A Philosopher's Blog

Washington Works…

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 7, 2013
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The received wisdom of the day is that Washington is broken. Depending on who you ask, the exact nature of the breakage varies. However, there is a general agreement that Washington is mired in gridlock and a swamp of corruption. Members of both parties have run on the promise of repairs. Obama promised hope and change while he was on the campaign trail. However, when the trailed ended in Washington, one can only say that while he came, things stayed just about the same. After Obama arose the Tea Party. This subset of the Republican Party gave rise to a surge of candidates who swore to run for office by running against the broken government and promised to drain the swamp. Once elected, however, they seemed to find that the swamp water was even more delicious than tea, so the swamp was sipped but not drained.

These results are not surprising. As the anarchist Emma Goldman contended, people who run for office on an honest promise of fixing the system and doing right either do not get elected or end up being ineffective. Those who are not so honest simply slide comfortably into the swamp and get busy locking up those grids. Because of this, it certainly makes sense that Washington is seen as broken. However, I contend that Washington is not broken and will make a case for this seemingly ludicrous claim.

Sorting out whether something is broken or not involves determining the purpose of the thing. After all, unless you know what something is supposed to do, then you will probably not know if it is working properly or not. In some cases, it is quite possible to err in regards to purpose. I will illustrate this with an analogy.

Many years ago I was at a track meet which had the javelin throw as one of the event. People tended to pay attention to this event, if only to avoid taking a javelin to the face. During the competition, a paper plate blew out onto the field and landed in a way that made it look like a target. Shortly after this, an athlete threw his javelin way past the plate, causing a recently arrived spectator to comment that the throw was bad because the javelin was way away from the “target.” I corrected the spectator, pointing out that the javelin throw is for distance rather than for accuracy (you just need to keep it in the rather large designated area). Given this purpose, the throw was actually quite good.

In the case of Washington, people who say it is broken are like the spectator: they see the politicians relentlessly missing the target that the spectators think they should be hitting (such as solving the problems faced by the general population). However, the spectators are in error: the politicians are not doing a bad job hitting that target. Rather, they are doing a good job at achieving other objectives. One of these objectives is, obviously enough, accumulating wealth. Politicians can (and often do) cash in on their offices via insider information, lobbying gifts, connections and so on in order to accumulate significant amounts of money. It is thus no shock that Obama is a millionaire—as are most of the folks in congress. While some politicians elect to be re-elected, some move into other lucrative careers, such as lobbying their former colleagues or taking top jobs in the industries they used to regulate.

Looking at Washington in terms of this objective, it is not broke. Far from it: about half of congress (and about 67% of senators) are millionaires. By this measure, Washington is working just fine for Democrats and Republicans alike. There are other objectives aside from the accumulation of wealth, but this should suffice to indicate that Washington is not broke from the perspective of many of the politicians embedded there.

The obvious counter to this view is to argue that Washington is broke because it is not working as it should be working. That is, although it is working to achieve the goals of most of those running the show, these are not the goals that they should be aiming for. That is, the politicians should be acting for the general good of the country rather than their own private goods in ways that are damaging to the public good. This is not to say that both cannot occur—after all, what is good for the country might be good for a senator. However, the current tendency seems to be in favor of those in Washington and against the rest of us.

Given the catastrophically low approval rating for Congress and low approval ratings for other politicians, it seems evident that people do get that while Washington is working for some it is certainly not working for all. Despite this, the incumbents have generally managed to win re-election after re-election, although there have been some upsets and there seems to be an ever increasing willingness to challenge the old guard. However, what is needed is not just a swapping of the dwellers of the swamp, but the long promised draining of the swamp.

While it is tempting to yield to cynicism and apathy, this sort of situation is not a new one for America. In the past, Americans have managed to clean things up and at least get some solid islands protruding from the swamp. If we can do this again, we can repair the damage that has been done. However, there is also another lesson of history: when an empire’s rulers are focused on their own enrichment and act contrary to the good of the nation, then the fall of the empire is surely approaching.

