Ryan has embraced the ethical egoism of Ayn Rand. To be fair, after John Oliver critiqued Rand, Ryan did assert that he does not embrace her objectivism. However, consideration of Rand’s policies show that they are consistent with the ethics of Rand as expressed in her view that selfishness is a virtue.

While Trump would seem to fit within ethical egoism, this moral theory would make the Trump supporters who will be hurt by Trump chumps and not heroes. After all, a moral hero in ethical egoism would be a person who acts to maximize their self-interest. This will typically be at the expense of others. A moral hero of an ethical egoist would not back Trump if they believed that doing so would be contrary to their interests and would not maximize value for them. However, there is still a chance for moral heroism.

While Trump certainly has the selfishness part of ethical egoism down, classical ethical egoism enjoins everyone to maximize their self-interest. In the ideal laid out by Adam Smith, this would result in competition that is supposed to benefit everyone by the magic of the invisible hand of the market.

It is true that Trump, Ryan and their ilk are presenting polices that do not just benefit themselves. Many of these polices do benefit others, but it is a select group of others, namely the economic elites. While this could be explained in terms of ethical egoism, that Trump and Ryan are doing the right thing because benefiting these elites benefits them (Ryan, for example, enjoys the financial backing of these elites and this enables him to get re-elected) there is also an alternative. This could be called “ethical oligarchism.” This is the moral view that people should act to maximize value (or in the interest of) the oligarchs. This can, of course, be a nationalistic ethics—that people of a country should act in the interest of their oligarchs. It could also be a general view that transcends borders—that everyone should act in according with the interests of the oligarchs of the world.

On this view, the Trump supporters who will harmed by Trump’s policies are moral heroes—they have sacrificed their own good for the good of the oligarchs.

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Sanctuary & Religious Liberty

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2017

As the Trump administration steps up the enforcement of immigration law, some illegal immigrants have engaged in the time-honored tradition of seeking sanctuary in churches. The idea of churches serving as sanctuary from the state was developed in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and has become embedded in western culture. As would be expected, the granting of sanctuary has created considerable controversy.

Being familiar with the history of oppressive states and injustice, I generally support the idea of sanctuary in its role of providing the individual with another defense against the potential tyranny of the state. Because of this view, I hold that sanctuary should be limited to those who need protection from injustice on the part of the state rather than endorsing blanket sanctuary for anyone for any reason. Judging who is thus worthy of sanctuary (as with any moral assessment) can be rather complicated, but the basic principle is clear enough. Since I regard current immigration policies and practices to be fundamentally unjust, I believe that illegal immigrants who have committed no other crimes are worthy of sanctuary. Since they typically lack the resources to defend themselves, church sanctuary can provide them with the protection they need to make their case and seek justice. Even if sanctuary proves ineffective for a particular immigrant, the granting of sanctuary can make a powerful moral and political statement that can influence immigration policy—hopefully for the better.

As a practical matter, the effectiveness of sanctuary depends on the reluctance of the state to use compulsion to take people from churches. This reluctance might be grounded in many things, ranging from the power of the institution to the negative public reaction that might result from violating sanctuary.

While the notion of sanctuary does enjoy the support of tradition, the easy and obvious counter is to argue that churches should not enjoy a special exemption from the enforcement of the laws. It should not matter whether illegal immigrants are seeking shelter in a church, a Starbucks, an apple grove, or a private home—law enforcement officials should be able to arrest and remove them because they are, by definition, criminals. This view is grounded on the idea that all institutions, religious or not, fall under the laws of the state and are not to be granted special exemptions from the law. But, if exemptions from laws were granted to religious institutions in other areas, then this could be used to justify an exemption for sanctuary.

In the United States religious institutions do, in fact, enjoy special exemptions from taxes and some laws. For example, the Catholic Church is not subject to certain anti-discrimination lawsuits despite restricting certain jobs to men. As another example, there is also an exemption for religious employers in regards to coverage of contraceptive services. There has also been a push for new religious liberty laws that are aimed mainly at allowing people to discriminate against same-sex couples on religious grounds. Such laws grant exemptions based on religion and the arguments used to defend them could, in many cases, be pressed into service as arguments in favor of granting sanctuary to illegal immigrants. For example, if it is argued that exceptions to anti-discrimination laws should be granted to churches and businesses because of religious beliefs about gender and sex, then it would be challenging to argue that an exception to immigration laws should not be granted to churches because of religious beliefs.

