A Philosopher's Blog

Understanding & “An Open Letter to my White Colleagues”

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2016

The May 2016 issue of the NEA Higher Education Advocate features “An Open Letter to my White Colleagues” by Professor Dana Stachowiak. Since I have a genetic background that is a blend of Mohawk, French and English, I am not entirely sure if I am, in fact, white. However, I look white and I am routinely identified by others as white. As such, my social identity would seem to be white. Thus, the intended audience for the letter probably includes me. The letter provides a five-point guide to “sustainable anti-racist work.” While the entire letter is certainly worthy of assessment, I will focus this essay on the third point.

Professor Stachowiak asserts that whites should “Stop trying to understand how it [racism]feels or relate to it with a personal anecdote.  You are white; you will never ever know what it feels like to experience racism.”

This assertion about what whites can never ever know is a matter of what philosophers call epistemology, which is the study of knowledge. More specifically, it falls under the subject of the limits of knowledge. In this case, the assertion is that a person’s epistemic capabilities are limited and defined (at least in part) by their race. Interestingly, this sort of view is routinely accepted by racists—a stock racist view is that other races have limits on what they are capable of knowing and this is typically connected to alleged defects in their cognitive capabilities. I am not claiming that Stachowiak is a racist, just that she has presented a race-based epistemic principle that whites cannot, in virtue of their whiteness, know the experience of racism.

There are epistemic views that do rest on the idea of incommensurable experiences. One extreme version is that no one can know what it is like to be another being. Stachowiak is presenting a less extreme version, one that limits knowledge about a specific sort of experience to a certain set of people. This can be seen as an assertion about the social reality of the United States: American racism is, by its nature, aimed at non-whites. As such, whites can never experience the racism of being targeted for being non-white. To use an analogy, it could be asserted that a man could never know the experience of misogyny because he cannot be hated as a woman (presumably even if he disguised himself as a woman).

This view obviously also requires that there cannot be racism directed against whites (at least in the United States), otherwise whites could experience racism. At this point, most readers are probably thinking that whites can be subject to racism—they can be called racist names, treated poorly simply because they are white, subject to hatred simply because of their skin color and so on for all the apparent manifestations of racism. The usual reply to this sort of claim is that whites can be subject to bias or prejudice, but racism is such that it only applies to non-whites. This requires a definition of “racism” in which the behavior is part of a social system and is based on a power disparity. To illustrate, a black might call a white “cracker” and punch him in the face for being white. This would be prejudice. A white might call a black the n-word and punch him in the face for being black. This would be racism. The difference is that the United States social system provides whites, in general, with systematic power advantages over non-whites.

It might be wondered about specific institutions that are predominantly non-white. In such cases, a white person could be the one at the power disadvantage. The likely reply is that in the broader society the whites still have the power advantage. So, if a philosophy department at a mostly white university does not hire a person because she is black, that is racism. If a philosophy department at a predominantly black university does not hire a person because she is white, that is prejudice but not racism. Thus, with a certain definition of “racism” a white can never experience racism.

It might be asserted that since anyone can experience prejudice and bias in ways that match up with racism (like being attacked, insulted or not hired because of race) it follows that a white person could have an understanding of what it feels like to experience racism. For example, a white person who finds out she was not hired because she is white would seem to be able to understand what it feels like for a black person to not get hired because she is black. There are also white people who belong to groups that are systematically mistreated and subject to oppression—such as women. One might contend that a white woman who experiences sexism her whole life would be able to know what racism feels like, at least by analogy. However, it could be countered that she cannot—there is an insurmountable gulf between the sexism a white woman experiences and the racism a black person experiences that renders her incapable of understanding that experience.

While it is certainly true that a person cannot perfectly know the experience of others, normal human beings are actually quite good at empathy and understanding how others feel. Many moral theorists, such as David Hume, note the importance of sympathy in ethics. It is by trying to understand what others suffer that one develops sympathy and compassion. It is certainly reasonable to accept that perfect understanding is not possible. But, to use an example, a white person who knows what it is like to be beaten up and brutalized because he would rather read books than play football could use that experience to try to grasp what it feels like to be beaten up and brutalized just because one is black. Such a person, it would be expected, would be less likely to act in racist ways if they were able to feel sympathy based on their own experiences.

Another point worth considering is the moral method of reversing the situation, more commonly known as the Golden Rule. Using this method requires being able to have some understanding of what it is like to be in a situation (say being a victim of racism) so as to be able to reason that certain things are wrong. So, for example, a person who can consider what it would be like to be refused a job because of his color would presumably be less likely to engage in that wrongful action. Given the importance of sympathy and the Golden Rule, it seems that whites should not stop trying to understand—rather, they should try to understand more. This, of course, assumes that this would lead to more moral behavior. If not, then I would concede the matter of Professor Stachowiak.

In regards to the anecdotes, I am more inclined to agree with Stachowiak. Having taught at Florida A&M University for almost twenty-five years, I have lost count of the awkward anecdotes I have heard from well-meaning fellow whites trying to show that they understand racism. On the one hand, I do get what they intend when they are sincere—they are making an effort to understand racism within the context of their own experience. This is a natural thing for humans to do and can show that the person is really trying and does have laudable intentions. As such, to condemn such attempts seems unfair.