While I retain optimism, the fact that the sort of people who are needed in Washington are now refusing to slog into the vile swamp. But, the fact that such people do exist and are willing to lead in a principled way on the state and local level means that hope still remains.

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Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 26, 2013
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The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was critical in making American democracy a reality. Before the law passed, disenfranchisement was the order of the day in some states and the law was intended to prevent citizens from being unjustly denied their right to vote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fast & The Foolish II: Executive Privelege

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 21, 2012
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Back when the Fast & Furious debacle hit the media, I did a critical post on the incident. To this day, I wonder about the thinking behind that plan and had hoped that this mess would at least be sorted out a bit. While congress has decided to pursue the matter (and correctly so), the Obama administration decided to evoke executive privilege to avoid releasing certain relevant documents to congress.

While Fox News tends to flip-flop on executive privilege based on the political party of the president,  I have been consistently critical of the practice. As such, I can recycle much of what I have said in the past about this matter.

In the face of the “Fast and Furious” debacle and its handling by Attorney General Holder, President Obama has decided to invoke executive privilege.

While this alleged power to invoke executive privilege is not specified in the Constitution, the gist of it is that the President can refuse to provide the public with information that he deems as privileged. This power is often invoked in the name of national security but is also justified by the claim that a President’s minions need to be able to freely provide advice without being worried that such advice will be made public. Thus, the justification is based on consequences: such things must be kept secret for the good of the country.

From a moral standpoint this practice can be justified on utilitarian grounds. To be specific, this keeping of secrets  can be justified by appealing to the fact that this practice prevents far greater harms. Although the Obama administration has done little or nothing to show that these matters must be kept secret for the good of the nation, this moral logic is reasonable. However, the challenge lies in showing that revealing the information in the documents would do undue harm to the country and hence that the president is morally justified in keeping them secret.

If, for example, the documents contained detailed information about ongoing law enforcement operations (especially those involving undercover aspects) and releasing such information could prove harmful to these operations (and put people in danger), then it would be reasonable to keep these documents secret. However, this does not seem to be the case. Also, if the documents did contain such information, then the administration would not need to use executive privilege-they could appeal to the importance of secrecy in this case.

On the face of it, the most plausible explanation is that the documents contain information that would be harmful to or embarrassing for the administration. After all, evoking executive privilege will create the impression that there is something they want to hide and, assuming that the security hypothesis is not true, the reasonable inference is that whatever is being hidden would be more damaging than the harm done by creating this impression.

It might be countered that the administration is merely acting to assert the right of the executive branch against an intrusion by congress. While this does have some appeal, congress does appear to be acting well within its legal rights and is doing its job. As such, the president seems to be wrongly impeding congress rather than rightfully defending executive turf.

It might also be countered that this is a partisan attack on the president by the Republicans calculated to score political points. While I am sure that the Republicans would be happy to score points here, they are actually doing what they should be doing, namely investigating a law enforcement debacle and what might well be a cover up that reaches (as they say in the movies) all the way to the top. As such, the points they score will most likely be earned legitimately.

Unless the administration can provide a good reason to believe that the documents contain information that must be kept from congress for legitimate reasons, then this invocation of executive privilege is wrong and it invites people to speculate as to what sort of damaging information is contained in the documents.  It should be hoped that Obama changes his mind and releases these documents voluntarily. After all, while the president does have the right to evoke executive privilege, it is not a screen that is to be used to hide misdeeds. Naturally, if there are no misdeeds, then there would seem to be nothing worth hiding-so they should be released.  If there are misdeeds, then the president has no moral or legal right to conceal them with executive privilege.

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Obama’s Broken Promises

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 15, 2012
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While I am often accused of bashing Republicans while looking away from the sins of the Democrats, this is not the case. After all, I have written posts critical of Democrats. I will, of course, say that the Republicans generally seem to do more things that are in need of criticism-perhaps because the Democrats are known for being a bit weak and passive.