The obvious challenge in using the religious liberty and exemption arguments to justify sanctuary is showing that the situations are adequately analogous. This seems easy enough to do. Christians who oppose same-sex marriage cite Leviticus, but Exodus 22:21 is quite clear about how strangers should be treated: “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Scholars also point to Matthew 25, especially Matthew 25:40 when justifying granting sanctuary to immigrants: “And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” As such, granting churches a sanctuary exemption to immigration laws seems at least as well founded as other attempts to grant religious liberty.

One way to counter this line of argumentation is to argue that there should not be religious exemptions to laws. While this would argue against a religious exemption to immigration laws, it would also apply to all other exemptions and is thus not an option for those who support those other exemptions. Since many of those who are anti-immigrant do favor religious exemptions in general, this option is not open to them.

Another way to counter this line of reasoning is to contend that while religious exemptions should be allowed in other cases, it should not be allowed for granting sanctuary to illegal immigrants. One approach would be a utilitarian argument: the harm done by allowing sanctuary would be sufficient to warrant imposing on religious liberty. Since I have used this argument myself against “religious liberty” laws that make discrimination legal, I certainly must give such an argument due consideration here. As such, if it can be shown that granting illegal immigrants sanctuary would create more harm than would violating the religious liberty of the sanctuary churches (and the harms done to the illegal immigrants) then religious liberty should be violated. But, this approach would need to be applied in a consistent manner: those who argue against sanctuary on the grounds of harms must apply the same principle to all religious liberties.

My overall view of the matter is that since Congress and the President have failed to create a just and rational immigration policy, then citizens have the moral right to offer protection to illegal immigrants (who have not committed other crimes). This must be done until our elected officials do their jobs and create a rational, realistic and ethical system. To be fair, due respect must be offered to those who believe in America first and who do not believe that God was serious when He said “This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you.”

 

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Bans & BS

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 10, 2017

As this is being written, Trump’s travel ban remains suspended by  the courts. The poor wording and implementation of the ban indicates that amateurs are now in charge. Or, alternatively, that Trump’s strategists are intentionally trying to exhaust the opposition. As such, either the ban has been a setback for Trump or a small victory.

While the actual experts on national security (from both parties) have generally expressed opposition to the Trump ban, Trump’s surrogates and some Republican politicians have endeavored to defend it. The fountain of falsehoods, Kellyanne Conway, has been extremely active in defense of the ban. Her zeal in its defense has led her to uncover terrorist attacks beyond our own reality, such as the Bowling Green Massacre that occurred in some other timeline. In that alternative timeline, the Trump ban might be effectively addressing a real problem; but not in the actual world.

More reasonable defenders of the ban endeavor to use at least some facts from this world when making their case. For example, Republican representative Mike Johnson recently defended the ban by making reference to a report by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security. He claimed that “They determined that nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees. I mean, those kinds of facts are not as widely publicized, but they should be. I think the American people have a right to know that.” This approach employs four rather effective rhetorical techniques which I will address in reverse order of use.

By saying “the American people have a right to know”, Johnson seems to be employing innuendo to suggest that the rights of Americans are being violated—that is, there is some sort of conspiracy against the American people afoot. This conspiracy is, of course, that the (presumably liberal) media is not publicizing certain facts. This rhetorical tool is rather clever, for it not only suggests the media is up to something nefarious, but that there are secret facts out there that support the ban. At the very least, this can incline people to think that there are other facts backing Trump that are being intentionally kept secret. This can make people more vulnerable to untrue claims purporting to offer such facts.

Johnson’s lead techniques are, coincidentally enough, rhetorical methods I recently covered in my critical thinking class. One technique is what is often called a “weasler” in which a person protects a claim by weakening it. In this case, the weasel word is “nearly.” If Johnson were called on the correct percentage, which is 18%, he can reply that 18% is nearly 20%, which is true. However, “nearly 20%” certainly creates the impression that it is more than 18%, which is misleading. Why not just say “18%”?  Since the exaggeration is relatively small, it does not qualify as hyperbole. Naturally, a reasonable reply would be that this is nitpicking— “nearly 20%” is close enough to “18%” and Johnson might have simply failed to recall the exact number during the interview. This is certainly a fair point.

Another technique involves presenting numerical claims without proper context, thus creating a misleading impression. In this case, Johnson claims, correctly, that “nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees.” The main problem is that no context is given for the “nearly 20%.” Without context, one does not know whether this is a significant matter or not. For example, if I claimed that sales of one of my books increased 20% last year, then you would have no idea how significant my book sales were. If I sold 10 of those books in 2015 and 12 in 2016, then my sales did increase 20%, but my sales would be utterly insignificant in the context of book sales.