On the other hand, when a white person busts out an anecdote trying to compare a personal experience to racism I immediately think “oh no, do not do this.” This is usually because the anecdotes so often involve comparing some minor incident (like being called a name as a child) to racism. This is analogous to a person speaking to combat veterans and talking about how he was punched once on the playground. There is also the fact that such anecdotes are often used to say “I understand” and are then followed by clear evidence the person does not understand.  From a purely practical standpoint, I would certainly agree that whites should avoid the awkward anecdote.



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Trump & Abortion

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 14, 2016

Abortion is a contentious matter in the United States and politicians must expect to answer questions about their position. As such, Trump should have been prepared when the questions turned to abortion during Chris Matthews interview of him on MSNBC.

While Trump has expressed a pro-choice position in the past, he told Matthews that he was now pro-life. When Matthews inquired about the legal implications of an abortion ban in terms of punishing women, Trump asserted that the “answer is that there has to be some form of punishment, yeah.” Since Trump has routinely been rewarded for talking tough and expressing misogynistic views, he was probably genuinely surprised when he experienced a broad backlash for his remarks—most especially from anti-abortion advocates.

In response to this backlash, Trump’s campaign released a statement saying: “If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.”

Interestingly enough, many anti-abortion advocates hold to this view as well (at least in public statements): women should not be punished for getting illegal abortions and the punishment should be limited to the abortion provider.

While some might claim that Trump’s initial position was an expression of misogyny, his inference was certainly justified given the usual approach to illegal actions. If abortion was criminalized and crimes should be punished, then it would follow that a woman who chose to have an abortion should be punished. This is the case with other crimes.

To use an obvious analogy, if Sally hires Jean to kill Jack, then Sally has committed a crime and should be punished for her role in it. A just court would and should punish Sally for her role in this crime. It would be patently absurd for someone to say “If Congress were to pass legislation making murder illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban murder under state and federal law, the assassin or any other person performing this illegal act for a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.” As such, if abortion were a crime (which opponents often consider murder), then it follows that the woman should also be punished.

Another analogy is with illegal drugs. If Sally buys illegal cocaine from Jean, then Sally has also committed a crime and should be punished.  It would be ridiculous to say “If Congress were to pass legislation making cocaine illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban cocaine under state and federal law, the drug dealer or any other person performing this illegal act (providing cocaine) for a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.” Once again, if abortion were a crime, then the woman should also be punished.

Obviously, the analogies could continue through a multitude of crimes, thus showing that the position advocated by Trump and others is contrary to the usual workings of justice, namely that those participating in a crime are to be punished. That said, there is a way to hold to the position that the woman should not be punished and the abortion provider should.

Holding this position requires asserting that the woman lacks agency in the crime and is thus not responsible. One approach, which is not uncommon, is to argue that women in general lack agency. This sort of view was used to justify, for example, denying women the right to vote and treating them as property.

This approach would be analogous to that taken by some states in regards to child prostitution. Although prostitution is a crime, children lack the agency to consent to sexual relations and are thus not responsible for the crime. Instead, those providing or purchasing the sexual services are responsible for the crime. As such, they should be punished and the children should not.

While some might find this approach appealing, it is obviously problematic. One rather absurd implication is that denying that women have agency would give them this legal status across the board—thus undermining the possibility of fully holding women accountable for crimes they commit. There are, of course, so many other problems with this approach that it has no legitimate appeal.

Another option is to accept that while women have agency, they generally lack such agency when it comes to choosing to have an abortion. Or, rather, women do not truly choose to have abortions—they are coerced, tricked or beguiled into having them. If this were generally true, then the position that women should not be punished for illegal abortions while those performing them should be punished would be reasonable.

To use an analogy, if Jean kidnaped Sally and her daughter, then killed the daughter, Jean would be the criminal and Sally would be a victim. As such, Sally should obviously not be punished. The challenge is, of course, to show that abortion providers generally use coercion to compel women to get abortions against their will. This, however, seems contrary to the facts.

As another analogy, if Jean was able to beguile Sally into believing she was in terrible danger from Jane and only Jean could save her at that moment by killing Jane, then Sally should not be punished for agreeing to this. Likewise, if abortion providers beguile and trick women into having abortions that they would not have had without being under the mesmeric influence of the abortion providers, then women who have illegal abortions should not be punished. What would need to be shown is that abortion providers have such powers to beguile. This also seems unlikely.

It could be claimed that surely there are cases in which women are coerced or beguiled into having abortions against their will. This, I accept, probably does happen. I am also confident that people are also coerced or beguiled into committing other crimes. As with such cases, I would agree that the person who is forced or beguiled into participating in a crime should have any punishment reduced or eliminated based on the degree to which they lacked agency. Obviously enough, those that coerce or beguile people into crimes should be subject to punishment proportional to their contribution to the crime. This all assumes that the crimes are morally worthy of punishment—crime is a matter of law and there can be unjust laws.