While I will most likely to continue to favor Obama over Romney, I do have serious concerns about some of the policies and actions of the Obama administration (such as the administration’s policy regarding assassination). Thanks to a recent leak, I now have concerns about Obama’s trade policy.

One concern that seems to be bipartisan in nature is that the administration seems to have provided corporations with more information than has been provided to congress. While Republicans are general pro-corporation, at least some of them seem dismayed by this approach. I agree with this concern. While the people who run the corporations are concerned parties, congress is still the legislative body in this country and hence should be at least as well informed by the administration as the corporations are.

A second concern that should also worry the left and the right is that the agreement being pushed by the Obama administration would allow foreign companies operating on US soil to appeal our laws to an international tribunal that could overrule our laws and impose sanctions on us.

For folks who are seen as left leaning, the obvious concerns are that foreign companies could be allowed to violate our labor and environmental laws in ways detrimental to Americans. Ironically, American corporations have often taken actions aimed at allowing them to be exempt from laws in other countries (or to simply see to it that the laws allow them to do as they wish). While corporations do see clear advantages in being able to operate without the burden of such regulations, the price of such freedom is invariably paid by the people impacted by this freedom. That is, the people who are economically exploited and subject to the environmental damages inflicted by said corporations. Since I have been consistently opposed to corporations using there power to the detriment of people overseas, I am opposed to the United States being treated as a third world country.

Folks who are not left leaning should also be concerned about this agreement. First, while the agreement will allow foreign corporations to potentially violate United States law and regulations, American corporations will not be exempt (unless, of course, they cease to be American corporations-and this new agreement would give them an incentive to do so). This could give foreign corporations an unfair advantage over American corporations. In addition to being unfair, it should also dismay those who are supporters of American corporations. Second, this agreement would allow an international tribunal to override the sovereignty of the United States. While folks on the right generally oppose regulation, they generally also rail against attempts to impose on United States sovereignty. Of course, the past criticism from the right on this matter has typically been in regards to more stringent environmental regulations and other things that might seem to be coming from the left side of the political spectrum. Some on the right might sing a different tune when the imposition is to allow foreign corporations to ignore the laws of the United States.

Given the above arguments, I have two main points. The first is that the administration needs to change its approach to dealing with foreign corporations. To be specific, as much as I dislike Congress, I contend that they need to be kept properly informed. They are, after all, a branch of the government. The second is that the proposed agreement is unacceptable.

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The Individual Mandate

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 2, 2012
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The United States Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and this has created quite a political stir. One of the main points of concern is the individual mandate. The gist of this is that individuals are required to buy health insurance. Those who fail to do so will be fined.

Setting aside the rabid rhetoric, the main philosophical issue seems to be whether or not the state has a legitimate right to impose this mandate. Or, as opponents of the mandate put it, whether or not the state has the right to require people to buy a private product.

On the face of it, I am inclined to agree that the state does not have a general right to compel citizens to buy products even when it would be wise and good to do so. As critics have noted, while broccoli is good for people, the state would seem to have no legitimate right to compel people to buy it. This sort of reasoning is consistent with my own view of liberty, which is roughly based on that of John Stuart Mill’s view. The general idea is that people only have a moral right to compel people when the actions in question can cause unwarranted harm to others. Even if doing something would be good or wise, society has no right to compel an individual into doing (or not doing something) when it is not their legitimate concern (that is, involves harm to others).

Because of my adherence to this view of liberty, I would be against the state compelling people to buy broccoli, to exercise or to quit smoking. After all, in such matters the individual is sovereign. Since I endeavor to be consistent in my principles, I also oppose the illegality of recreational drugs as well as any law that would ban same-sex marriage. After all, if it would violate liberty to force someone to buy broccoli because it is good for them, it would also seem to violate liberty to force someone to forgo marijuana because it is bad for them or to forgo same sex marriage because some people do not like it. Not surprisingly, some folks are not quite consistent in these matters: they scream for freedom when an individual mandate is on the line but are quite happy to impose on others when the issue turns to same-sex marriage.

