A Philosopher's Blog

Protests & Patriotism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 7, 2016

Colin Kaepernick stirred up considerable controversy by protesting racial oppression in America during the national anthem. His main concern is with the oppression that he claims occurs in America.  While most of his critics acknowledge that he is within his legal rights, they believe that he should not exercise them in this manner. I will consider some of the objections against Kaepernick and also address some of the broader moral issues raised by this protest.

One tactic used against Kaepernick’s protest is to assert that his protest against oppression is invalidated because, as a rich and privileged NFL player, he is not personally oppressed. This approach is flawed in at least two ways. If the intent is to reject his claim that oppression exists by attacking him, then this is a mere ad hominem fallacy. This is a stock fallacy in which an attack on something about a person is taken as refuting a claim made by the person. This is a fallacy because the truth of a claim is independent of the qualities of a person making it. This is not to say that credibility is irrelevant, just that a person’s qualities do not bear on the actual truth of their claim.

This attack can also be seen as based on the view that only a victim of oppression or harm has the moral right to protest that oppression or harm. While this might have some appeal, it does seem fatally flawed. To illustrate, if this principle were accepted, then it would follow that only those killed by abortions would have the moral right to protest abortion. This would be absurd on the grounds that no protest of abortion would be possible because all those harmed by it would be dead and unable to protest. To add another illustration, only victims of crime could thus speak out against crime, which is also absurd. If the principle were taken somewhat more broadly, it would follow that only victims of cancer could try to raise awareness of cancer. As such, the claim that he is not himself oppressed has no bearing on the truth of his claims or his right to protest.

Another line of attack is to go after his character and allege that he is not sincere: he is protesting only to gain attention and bolster a flagging career. This approach can have merit in regards to the matter of whether or not he is a virtuous person. If he is not sincere and using the protest for personal gain, then he can be justly criticized on moral grounds. However, attacking him in this manner has no logical bearing on the truth of his assertions or the merit of his protest. This is just another ad hominem attack.

To use an analogy, a person who uses an opportunity to focus attention on cancer in order to engage in self-promotion is not a virtuous person, but this is irrelevant to whether or not cancer is a real problem. As such, his motivations are irrelevant to the validity of his protest.

There are those who take the approach that his protest is invalid because there is no oppression of blacks. Those who believe that oppression exists point to objective data regarding income, wealth, educational opportunities, hiring, sentencing, and so on that seem to show that oppression is both real and systematic.

Those who deny it either simply deny the data or explain it away. For example, the disproportionate arrest rates and harsher sentences are explained by alleging that blacks commit more and worse crimes than whites. Since this is an ideological issue tied to the social identity of many, the lines are rather solidly drawn: those who strongly deny the existence of oppression will generally never be convinced by data. Since they do not experience systematic oppression based on race, they also tend to claim that it does not exist because they have not experienced it—although some will claim that they have been mistreated for being white.

I do find the evidence for oppression convincing, but I am certain that those who disagree with me will not be convinced by any evidence or argument I can offer. Instead, they will attribute my belief to a distorted ideology. That said, perhaps an appeal can be made to the white people who believe that they are oppressed in various ways—they might be willing to admit that blacks are not excluded from this oppression. For example, Trump supporters often speak of how the system is rigged by the elites—they should be able to accept that there are many blacks who are also victims of these elites.  This might allow for some common ground in regards to accepting the existence of oppression in the United States. I now turn to the broader issue of whether or not it is morally acceptable to protest during the national anthem.

Critics of Kaepernick contend that protesting during the national anthem is disrespectful and most assert that this action is especially insulting to the troops. When considering the matter, it is well worth noting that the national anthem was first played at games as a means of attracting more paying customers. Given its use in this manner, it would seem somewhat problematic to attack Kaepernick for using it as an opportunity to protest. After all, he is using the opportunity to bring attention to injustice in America while its original use was simply to make more money. In this regard, he seems to have the moral high ground.

It could be replied that although it began as a marketing tool, it evolved into a sacred ritual that is being besmirched by protest. One line of criticism is that to protest during the national anthem is to disrespect the troops who died for the freedom of expression. This requires assuming that the purpose of playing the anthem at games is to honor the troops—which might be the case. However, if the troops did die for, among other rights, the freedom of expression then the exercise of that right would seem to be a legitimate means of honoring these troops. Endeavoring to silence people would seem to be an insult to those who are said to have died for the right of free expression. That said, there is certainly a reasonable moral concern in regards to decorum during the national anthem, just as there are also such concerns regarding behavior at any time. Kaepernick’s protest seems to be a very polite and respectful protest and thus does not seem problematic in this regard. Others, of course disagree.