Lest anyone be confused about my overall position, I would prefer that there were fewer abortions (as argued in another essay). But, I do accept that abortion is generally morally acceptable under the current social conditions. As such, I oppose banning abortion and certainly oppose punishing abortion providers or women who have abortions. My point is that those who wish to criminalize abortion need to accept that the punishment of women is entailed by this view. As such, the position that abortion is a crime and that abortion providers should be punished while women should not be punished for their role in the “crime” is an inconsistent and untenable position. This, naturally enough, is for cases in which abortion is not the result of coercion or deception.


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North Carolina’s Anti-Antidiscrimination Law

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 13, 2016

Apparently eager to do some serious damage to North Carolina’s reputation and economy, the state’s Republican controlled legislature passed “the bathroom bill” and the Republican governor signed it immediately. This law seems to have been in response to Charlotte, North Carolina passing a city ordinance extending legal protection for LGBT people and allowing transgender folks to use bathrooms based on their gender identity.

The “bathroom bill” makes it so that local governments cannot pass their own antidiscrimination laws—the state law, which is more restrictive than the Charlotte ordinance, trumps all local laws. The reason it is called the “bathroom bill” is that it has the effect of forbidding transgender people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Instead, they must use the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificate. Interestingly enough, the law also precludes any local government from passing its own minimum wage laws—the minimum wage falls under the antidiscrimination law.

While the most plausible explanation for the law is prejudice against people who differ from the heterosexual norm, the proponents of the law obviously cannot make that the public reason for their support. Rather, there are two main reasons presented in defense of the law. The first is that the imposition of state control over local governments was an attempt to rein in “governmental overreach” on the part of Charlotte and other local governments.

There is a certain irony in Republicans passing a law that restricts the liberty of local governments—this is because the importance of local government and assertions about getting big government off the back of the people are stock talking points. However, many Republicans seem to be fine with local government only to the degree that the locals do what they want.

To be fair, there are legitimate issues here about the extent of the authority of local governments and the extent to which the state has the right to impose on local authorities. One approach is practical: having a hodgepodge of inconsistent laws across a state would be difficult for citizens and businesses—there are advantages to uniform, statewide laws. Another approach is a matter of ethics—the restrictions and liberties of laws should be the same across the state based on the principle of fairness. Of course, using a moral foundation for uniformity would require a moral assessment of the laws being imposed: having an unjust law imposed uniformly would be worse than a just law that was imposed in limited locations.

My own view is that antidiscrimination laws should be uniform but also just. As such, I do agree that the state (and federal government) should be setting these laws. But, these laws must be just. In the case of the North Carolina law, my view is that it is unjust because it codifies discrimination while forbidding local authorities from passing just laws. Hence, the state is in the wrong here. I now turn to the second justification for the law.

Proponents of the law contend that they do not support it from prejudice and that it does not discriminate. They claim that the law is needed in order to protect people, especially children, from being assaulted in bathrooms and locker rooms by transgender people.

On the face of it, the law does aim at meeting what I consider a basic justification of a restrictive law: it has the professed intent of protecting people from harm. This is an excellent justification for limiting liberty and is the principle that justifies, for example, forbidding companies from knowingly selling dangerous or defective products.

While the professed intent does matter, the proper assessment of a restrictive law aimed at preventing harm requires considering whether the harm in question justifies the restrictions being imposed.  In the case of the bathroom bill, the easy and obvious answer is that it does not. The reason is that there seems to be an exceptional lack of evidence that transgender people will present a danger to others if they are permitted to use bathrooms based on their gender identity.

While it is certainly not impossible for a transgender person to engage in such an attack, the statistical evidence is that there have been no attacks. There are currently numerous states and many cities that allow people to use facilities based on their gender identity—so there have been many opportunities for such attacks.

The obvious reply is to point to claims that such attacks (or at least sexual misconduct) have occurred, thus refuting the claim that transgender people are not a threat. The counter to this is to point to the fact that such claims tend to be mere urban myths and that the evidence shows that the myth of the transgender bathroom assault is just that, a myth.

It could be countered that while there is currently no evidence that allowing transgender people to use bathrooms based on their gender identity, an attack could happen and this possibility, however remote, justifies the law.

The easy and obvious response to this counter is that basing restrictive laws on the mere possibility that something bad might happen would be absurd. This principle would warrant incredibly restrictive laws across the board and would also warrant violating most, if not all, rights. For example, men might attack women on hiking trails, so trails must be restricted to one gender to avoid the possibility of attack. As another example, a car might be used in vehicular homicide, therefore people should be forbidden from owning cars. Naturally, if it could be shown that transgender people pose a serious risk to the safety of others, then restriction would be justified. However, the threat would need to match the restrictions imposed by the law.

As a final response, a proponent of the law could say that when a case of a transgender person attacking someone in a bathroom is confirmed, that will show the law is justified. The counter to this is to point out that this principle is absurd—if a car ban were proposed, it would not be justified by pointing to a case or even a few cases of vehicular homicide. As noted above, what would be needed is evidence of a threat that warrants the restriction.

In light of the above discussion, the “bathroom bill” fails the basic test of restrictive laws: it imposes restrictions without the justification of preventing a sufficient harm. This should come as no surprise—the law is not about protecting people but about prejudice.