Given my view on a broccoli mandate it might be suspected I would oppose the individual mandate.  However, this is not the case-I actually support it. Naturally, some folks might accuse me of supporting it from blind liberalism. However, my reasons for supporting it are classic conservatism. This should not be at all shocking since the individual mandate actually has a fine conservative pedigree.

Given its origin, it might be tempting to argue that the conservative assault on the mandate is misguided. However, to claim that something is good (or bad) based on its origin would be an error (specifically the genetic fallacy). It might also be tempting to argue that the conservatives are being inconsistent in attacking the mandate given that it was supported by conservatives in the past. However, this would be a mere ad hominem tu quoque.  However, it is certainly interesting to note that the conservative opposition to the mandate seems to be driven by their opposition to Obama rather than the result of a reasoned repudiation of the conservative arguments in favor of the mandate. As such, one might suspect that the rejection of the mandate is motivated in part by an ad homimen attack amounting to “Obama and the Democrats are for it, so it must be bad.” However, my goal is not to consider the history and psychology of the matter, but to present conservative arguments for the mandate.

One stock conservative principle is that people should take responsibility for themselves. This principle is often taken to entail more specific principles, such as the one that people should pay for what they receive and the one that the state should always endeavor to avoid providing welfare and its ilk.

These principles seem eminently reasonable. After all, if I fail to take responsibility and because of this I get aid from the state that I have not paid for, it would seem reasonable to regard me as a thief. To use a specific example, if I decide that I am tired of working and quit my job to go on welfare, then I would seem to be stealing from my fellows. After all, I could support myself and merely would have chosen not to do so. To use another example, if my company gets subsidies from the state when it is profitable on its own, I would thus seem to be robbing my fellows. After all, my company can easily support itself without sponging off the taxpayers.

At this point, one might be wondering what these principles have to do with the individual mandate. After all, it has been cast as the state imposing on liberty by forcing people to buy a product. However, this is not the proper way to see the mandate. To see that this is the case, consider the following.

Back in 1986 the United States Congress passed the  Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act. This act mandates that hospitals cannot turn away or transfer a patient unnecessarily when there is an emergency condition. While hospitals can ask about the patient’s ability to pay, they cannot delay or refuse treatment based on a lack of ability to pay. Hospitals can, of course, refuse to provide treatment or examination in non-emergency situations. Hospitals that violate the law can be fined as can doctors who are complicit in declaring a patient’s condition to be a non-emergency when it actually was.

Since people know that hospitals cannot turn away emergency cases, people who do not have insurance often turn to emergency rooms for medical treatment. In some cases, they do so even for routine care on the assumption that the medical personnel will provide at least some care even in the case of non-emergencies. While there has been some dispute over the exact numbers, this has been a problem in many hospitals for quite some time.

Obviously enough, when a hospital provides “free” medical care to the uninsured, it still must be paid for. After all, medical personnel do not work for free nor do the supplies and equipment needed for treatment come free. While hospitals do try to collect from the uninsured patients, this often does not cover the bill. After all, most people who are uninsured are without insurance because they cannot afford it  rather than as a matter of choosing to forgo it. As such, the costs must be passed on to those who have insurance as well as on to the state. It is estimated that covering the bills of the uninsured adds $1500 to a family’s insurance premiums and about $500 to that of an individual.

As such, under the current system hospitals are required to provide services to those who cannot pay and the insured and the taxpayers are compelled to pay the bill. Thus, some people are not taking responsibility by paying for what they receive and others are left to pick up the tab-including the state. This is exactly the sort of situation that one would expect a conservative to rail against. After all, it involves people getting something for nothing as well as other people being compelled to pay more. And, of course, it also involves the state in providing “handouts.”