Some of the critics merely want him to stop protesting in this manner. Others such as Trump, go beyond this and engage in a classic reply to those who criticize America: if you do not like how things are, then leave the country.

On the one hand, it could be argued that is a reasonable response. To use an analogy, if a person does not like their marriage or neighborhood, then leaving would be a good idea. Likewise, if a person does not like their country, then they should simply depart in search of one more to their liking. This view seems to fit well with the idea that one should be for their country “wrong or right” and not be critical. True patriotism, one might say, is simply accepting one’s country as it is and not engaging in protest. It is, of course, weirdly ironic that Trump is telling Kaepernick to leave, given that Trump relentlessly spews about how awful things are in America and how it needs to be made great again.

On the other hand, this response can be seen as tactic aimed at silencing criticism without considering whether the criticism has merit. Going back to the analogies to marriage and a neighborhood, a person who believes there are problems with either could be justly criticized for simply abandoning them without making any attempt to address what they dislike. A true patriot, it could be argued, would no more remain silent in the face of problems with their country than a true friend would remain silent when their friend needed an intervention. This view is, of course, not original to me. Henry David Thoreau noted that “A very few—as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men—serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.” I do not, of course, know Kaepernick’s true motivations. But, his calling attention to the problems of the United States with the expressed desire to improve America can be reasonably regarded as a patriotic act. That is, after all, what a true patriot does: they do not remain silent in the face of evil and defects, they take action to make their country both good and great.


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Trump & Racist Remarks

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 15, 2016

Donald Trump started out his presidential bid with remarks about Mexico sending rapists and criminals to the United States and then continued along what strikes many as a path of intolerance. Perhaps from a sense of nostalgia, he returned to what many regarded as sexism and engaged in a battle with  Megyn Kelly . Tapping into fears about Muslims, Trump proposed a complete ban on their entry into the United States and seemed to explore the realm of religious intolerance. Perhaps in a bid to round out intolerance, Trump tweeted what some regarded as an anti-Semitic tweet. Most recently, he got into a battle with a Muslim Gold Star Family. Because of the vast array of what seem to be intolerant statements, some have claimed that Trump is a racist, a sexist and embraces intolerance. Those who defend Trump endeavor to spin his remarks in a more positive light and engage in tortuous explanations of what Trump “really” means. Trump himself makes the point of claiming to be politically incorrect rather than intolerant to a level that constitutes racism or sexism. As might be suspected, Trumps adventures in this area are rather philosophically interesting. For the sake of focus, I will only address racism—but the arguments that follow can also be applied to intolerance in general.

One rather important issue is whether Trump’s remarks are racist or not. On the face of it, the resolution of this issue is easy. Even fellow Republicans, such as the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have labeled some of Trump’s comments as racist. Liberal critics have, of course, asserted that Trump’s remarks are racist. As noted above, Trump “defends” his remarks by saying that he is politically incorrect rather than racist. This claim is certainly worth examining.

Trump’s approach does have some appeal—there is, after all, considerable territory between political incorrectness and racism. Also, the absurd excesses of political correctness are certainly problematic and worth opposing, thus giving Trump’s defense a shadow of legitimacy. The problem with what Trump is doing can be illustrated by the following analogy. Imagine a public dinner event that is absurdly formal and rigorous in its excesses of etiquette. Such an event can be justly criticized for these absurdities and excesses and it would be reasonable to call for it to be less formal. However, it does not follow that it would be reasonable to demand that people be allowed to defecate on the plates of other guests and urinate into the wine glasses. It also does not follow that defecating on plates would be merely informal (or “etiquette incorrect”) rather than extremely rude. So, while Trump is right to challenge the excesses of political correctness, what he is doing is analogous to claiming that defecating on dinner plates is merely a loosening of formality. That is, he has gone far beyond being merely politically incorrect (not strictly adhering to the rigorous rules of behavior as set by the relevant ideology of the left) into the realm of racism. To deny this would be analogous to the person who just pooped on your plate claiming he is just being “etiquette incorrect” and denying that he did anything really rude. As such, it seems impossible to deny that Trump has made many racist remarks.

Another approach to showing that Trump’s remarks are racist is to consider how actual racists regard them. While David Duke (a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) denies being a racist, he has come out in support of Trump and has expressed his agreement with many of Trump’s remarks. The Ku Klux Klan has also endorsed Trump. The American Nazi Party has also expressed its support for Trump, noting how beneficial Trump has been for their pro-white agenda and white nationalism.  Trump also enjoys considerable support from racists in general. For those who oppose racism, the KKK and Nazism, the fact that such people see Trump as creating safe space for them to operate in is certainly worrisome.