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The RNC & Gun Free

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2016

The Republican Party is well known for its consistent support of gun rights and opposition to attempts to impose restrictions on these rights. As such, it might strike some as odd that the gun-loving Republicans are holding their national convention in a gun free zone in Cleveland, Ohio. Though the party might seem helpless in the face of the Secret Service (which banned guns from the Republican national convention in 2012), brave patriots have risen in its defense. A petition to allow open carry at the Quicken Loans Arena during the Republican Party’s national convention has been signed by over 50,000 supporters of the Second Amendment.

While some have suggested that the petition is not the work of true gun-loving patriots but by wily Democrat James P. Ryan, it is well grounded in an interesting moral argument. In any case, to dismiss the moral argument because of the identity of the author would be to fall into a classic ad homimen fallacy. After all, the merit of an argument depends on the argument, not the identity of the author.

The argument used to justify the petition is based in the principle of consistent application—this is the principle that standards must be applied the same way in similar circumstances. Exceptions can be justified, but this requires showing that there is a relevant difference between the applications that warrants changing or not applying the standard.

Not being consistent is problematic in at least three ways. One is that the person or group runs the risk of hypocrisy, which is morally problematic. The second is that inconsistent application is unfair, which is morally problematic as well. The third is that such inconsistent application runs the risk of undermining the justification for the standard, thus suggesting that the standard might not be well supported.

The case for the inconsistency of the Republican Party, the NRA and the three remaining Republican candidates is rather effectively made on the petition site. As such, I will present a rather concise summary of the case.

First, the NRA has argued that gun free zones, like where the convention will be held, are essentially advertising the best places for mass shootings. The NRA consistently opposes such zones—or at least it did. Second, Trump, Cruz and Kasich have explicitly opposed gun free zones. Trump and Cruz have both echoed the NRA’s line that gun free zones are bait for mass shooters. Third, there are the stock arguments made by the NRA and pro-gun Republicans that people need guns to defend themselves—that a good guy with a gun is the only one who can stop a bad guy with a gun. As such, for the Republican Party to hold its convention in a gun free zone with Cruz, Trump, Kasich and the NRA agreeing to this would be a clear act of moral inconsistency. Since they all oppose gun free zones (including, in some cases public schools) they should insist that the same standard they wish to apply to everyone else must also be applied to them. That is, guns must be allowed at the convention.

It could be countered that the Republican Party does back private property rights and, as such, they could consistently say that the Quicken Loans Arena owners have the right to ban guns from their property (though they are just laying out irresistible murder bait by doing so). While it is reasonable to accept that private property rights trump gun rights, the obvious counter is to insist that the convention be moved to a private or public venue that allows guns unless Quicken Loans Arena is willing to change its policy for the event.

Another counter is to note that the Secret Service has apparently insisted that guns not be allowed at the event. The Republicans could thus say that they really want to have guns, but the government is violating their rights by forcing them to ban the guns they so dearly and truly love. That is, if it was up to them the convention would be well armed.

The easy and obvious reply is that the Republican Party and candidates could take a principled stand and insist that guns be allowed. After all, their position on the matter of gun free zones is quite clear—the least safe place to be is a gun-free zone. Presumably the Secret Service is concerned that someone might bring a gun to the convention and try to kill Trump, Cruz or Kasich. Since these three men believe that gun free zones would simply attract assassins, they should be able to convince the Secret Service that they would be safer surrounded by armed citizens and, of course, sign whatever waivers or forms would be needed to make this so. If the candidates and the party lack the clout to make the convention gun friendly, surely the gun-friendly Republican majority in Congress could pass legislation allowing guns to be carried at the convention. This, one might suspect, would be a law that Obama would be quite willing to sign.

If the Republicans do not approach this affront to their gun rights with the same will and tenacity they deploy against Obamacare, one might suspect a hypocrisy regarding their position on guns: doing without gun free zones is fine for everyone else; but the Republican establishment wants the protection of gun free zones. This does not, of course, show that they are in error in regards to their avowed position opposing gun free zones—to infer that would be to fall victim to the ad hominem tu quoque (the fallacy that an inconsistency between a person’s claim and her actions shows her claim is wrong). However, it might be suspected that if the Republican establishment is fine with the convention as a gun free zone, then they have some evidence that gun free zones are not, contrary to their professed view, murder bait and are safer than gun zones.

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I’m not moving to Canada even if Trump is elected

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on March 16, 2016

Americans have a habit of threatening to move to Canada if a presidential election does not go their way; however, few actually follow up on this threat. While I am worried that Trump might be elected President, I have not made this threat and have no intention of leaving should the Trumpocracy come to pass. While some of my reasons are purely practical, I also have philosophical reasons. Getting to these will, however, require a short trip through some other issues.

When I was much younger, I was into politics and dreamed of holding political office. This dream gave way to cynicism about American politics and the embracing of anarchism and then apathy. I got better, though.