In this situation, there seem to be two main legitimate conservative options. The first is to ensure an end to the free ride and the government handouts by compelling people to get insurance. This way they would be paying for what they received and not being free riders. This, coupled with the Affordable Care Act,  would also have the benefit of allowing people affordable access to non-emergency preventative care which would be better for their health and also reduce the strain on emergency rooms. There is, however, a second option.

A second way to address this problem is to repeal the part of the  Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act that requires hospitals to provide emergency care to people who cannot pay. If those without insurance or money were not treated, then there would be no extra cost to pass on to the insured or to the state, thus solving the problem at hand.

Obviously, while the second solution would save some people money, it would not come without a price. It would require accepting that people should be left to die if they lack the financial resources to pay for vastly overpriced medical care. I would certainly hope that this is not a value that my fellow Americans would endorse, but perhaps this is not the case. Perhaps we should be free of the burden of caring for others and they should be free to die on the curb of a hospital because the job creators did not create an adequate  job for them.

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They Eat Horses, Don’t They?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2011
Horse meat in mongolia

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In 2006,  the United States Congress banned the use of federal money for inspecting horses intended to be slaughtered for food. Since the UDSA requires the federal inspection of all food grade meat, this effectively ended the slaughter of horse for food in the United States. This ban was, however, lifted in November, 2011. This opens the doors the the slaughter of horses for food.

While some people might wonder why there might be a need to resume slaughtering horses for food, there are some arguments that have been presented in its favor. I will consider some of these before moving on to some objections against killing horses for food.

One stock argument is the economic argument that while American slaughterhouses are not profiting or creating horse slaughtering related jobs, other countries (such as Mexico and Canada) are doing so. By having moral and sentimental qualms about killing horses for food, the United States missed out on the opportunity to create jobs and make profits in the horse meat market. Rectifying this will allow the job creators to create more jobs and will enable Americans to profit from the slaughter of horses, rather than allowing other countries to dominate the horse meat market.

In these troubled economic times, this argument does have a certain appeal.  However, there is also the stocky reply that just because something could be profitable and created jobs, it does not entail that we should do so. For example, legalizing various drugs would create American jobs and allow legitimate companies to profit, however, some people might regard this as morally unacceptable. As another example, prostitution could be made legal across America, thus creating many legal jobs of various sorts (pun intended) and allowing American companies to make a profit. But this might be regarded as morally unacceptable. Likewise, if using horses for food is morally unacceptable, then it would seem that we should not do this-even if it creates profits and jobs.

A second argument that has been advanced is that the economic downturn has resulted in more people abandoning their horses or being unable to properly care for them. Since horses cannot be slaughtered for food, these horses are left to suffer. Being able to slaughter horses for food would solve the problem of these suffering horses.

One obvious reply to this argument is that there seems to be no need to allow horses to be slaughtered for food to address the alleged problem with abandoned or neglected horses. After all, it would seem more humane to use the federal money to care for them rather than inspect them to see if they are fit for hamburger. To use an analogy, imagine if it was suggested that we should start slaughtering children for food because the economic downturn has made it harder for parents to care for them. This would a rather horrific suggestion. While horse are not children, it seems horrific to say that we can best help them by seeing to it they are made into hamburger.

Even if it were accepted that the best way to address the abandoned or neglected horses was by killing them, it would hardly follow that this should be done by the meat industry in order to create meat to sell. That said, it could be argued that such meat should not go to waste. This principle would, it would seem, also indicate that the abandoned dogs, cats and other pets should also be inspected and made into food as a solution.  This might be taken as a reductio, or perhaps as a business plan.

A second obvious reply is that it seems unlikely that the abandoned or neglected horses could supply enough meat to actually make a significant economic difference.  That is, there are certainly not enough such horses to support an industry. As such, in order for the economic argument to work, another source of horses would be needed-such as horses raised specifically for food or horses that would be harvested from public lands. While this would allow the economic argument to remain, it would certainly reduce the impact of the “mercy killing” argument.