In the case of the facilitators Johnson mentioned, the Fordham report includes 19 facilitators and 3 of these (18%) were as Johnson described. So, of the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers the United States took in, there have been three people who were involved in this facilitation. This mostly involved encouraging people to go overseas to fight—these three people were (obviously) not involved in terrorist attacks in the United States. Such a microscopic threat level does not justify the travel ban under any rational threat assessment and response analysis.

The United States does, of course, face some danger from terrorist attacks. However, the most likely source of these attacks is from US born citizens. While the threat from foreigners is not zero, an American is 253 times more likely to be a victim of a “normal” homicide rather than killed in a foreigner engaged in a terrorist attack in the United States. And the odds of being the victim of a homicide are very low. As such, trying to justify the ban with accurate information is all but impossible, which presumably explains why the Republicans are resorting to lies and rhetoric.

While there are clear political advantages to stoking the fear of ill-informed Americans, there are plenty of real problems that Trump and the Republicans could be addressing—responsible leaders would be focusing on these problems, rather than weaving fictions and feeding unfounded fears.

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Cooperating with Trump

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 8, 2017

It has been claimed that Republicans intended, from day one, to obstruct President Obama in all things. This is supported by John Boehner’s remark about Obama’s agenda: “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” However, the defining quote for the obstructionist agenda belongs to Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The Republican narrative, as might be imagined, tells a different tale. In the Republican version, Obama is the villain who refuses to compromise with the Republicans.

While the truth of the matter is important, the practical fact of the matter is that Obama and the Republicans often ended up in deadlocks. Obama’s go-to strategy was the use of executive orders—some of which ended up being challenged by the courts. Now that Trump is president, the question is whether the Democrats should adopt the Boehner-McConnell approach and try to kill or at least slow down everything Trump tries to achieve in the hopes of making him a one-term president.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should take this approach. One reason for this is purely pragmatic politics, devoid of any concern about moral values, that has as its goal the acquisition and retention of power. While the Republicans are generally more adept at this than the Democrats, the Democrats can avail themselves of the well-stocked Republican playbook and simply do to Trump what the Republicans did to Obama.

The obvious problem with the approach is that it is devoid of any concern about moral values and is thus very likely to be bad for America as a whole. If one accepts the Lockean view that the leaders of the state should act for the good of the people, then the power justification is out. But for those who regard power as the supreme good of politics, the obstructionist approach makes considerable sense—after all, the Republican strategy landed them the White House and Congress.

Another reason for this is revenge and payback:  Republicans obstructed Obama and Democrats should treat Trump the same way. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an obstruction for an obstruction. While this is certainly appealing in an Old Testament sort of way, this justification also runs afoul of the idea that the leaders are morally obligated to act for the good of the people and not engage in seeking revenge. For John Locke, using a political position to seek revenge would be an act of tyranny that should be resisted. As such, the revenge justification is certainly problematic.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should set aside their lust for power and their desire for revenge and cooperate with Trump. This does not mean that the Democrats must cooperate in all things; just that the Democrats should cooperate and resist in a principle way. As the above considerations should indicate, the cooperation and resistance should be based on what is regarded as good for the people. This is, of course, a rather vague notion but can be worked out in utilitarian terms in regards to specific issues (with due attention to concerns about the tyranny of the majority). This is not to say that the Democrats will always be right and Trump always wrong; but it is s statement of principle for how opposition and cooperation should operate.

This suggests an obvious counter-argument: Trump’s agenda is harmful to the general good and thus it must be obstructed and every effort must be made to make him a one-term president. While my general dislike of Trump inclines me to feel that this is true, I am obligated to be consistent with what I tell my students: truth is not felt, but must be established through reason. Unfortunately, reason seems to indicate that much of Trump’s agenda will not be good for Americans in general. But, this does not entail that everything in his agenda will be bad for America and his specific proposals should be given due and fair consideration.

To use a specific and oft-spoken-of example, Trump claimed that he wants to rebuild the aging and failing public infrastructure. While it is tempting to point out that Obama wanted to do the same thing and that Trump might be thinking of how he and his allies can personally profit from the massive flood of public money into private coffers, addressing the infrastructure woes would be generally good for America. As such, the Democrats should not follow the lead of the Republicans and simply obstruct his proposals. This is not to say that the Democrats should rubber stamp everything, but it is to say that they should not simply reject the proposals simply because they are coming from Trump.

As far as making Trump a one term president; I think Trump will see to that himself.

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Trump’s Travel “Ban”

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 1, 2017

Trump recently signed an executive order described, perhaps incorrectly, as a “travel ban.” The gist of the order is that all refugees are banned from entering the United States for 120 days and immigrants from seven nations are banned for three months. These nations, which are predominantly Muslim, are Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.