When I was an anarchist, I decided not to vote. This was based on the anarchist principle that voting is both ineffective and entails acknowledging the legitimacy of the oppressive system. When I became apathetic, I did not vote on the basis of an analogy to picking a movie. As I saw it, picking between candidates was like picking between bad movies. The rational choice, it would seem, would be not to pick any: vote none of the above. I accepted this until I had a revelation while watching a movie I did not like while on a date. Elections, it turns out, are like being on a movie date when only bad movies are playing. Since you are stuck going to a movie, you need to pick among the bad choices. The goal is not to pick what you like—since all choices are bad. The goal is to pick the least bad option. In the case of elections, you are stuck with the results if you vote or do not vote. If all the options are bad, you can still try to avoid the worst option by voting for the least bad. If all options are identical in badness, then you could avoid voting at all or use an alternative method. In my case, I often vote for the one that most resembles an animal I like or vote against the one that most resembles a creature I dislike.

There is, however, a downside to voting when you regard all the options as bad: you have become part of the process and are a party to the crimes of the person you voted for—should that person win. On the plus side, if you helped the lesser evil win, then you deserve kudos for preventing a greater evil.

One problem with becoming part of the voting process is that this would seem to acknowledge the legitimacy of the process (assuming one is not compelled to vote). This would seem to commit the voter to accepting the results of a fair election. Since it looks like it will be Trump vs. Hillary, when I vote for Hillary it would seem that I am accepting the voting process. This would seem to entail that when Trump wins, I have to accept that he is my president. This is required by consistency: if Hillary wins, I would expect those who voted for Trump to accept this result. This, of course, assumes that the election was fair—if it was rigged, then that is another matter.

Locke addressed this matter—he was well aware that the losing side in a vote might be tempted to refuse to go along. Locke’s response to the problem was to point out that doing this would tear apart the system and send us back to the state of nature. As such, he reasoned, we should follow the majority in regards to voting. This, of course, leads to the problem of the tyranny of the majority, something that could be used to argue that one should not accept the election of a person who will engage in such tyrannical behavior. My own view is that the election should be accepted on the basis of majority rule. However, the tyrannical, immoral, or illegal actions of an elected official should not be accepted. So, if Trump wins the 2016 election fair and square, then he would be my president. If he started implementing his various absurd, immoral, illegal and perhaps even unconstitutional harebrained schemes, then I would certainly not accept these schemes. This opposition would be based in part on Locke’s view of tyranny and in part on John Stuart Mill’s discussion of the tyranny of the majority. The gist of both is that a ruler acts wrongly if he uses the power of office in a way that is not for the good of the people or imposes on the liberty of others without the justification that it prevents harm to others.

So, if Trump gets elected, he will be my president. I will stay here—and will certainly do what I can to oppose his likely attempts to do awful, immoral, and illegal things. Oddly, I think that the Republican controlled congress will be on my side in most of these matters.


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Trumping Populism

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 11, 2016

I think that Trump would be awful as a President. While I could grind through my ideological, moral and philosophical disagreements with him, my main practical concern is that he would simply be rather bad at the job. The first reason is that he has no experience in political leadership. While he has run a business (with many failures), being a business leader is rather different from being a political leader. To use an analogy: I have years of experience teaching philosophy but this does not qualify me to teach, for example chemistry or even a subject closer to philosophy such as history. The second is that Trump has not presented any developed plans or proposals and the ones he has advanced are patently absurd. The third is that Trump seems to lack even a basic understanding of critical matters such as international law, international events, the rules governing the military and so many more things. While Trump makes sweeping claims that bring cheers, he does not seem to accept that he is making claims that are untrue and while not logically impossible, are practically impossible. In sum, Trump is not qualified or suitable for the office.

As much as it pains me, Trump does deserve some praise for what he has managed to do. First, he has made the Republican party live what it has become, in full view of the voters. Second, he has launched a successful campaign against the political establishment by appealing to the people. While I disagree with Trump, it is good to see a complacent political machine knocked off balance. If only we could see something similar happen to the Democrats. To be fair, Bernie has been trying to kick the machine and I think it might have shuddered just a bit.

Third, he has captured a bolt of the lightning of American anger and fear; thus giving voice to the rage of those who have long been ignored. I think that he is getting people to turn the right anger in the wrong direction, but he speaks for those who have been effectively abandoned by the current system to a degree that none of the other Republicans can match.

Fourth, he has energized American participation in politics to a level that has not been seen in a long time. Currently, he has energized the Republicans but there is a chance he will energize Democrats and Independents to vote—most likely against him. He has made more people care about politics and has even, I must concede, made people believe that it is worth getting involved. While I certainly hope that he does not succeed, I must commend him for getting so many out of the pit of apathy that has become the norm in American politics.

It is worth considering that Trump does not deserve much credit for this. It could be that people were ready to reject the establishment and motivated to become politically active and Trump just happened to be the guy that got the attention. That said, somebody has to be the guy (or gal) that the voters rally behind. Trump is, no matter what one might think of him, that guy.

It has been claimed that Trump cannot beat Hillary or Sanders; that the polls show he will lose in the general. As others have pointed out, Trump was never supposed to get this far. So it is unwise to count him out. Trump actually does have a path to the White House.