Not surprisingly, I am not in favor of slaughtering horses for food.  In part, as some proponents of horse slaughtering contend, this is due to sentimental reasons. My parents worked at a summer camp which had horses and, as such, I literally grew up with horses learning to ride them and care for them. It is, as might be imagined, difficult for me to see horses as food. After all, friends do not eat friends. Also, like many Americans, I grew up with cowboy movies and I can no more accept the idea of eating Trigger or Silver as I can accept the idea of eating Lassie, Rin Tin Tin or the Little Rascals.

This, of course, merely reports on my psychology and, as such, has no logical weight by itself. After all, there are plenty of folks who would have no qualms sitting down to a main disk of Trigger with a side of Lassie.

There are, of course, various stock arguments against eating any animals and they can be pressed into service here. However, my objective is to present some arguments specific to horses.

For my first argument, I will steal from Kant. While horses are non-rational beings and would thus be mere objects in Kant’s moral theory, Kant does argue that we have indirect duties to animals. Roughly put, he contends that we can treat animals as analogous to humans when assessing how we should treat them (at least in a somewhat limited context). For example, if Ted has a dog Blue that has served him faithfully and well, while Blue is but an object, a human who had served faithfully and well would have earned proper treatment. As such, it would be wrong of Ted to simply dispose of Blue because he is too old to serve any longer. Kant also contends that we should treat animals well because doing so, crudely put, trains us to treat humans well. Likewise, we should not treat animals badly because doing so trains us to treat humans badly. Since humans matter morally to Kant, this is why our treatment of animals would matter.

Horses have clearly served humans very well. They have fought in our wars, carried us around the world, and have been good companions.  As such, we owe them a debt for that service. To simply treat them as meat would be small minded and an act of ingratitude.

One obvious reply is that even if we assume that we might owe individual horses a debt, this does not apply to all horses. To use the obvious analogy, simply because one member of a family helped you out it does not follow that you then owe anything to other members of that family.

This does have an appeal to it. After all, the notion of owing a collective debt seems as mysterious as the notion of collective sin or collective rights. This is especially mysterious when one is speaking of owing a species. I do, as such, admit that this argument would only have bite with those who are willing to consider the notion that a collective can be owed for the action of the individuals who took specific actions.

For my second argument, I will steal from C.S. Lewis. In his classic The Abolition of Man, Lewis writes, “until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it -believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.”

It is, of course, easy enough to take issue with Lewis. However, there is considerable appeal in his view and it seems appealing enough to extend it from objects to animals, actions and people.

For example, imagine that Ted the Just  falls into raging flood waters and Sally the Brave leaps in to save him. After she pulls him from the water, Larry the Loather  goes up and spits on her, saying “How contemptible and cowardly of you to have done that. I feel nothing but loathing for you, Sally.” Imagine that Ted says “What the hell? She was brave and deserves your respect!” If Larry says, “Fah, I feel no respect for her. I feel naught but contempt and loathing”, then he may very well be speaking honestly. However, it also seems clear that his feelings are not apt-Sally merits approval and respect regardless of what Larry feels or does not feel.

While it is obviously true that horses are regarded as some people as mere meat (and or profits), there is the question of whether or not this is to feel what horses in fact merit. Do they merit being looked at as something to be butchered and sold by the pound, or do they merit better?

As might be imagined, I contend that horses merit better. To regard them with sentiment and respect is not simply a matter of emotional sappiness or being soft-hearted. Rather, it is to have the sort of feelings that horses do, in fact, merit. As such, to mass slaughter them and make them into hamburger is to act in ways that horses do not deserve and in ways that diminish us emotionally and morally.

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Reforming Congress

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 30, 2011
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While congress has a rather low approval rating, the members of congress do not seem very inclined to do much to change this. One obvious reason is that most members of congress know that they will be re-elected despite the overall low approval ratings. As such, they have little incentive to change their behavior.