As should be expected from Trump’s administration, the order seemed to not have been checked by the Justice Department and was sprung on Homeland Security with little in the way of guidance. The predictable result was confusion in the real world and bragging in the Trump world. As should also be expected in almost anything involving Trump, a flurry of lawsuits has swept the land. Here in Tallahassee, foreign students from the impacted countries have been encouraged to not leave the country—for they might not be able to return. While some see the order as a disaster, there are those that argue in its favor. These arguments are certainly worth considering.

One argument in favor of the order is the democracy argument. If voting for a candidate indicates general support of that person’s positions and proposals, the fact that Trump ran on the Muslim ban and won would indicate that the people support this order. As such, Trump is right to have signed the order: he is making good on what he promised and acting in accord with majority rule.

One response to this, laying aside Trump’s lie to the contrary, is that he lost the popular vote by a large margin. Assuming that voting indicates general support, then the majority did not want the Muslim ban that Trump proposed and hence his executive order does not reflect the will of the people.

It can be countered that while Trump does not have majority support, he obviously won the election and thus has the legal right to issue the executive order while lacking a popular mandate or even majority support. This is obviously true; although the legality of the order has been questioned. What is rather more interesting is whether the ban can be rationally and morally justified.

In defending the executive order, Trump used the examples of 9/11, the San Bernardino attack and the Orlando murders. While an argument by example is a standard inductive argument, a strong one requires that the examples fit what they are supposed to support. The fundamental problem with these examples is that those engaged in the attacks came from countries not covered by the ban. As such, Trump is defending his ban on specific countries by using examples of attacks by people from countries that are not being banned, which is not only bad logic but rather odd. While this argument by example approach fails, defenders can avail themselves of a utilitarian argument.

The gist of this argument is that the restrictions on entry into the United States will create more good than bad. In a utilitarian argument, the usual approach is to weigh the harms and benefits to those impacted. If the harms outweigh the benefits, then the order would be morally wrong. If the opposite holds, then it would be morally acceptable.

One matter of concern is in regards to refugees. Despite fictional narratives to the contrary, refugees are already subject to “extreme vetting” and the probability of a terrorist entering the country thus way is extremely low because of the review process and the time involved. For terrorists, sneaking in as a refugee is thus a very poor option. This is not to say the system is flawless, but expecting a perfect system would be unreasonable and there is always a non-zero chance that someone will slip through.

Balanced against this is the potential harm to refugees who will be forced to remain in danger or to dwell outside of the state system. The very real and likely risk to refugees would seem to outweigh the incredibly slight possibility of harm to Americans. As such, the ban would be morally wrong.

Another area of concern is non-refugee terrorists slipping into the United States. As noted above, no terrorist from the banned countries has been involved on an attack on American soil. Instead, the terrorists have come from countries, like Saudi Arabia, that are not subject to the ban. The ban has been creating significant harms to people from these countries who had the legal right to be here and who have been subject to evaluation, such as green card holders. As noted above, there are students here in Tallahassee who cannot leave the United States without being unable to return, despite presenting no real risk. As such, the ban harms people while offering almost zero increase in safety, which makes it morally unacceptable.

An alternative approach is to engage in moral nationalism and only consider the harms and benefits to Americans. This, for the lack of a better name, could be called America First Utilitarianism. On the positive side, the ban provides Americans with an increase in security that is marginally more than zero. On the minus side, the opportunities and benefits to Americans will be lost by banning such people. There is also the moral harm to Americans in refusing aid to those in need (this should be especially harmful to Christians. There are also the propaganda gains for terrorist groups. This executive order plays into the terrorist narrative that it is the West against Islam rather than civilization against terrorism. This can grant these terrorists the gift of vindication and boost their recruiting efforts, to the detriment of Americans. This narrative can also damage the relationship between the United States and Muslim allies, which will make America less safe. It is thus no shock that people who understand national security have consistently condemned this order as making America less safe. While Trump seems to believe that his brain is the only adviser he needs, I will defer to the experts in the field of national security on this matter.

A rather odd fact about this narrative is that many who push it are inconsistent in their fiction: they do not seem to regard, for example, the predominantly Muslim nations of Saudi Arabia and Turkey as terrorist threats. But perhaps this is because of the oil of Saudi Arabia and the strategic value of Turkey.

As a final argument, it can be contended that the narrative and executive order benefit Trump and some other politicians. As such, if they matter more than everyone else, then the order is a good thing. However, if the rest of us matter, then the executive order is morally wrong because it creates far more harm than good.

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