First, Trump needs to keep the remaining candidates in the race so that they keep splitting the vote. If he can do this, he is likely to keep ahead of all the others. Second, Trump needs to be ready to fight it out at the convention. If he does not get the automatic win, the Republican establishment might try to rob him—which would be a disaster for the party in many ways. Third, Trump needs the usual low voter turnout among those who are likely to vote for the Democrat. While Sanders has an enthusiastic group of supporters, they tend to be the folks who are not reliable voters. Also, to be honest, neither Hillary nor Bernie are really lighting the base on fire—though Bernie does have some devoted folks. So, there will probably be the usual weak turnout of Democrats—unless they are set afire by fear of Trump. Fourth, Trumps needs a high voter turnout among the folks who will vote for him. Trump does not need to win a majority of registered voters—he just needs a majority of the minority who actually vote. Trump can, I think, do this—he has enthusiastic supporters who have turned out to support him. They will almost certainly vote in the general election. Put simply, Democrat apathy + Trump enthusiasm= President Trump. As always, the beauty of democracy is that it is the best political system for giving us what we deserve.


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The Trumpernaut, Truth & Anger

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 24, 2016

When Donald Trump threw his hair into the presidential ring, the pundits predicted that he would burn brightly and then rapidly fade away. They were wrong. As Trump kept Trumping along, the pundits kept predicting that the establishment candidates would surge past him. As this is being written, Trump is riding high on victories in North Carolina and Nevada—thus proving the pundits wrong once again. Jeb, of course, has gone home to make some guacamole.

Trump’s continued success is certainly interesting from the standpoint of politics but also from that of psychology and even philosophy. After all, figuring out why he is doing so well and how this is likely to impact the future of politics are matters well worth considering.

Trumps detractors, which seems to include the entire Republican establishment, point to his alleged negative qualities. Trump is regarded as being a liar—or at least a relentless speaker of untruths. This won him Politifact’s Lie of the Year. He is also seen as a racist and a bully. Those who focus on substance are rather disappointed by the Donald: he seems to lack any substantive plans and policies. Instead, he makes outlandish claims about beating everyone, about getting Mexico to pay for a giant wall, and about banning Muslims from the United States. Given that he has never held political office and has an impressive string of business disasters to his name, this is not particularly surprising.

The usual narrative is that Trump is winning despite these alleged negative qualities and many commentators still cling to the hope that Trump will flare out and slam into the ground. While this has some appeal, I have argued before that Trump is doing well because of these qualities rather than despite them. One reason for this, as I argued in a previous essay, is that the Republican Party and its allies lovingly crafted a political environment that is well suited to Trump. Another reason is that there has been a change in the political mood of the country which makes the niche forged by the Republicans even more ideal for Trump. In this environment, his qualities are superb adaptations for success. As such, it is no wonder that he is doing so well. I will now turn to a brief discussion of how these traits fit the political ecosystem and are enabling Trump to thrive.

Trump majestically handles his untruths by doubling or even tripling down on them. His brashness and confidence is likely to be very refreshing to voters accustomed to weak and insincere apologies on the part of other politicians. As such, even his untruths make him appear strong and decisive in the eyes of some voters. His bullying also makes him appear strong; especially since it is easy to mistake the bluster of a bully for real strength. Trump’s alleged racism and sexism also make him appear defiant and strong—he is regarded as being brave enough to stand up to the bogeyperson that is the PC movement. This ties nicely into his ability to appeal to the fears of some of the population: they want a strong man to protect them from what scares them. Even when the fears are ill-founded and fundamentally irrational.

The appeal of Trump’s lack of experience in politics is very easy to explain. In addition to the concerted effort to discredit the very idea of government on the part of many conservatives, Congress endeavors to do all it can to disappoint and annoy the American people. Thus, while the idea of getting medical care from someone with no medical experience would seem crazy, the idea of having a president with no experience in any political office strikes many as appealing. Presumably the reasoning is that being an experienced politician simply makes a person worse. To use an analogy, a person would not want an experienced criminal handling their money. They would prefer someone who has never been involved in crime.

Trump’s lack of substantive policy positions and the absence of anything that could sensibly be called a plan would seem to be problematic to explain as appealing to people. However, it is easy enough to do this. First, the Republicans have bashed Obama for thinking too much, for being too professorial, and not being bold and decisive (that is, not rushing in to do something). As such, Trump’s lack of thought, failure to plan and promises to “do something” are all very appealing. This ties nicely into the appeal of doing something, even if it is wrong. Somewhat ironically, this is what helped spell the end of Jeb Bush. While Bush is a moderate conservative, he seems very Obama-like in regards to being a calm, soft-spoken man with a plan. This is exactly what Republicans have been told to hate.

Second, planning and thinking are seen as contrary to what a strong man of action would do—as such, Trump’s vague “plans” and his bold assertions about winning make him seem even stronger. After all, only weak people need to think about what they will do and have a plan. The strong can just bash away at things until they break.

Third, Trump is promising people what they want to hear. Somewhat ironically, laying out the plan of how he would, for example, get the Mexicans to pay for the wall would make his claims far less plausible. Laying out a plan would cause people to think about the process, which runs the risk of making them realize there is no way he can do what he claims. By making bold promises and avoiding any planning, he allows people to share the fantasy with him.

In closing, the fact that Trump lacks quality and substance yet is winning should be no surprise. One has only to consider McDonalds, the Transformer movies and the Kardashians to realize that success and substance can be complete strangers.