The folks in congress, like most politicians, have two main goals. The first is to get re-elected. The second is to profit from their office. Unfortunately, the chances of a member of congress being re-elected does not seem to be strongly connected to actual job performance. Rather, the main factors seem to be party affiliation, financial resources, the gerrymandering of the district, and political connections. This means that incumbents will tend to be re-elected. There have been, of course, some notable exceptions to this general rule. For example, some Tea Party candidates were able to get elected and, of course, Weiner’s actions cost his his seat in Congress. However, the electoral success of the Tea Party did not result in an improvement in Americans’ approval of congress-quite the opposite in fact. Part of this is no doubt due to the hyper-partisanship that marks today’s congress and has preventing the usual political process of compromise. Part of this is due to the fact that the Republicans seem to be devoted to beating Obama rather than actually doing what should be done for the good of the country. Part of this is also due to the fact that the Democrats seem to be unwilling to take decisive action. In any case, congress is doing a terrible job, yet we keep re-hiring most of them year after year. Or, more accurately, they are able to do what it takes to stay in office while, at the same time, not doing what it takes to be seen as actually accomplishing things.

I would like to make a few modest proposals.

First, I would suggest term limits. While the term limit on the presidency was set to keep a specific president from getting another term, term limits do seem to have some merit in that they enable more turnover and reduced the concentration (and hence abuse) of power. On the minus side, term limits would prevent the most experienced members from returning (although they could go on to other careers). However, the good of such limits would seem worth the cost.

Second, I would suggest somewhat longer terms for those in congress. This would allow them to be less locked into focusing on re-election and more focused on doing things.

Third, I would suggest an end to gerrymandering. While there are some arguments in favor of this practice, CNN’s recent piece on the matter shows that the harms of the practice seem to clearly outweigh the alleged benefits. The end of this practice would mean that the folks in congress would need to work harder to earn their re-elections.

Fourth, I would recommend that there be strict spending limits on campaigns and that these limits be set rather low. This would help offset the advantage of incumbents and would change the focus away from raising money (and also reduce the amount of corruption).  Naturally, there would need to be a way to compensate for this-such as “free” air time for the candidates.

Fifth, I would also suggest strict limits on donations and the elimination of super PACS. Corporations would be able to donate, but this would also need to be limited and such donations would need to be a matter of public record. This would not interfere with free speech-after all, everyone would be able to express their views-they just would not be able to buy politicians. After all, if spending money is free speech, then simply buying politicians would seem to be free speech.

Sixth, I would suggest that all lobbying must be a matter of public record-the public has a right to know what their elected officials are being offered in return for their services. This does not impeded freedom of speech-after all, freedom of speech does not warrant a freedom to corrupt and bribe.

Seventh, strict restrictions need to be placed on how members of congress can profit from their offices. This would include limits on gifts and put an end to insider trading. I would even be for a wealth cap on members of congress (the excess would be contributed to the budget, preferably for things they vote for)-after all, they should lead the way when calling for sacrifices from the American people.

Does anyone have any other ideas?


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Disapproval of Congress

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 6, 2011


While some claim that Americans are more divided than ever before, there is one matter on which we stand strongly united. In our disapproval of congress, 82% (or more) Americans stand shoulder to shoulder, with looks of disgust on the faces above those shoulders.

Congress, obviously enough, brought this on itself. The icing on the disapproval cake seems to have been the latest round of debates over the debt ceiling. While Americans do disagree over spending and taxes, we mainly seem to agree that we do not want our country brought to the very edge of default. As such, one reason for the disapproval is that congress is perceived as being willing to wrangle over critical matters right up until it is almost too late. That sort of behavior is generally not appealing to most people.

Of course, such behavior would be understandable and forgivable if the wrangling was over a critical matter and perhaps as important or more important than meeting a deadline. However, the battle in congress seems to have been a fight over scoring political points rather than doing what is best for the country. To use an analogy, congress was fighting over whether to steer a little left or a little right while the ship of state was heading directly towards an iceberg. While the direction of the ship does matter, what really matters the most is not hitting that iceberg.