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Apple, the FBI & Backdoors

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 19, 2016

Data breaches, hacking and device theft are a routine part of modern life. In order to help defend customers, Apple and Google added very effective security features to their phone operating systems. American law enforcement, who had grown accustomed to easy access to the treasure trove of evidence that is a smartphone, were generally dismayed by this—they could no longer get Apple or Google to unlock a phone because the phones were effectively unlockable.

In the light of revelations about the extreme ineffectiveness, egregious incompetence and privacy violations on the part of the state security apparatus, the public was generally in favor of the strong encryption offered by Apple and Google. The FBI, however, thinks it has found an ideal rhetorical tool to exploit against encryption: the murders in San Bernardino. The FBI has claimed that the work iPhone of one of the alleged attackers contains critical evidence and a judge has demanded that Apple write a special version of its iOS to enable the FBI to crack the phone. Apple, which has cooperated fully with the investigation to this point, has refused to create a means of breaking iPhone encryption. The company has made its case via a letter to the customers.

Since people have an irrational fear of domestic terrorism vastly out of proportion to the actual threat level, the FBI has chosen wisely with this case. They can try to make use of scare tactics and appeal to fear to get the public to unwisely side against Apple. Since I have argued at length against backdoors in general, I will not rehash those general, rational arguments here. Instead, I will focus on the situation at hand. Since I am not a lawyer, I will stick primarily to the ethics of the matter and leave the legal wrangling to those who have billable hours.

The standard argument in favor of giving the state access to private information, be it on a phone or written on paper, is based on security: the state needs that information in order to protect citizens from harm. In the case of the iPhone, the argument is presumably that the phone contains information the FBI needs to conduct its investigation. Since the person who knew the passcode is dead, the FBI cannot compel that person into allowing access to the phone. Either the FBI lacks the means to get into iPhones or has elected not to reveal that capacity, so they need to turn to Apple to access the data.

Others in law enforcement advance similar arguments: they have many phones that they think contains data relevant to cases and the argument from public safety should, they think, override all other concerns. Since the focus of the FBI and law enforcement in general is on finding and prosecuting criminals to protect the public, it makes sense that they would see the matter from that perspective. Apple and Google, as they see it, are helping the criminals and terrorists by providing them with unbreakable vaults for their data.

The argument from safety should not be simply dismissed.  After all, the primary function of the state is to protect its citizens and the usual utilitarian moral argument can be made in favor of endeavors aimed at reducing privacy in order to increase security.

The easy and obvious counter to this security argument is another security argument. If the United States government and law enforcement were the only ones who could access such data and could do so only via due process of the law, then it would be reasonable to allow such access. Unfortunately, such access cannot be limited to the United States and history has shown that the state has a rather vague notion of due process. Because of this, it seems likely that far more harm would be done by getting on the road the FBI wants Apple to walk. While law enforcement would, it is true, be able to crack some phones and get some information that would prove useful, this would be outweighed by the harm done to citizens by criminals and foreign states. After all, if law enforcement can get into an iPhone, then so can China and criminal hackers. It could, of course, be argued that my estimate is in error—that the harms prevented by allowing law enforcement into phones will vastly outweigh the harms that will occur from hackers getting into the phones of citizens and the harm done when foreigners decide to go with competing phones rather than risk using an American iPhone or Android phone. However, given the damage done by hacking and the fact that law enforcement can use other means of investigation (such as what they did before smart phones), this does not seem to be the case.

Another approach is to make use of stock conservative arguments against government overreach and in favor of rights. Conservatives routinely argue against government regulation, in favor of small government, against government intrusion and in favor of constitutional rights. While these arguments are usually employed against environmental regulations and in defense of gun rights, they would also apply with slight modifications to the matter at hand. Libertarians who grasp the concept of consistency are in favor of such encryption and against such intrusions into privacy rights. Unfortunately, some conservatives throw away their espoused principles in the face of overblown fears about terrorists and criminals. However, these principles need to be applied consistently and, if they were, conservatives should oppose such government overreach and intrusions into the freedom of businesses and into constitutional rights.

As a final point, consider the stock argument in favor of gun rights that citizens need guns in order to engage in self-defense and to do so even against the tyranny of the state. The same sort of argument would seem to apply in the case of phone encryption: it serves as a digital defense against criminals and terrorists, but also as a very real defense of the tyranny of the state. So, if citizens have a right to firearms to defend against the forcible acts of criminals and state tyranny in the physical world, they should have the right to encryption to defend against criminals and state tyranny in the digital world. What is needed is a suitable slogan on par with the NRA’s famous line about guns: “I’ll give you my data when you take my phone from my cold, dead hands.”


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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 3, 2016

The Iowa caucuses brought some surprises: Trump lost to Cruz, Rubio took third and Sanders almost tied Clinton. While Trump was the predicted winner and leading in the polls, his defeat seems easy enough to explain. While Trump is a master reality show star and showman, Cruz is an experienced politician who knows how to operate effectively within the political system. While getting votes is dependent on political popularity, it is also a matter of ensuring that people vote and Cruz seems have done a better job at this task. As such, while Trump was probably more popular, he was not more popular among those who voted. Trump is, interestingly enough, now threatening to sue Cruz for cheating in Iowa. Assuming that Cruz did not cheat and assuming that he won through superior political organization, then Trump will need to match Cruz in this regard or face the very real risk of losing the nomination. That said, it has been claimed that Cruz’s appeal to the evangelicals lead him to a victory over Trump–something that Cruz cannot count on across the country.