Another reason for the disapproval regarding this matter is that most Americans seem to be more concerned about jobs rather than deficit reduction. If we need to spend more to sustain and create jobs and restore the economy, then this seems to be something most Americans favor. Congress, for all its talk of jobs, does not seem as concerned as it should be about this matter. Going back to the ship analogy, if the ship is caught in a storm, it can make sense to burn more fuel to get out of that storm and into port. Once the ship is back in calm waters, then the worry about the cost of fueling the ship can move back up the priority list.

Another point of concern is that the behavior of congress makes us look bad. The news was filled with stories about how America might default, how we might lose our AAA credit rating, and how congress seemed intent on wrangling rather than resolving.  This made us seem like we were incapable of getting things done, even in the face of necessity. That is, most Americans rightfully hold, not how we should appear.

Given what Americans think of congress, it seems reasonable to infer that Americans in general are not as partisan as the members of congress and that we have different priorities then they do. In short, they do not actually seem to be properly representing us. Of course, we elected them and the beauty of democracy is that people get the government they deserve. As such, we seem to really dislike what we have created and hence we should probably think about this when it comes time to vote again.

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Dropping the 14th

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2011
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As the debate over the debt ceiling rages on, there has been more talk of Obama using an executive order to raise the debt ceiling. The constitutional basis for this is, of course, the 14th amendment and (presumably) the executive power of the president.

The constitution states that “the validity of the public debt … shall not be questioned”, which would seem to indicate that the debt ceiling would need to be raised on pain of violating the constitution.

However, a case can be made that raising the debt ceiling is distinct from not questioning the validity of the public debt. To use an analogy, consider the matter of personal debt. A person could, it seems, decide that she will not give herself permission to go further into debt while at the same time fulfilling her current financial obligations. Likewise, the congress could decide that the debt ceiling should not be raised while still accepting the validity of the debt. This actually has considerable appeal-after all, going ever more into debt is hardly a wise financial move.

There is, of course, a rather serious problem with that approach: apparently we cannot pay our debts without going more into debt. Going back to the analogy, the nation seems to be like an individual who cannot pay her debts except by taking out more loans. While this is hardly a desirable solution, it might be the only viable solution-at least in the very short term. As a long term solution it is certainly not viable.


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The Debt Ceiling

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 27, 2011
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The United States is currently at risk of hitting and then breaking the debt ceiling. While the general consensus among rational people is that this would be rather bad, congress (as I am writing) has yet to settle the matter.

On the one hand, raising the debt ceiling seems to be a no-brainer. After all, doing so has been business as usual and it has been done most often under Republican presidents. More importantly, the consequences of not doing so are supposed to be rather bad-hence it would seem to make sense t0 simply follow the usual process and raise the ceiling.

On the other hand, there are some legitimate concerns about simply raising the debt ceiling. First, the mere fact that it has been done repeatedly in the past is hardly a good reason to do it now. To believe that what is commonly done is right because it is commonly done is, of course, the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice.  To believe that something should be done because it has been done in the past and is thus something of a tradition is, of course, the fallacy of appeal to tradition. That said, it is still reasonable to ask (as a legitimate use of burden of proof) why the established policy should be changed now. This leads to the second point.

Second, think of the national debt as being analogous to a bar tab and Americans as heavy drinkers. Like a regular at a bar, we have simply raised our tab over and over again. However, there seems to come a time (perhaps now) when the barkeep should insist that the tab not increase again and that it be paid off. To insist on just raising the tab and continuing to drink the future is to act, obviously enough, like a selfish and thoughtless drunk. The responsible and correct thing to do is not ask for a bigger tab limit and to pay off the existing debt. Likewise, America needs to sober up, set a reasonable debt ceiling and pay off that debt. After all, we want to be a great nation and not that pathetic drunk in the corner, begging for booze and money.

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