What is perhaps most interesting is that the pundits are claiming Rubio also had a victory on the grounds that he moved into a very close third. Rubio is the clear establishment candidate at this point and he seems well-positioned to pick up the supporters of the doomed establishment candidates, such as Jeb Bush. With the backing of the Republican party machinery, Rubio could come out ahead of Trump and Cruz. That said, the anti-establishment sentiment should not be dismissed: if Cruz can maintain the appearance of being a political outsider while using the skill set he has developed as a career politician, he stands an excellent chance of having the best of both worlds.

While Sanders is a long-time senator, he is regarded as an authentic outsider. This is in strong contrast with Hillary Clinton. She has a well-established reputation as a supreme insider and is certainly not known for her authenticity. The challenge for Sanders is maintaining enthusiasm in the face of the Clinton political machine. Fortunately for Bernie, we have seen that the Clinton machine can be defeated and Hillary is no doubt worried that 2016 might look like  a repeat of 2008. Only with an old white socialist rather than a young black moderate in the starring role.

We might see Rubio going up against Sanders in the general election. If so, I would predict Rubio by a slight margin. Clinton would probably beat Rubio. Cruz and Trump, I think, would lose to either Clinton or Sanders. But, my predictions are probably wrong-much is up in the air, which makes matters interesting.

Professor Gun Bans

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 1, 2016

While all states allow for concealed carry, schools have generally been areas of exemption. As this is being written, my adopted state of Florida is considering a bill that would make concealed carry legal on the campuses of the state’s public universities. Some other states have already passed such laws. While I have written about concealed campus carry before, my focus here is on professors who refuse to allow guns in their classrooms and offices.

While I am not a lawyer, I am inclined to believe that professors lack the legal authority to impose such bans. This is, presumably, something the courts will be hashing out in upcoming lawsuits—perhaps including suits alleging a violation of a constitutionally protected right. Since I am not a lawyer, I will leave the legal matters to the experts. Instead, I will focus on the moral aspects of the subject.

One moral argument that could be made in favor of the professors is that they have the right to ban things they regard as morally offensive from their classrooms and offices. So, a professor who is morally opposed to guns could refuse to allow them. This is analogous in some ways to religious freedom arguments used to justify a business not providing coverage of contraception or those deployed against allowing same sex-marriage. The idea in all these cases is that the moral interest of one person or group overrides that of another, thus justifying the freedom of one over another. In the case of guns, it is the right of the professor to teach and hold office hours in a gun-free environment that overrides the right of others to carry guns.

One reply to this argument, as is used in the religious freedom cases, is that the right of the professor to restrict the right of the students is not justified. That is, their right to carry a weapon trumps her right to be in a weapon free zone. This would be somewhat similar to how the right of a same-sex couple to marry trumps the right of religious people to live in a same-sex marriage free country.

Another reply to this argument is to draw an analogy that is aimed at showing the absurdity of such a professorial ban. Imagine a professor who has a deep and abiding moral opposition to birth control and wants to ban them from her classroom and office. This includes birth control that is being “concealed” in the body (for example, a woman on the pill)—while the professor cannot see it, the mere presence is morally intolerable to her. While the professor has the right to keep students from fornicating in class, she would not seem to have the right to ban the presence of birth control. A similar argument could be made with smart phones: a professor can forbid their use in class because they can be disruptive and be used to cheat, but he cannot refuse to allow students to have them in their backpacks or pockets. As such, professors do not seem to have the right to ban guns simply because they are morally offended by them.

A better moral argument is based on the matter of safety: a professor could be concerned about people being shot (intentionally or accidentally). Colleagues of mine have also spoken about the chilling effect of allowing guns on campus: people, it is claimed, would be afraid to discuss contentious issues. It is also claimed that some professors would be inclined to grade easier to avoid getting shot.

There certainly are legitimate safety concerns about allowing guns on campus. However, there are two obvious points worth considering. The first is that guns are already allowed many places and people do not seem generally inclined to avoid contentious discussions or to not do their jobs properly because someone might shoot them with a (up to the murder attempt) legally carried gun.  As such, unless campuses are simply special places, this concern does not warrant a special ban on campus carry. Put another away, if guns are allowed almost everywhere else, then without a relevant difference argument, they should be allowed on campuses. The second, as I point out to my colleagues, people can very easily carry guns illegally on campus. If someone intends to kill a professor over a bad grade or a heated discussion (which has happened) they can do so. Campuses are generally quite open and I have never seen anyone checked for weapons at any university. A professor ban would certainly not provide a greater degree of safety—even if the professor was able to enforce such an almost certainly illegal ban.

Interesting, the state legislatures who pass concealed carry on campus laws generally forbid people to bring guns to the legislature. While this shows inconsistency, it does not show the law is wrong. It does, however, point towards a relevant difference argument—perhaps the campus is relevantly similar to the legislature.

My view is that there is not really a compelling reason to walk around campus with a gun and I am concerned about safety issues. However, I do not have the moral right to ban guns from my classroom or office. In fact, I would plan on carrying one myself.


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