One possible counter, and one used by these people and groups, is to claim that they are not racist. The main tactic is to claim that they are not anti-black or anti-Jew, but pro-white. This is, in many cases, a conscious effort to model their replies on those used by other people who assert pride in their ethnicity. This is certainly an interesting tactic and if a person can claim Latino pride or claim to be pro-black without being racist, then it would seem that pro-white and white-pride groups can do the same.

The usual reply to this is that while a person could be pro-white without being racist, groups like the KKK and the Nazis have a well-established record of being hate groups. As such, their protestations that they are not anti-others but just pro-white are greeted with well-deserved skepticism. There is also the fact that such groups tend to not limit themselves to pro-white rhetoric and pro-white behavior—they tend to still embrace the anti.

In light of the above, it would seem beyond doubt that Trump has made racist remarks. As to whether Trump himself is racist or not, that is another matter.



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Fear of Immigrants & Refugees

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 3, 2016

English: Immigrants entering the United States...

Though the United States prides itself as being a nation of immigrants and the home of the brave, base appeals to the fear of immigrants and refugees has become a stock political tool. The use of this tool is, of course, neither new nor limited to the United States.

To be fair, there is some legitimacy to the fear expressed towards allowing in immigrants and refugees. This is because almost any large group of people will contain a certain percentage of potential murderers, rapists, thieves and terrorists. As such, allowing a significant number of people into a country will almost certainly result in some increase in misdeeds. Thus, it is not untrue to say that allowing in immigrants and refugees would increase the dangers faced by the citizens of a country.

While demagogues and pundits generally do not operate on the basis of consistently applied principles, restricting immigrants and refugees can be justified by using a principle. In this case, the principle would be that people should be banned from entering a country if their arrival would result in an increase in the dangers faced by the current citizens of that country. Since allowing a significant number of refugees and immigrants would almost certainly allow in at least some who would do harm, then this principle justifies such restrictions. While this does allow for a principled basis for restriction, it runs into an interesting problem if it is applied consistently. This sort of consistency problem is a common one—which is why demagogues and pundits generally loath and avoid consistency. This specific consistency problem is as follows.

Every country faces waves of immigrants that arrive unregulated and unchecked. While most of them are not a threat, a percentage of them engage in harmful acts ranging from minor thefts to mass shootings. Oddly enough, no politician has the courage to propose restrictions on these invaders and many actually encourage the arrival of more of these potential threats. I am, of course, speaking of immigrants from the womb. Each new generation includes a certain percentage of potential murderers, rapists, thieves and terrorists and thus presents a clear and present danger to the current citizens of the country. Using the same reasoning that justifies keeping out immigrants and refugees (that a certain percentage could present a threat), these invaders should be kept out of the country.

This suggestion should, of course, be greeted with snorts of derision and mockery: it would be absurd to impose a ban on such arrivals merely because some small percentage will become dangerous to the current citizens. The challenge is to reject restrictions on births despite the risk of allowing new potential criminals and terrorists to enter the country while insisting harsh restrictions or bans on immigrants and refugees on the basis of the slight risk they present is acceptable.

The most obvious approach is to point out that the potential rapists and terrorists who are born here are children of existing citizens and thus different from refugees and immigrants from other countries. This seems a bit unfair—where a person is born is entirely a matter of chance and is completely unearned. We do not, after all, earn or select our parents. Thus, restricting immigrants and refugees because some small percentage will present a threat while allowing unrestricted reproduction that will produce people that will present a threat seems to be grounded only in the vagaries of chance. If there is great concern about the threat presented by incoming people, then that threat must be addressed using the same standards on the pain of inconsistency.

It could be countered that immigrants and refugees present a greater threat: the percentage of murders, rapists and terrorists is higher among the vetted and reviewed immigrants than among Americans born here. However, this is clearly not the case. This should come as no surprise, given that the immigrants and refugees are vetted and checked very thoroughly by the United States. It is true, of course, that the system is not perfect—so some will slip through.

I might, at this point, be accused of wanting to impose restrictions on reproduction. This is not the case. My point is, rather, to show that the idea of putting harsh restrictions or imposing complete bans on immigrants and refugees because some tiny percentage might turn out to cause harm is as absurd as restricting or banning reproduction becomes some children will certainly grow up to be criminals or terrorists. This is not to say that there should not be screening of immigrants and refugees; there should be. After all, we generate so many domestic criminals and terrorists that it is sensible to try to avoid needlessly and carelessly importing more.


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The DNC & Fairness

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2016

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont

Thanks to WikiLeaks (and possibly Russia) the Democratic National Committee’s formerly secret emails are now publicly available. As should surprise no one, the emails show that the DNC looked down on Sanders and suggest that the leadership unfairly favored Hillary Clinton. The main fallout from the leak has been the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Shultz. Shultz, who represents my adopted state of Florida, is also facing a challenger to her position—a challenger endorsed by Bernie Sanders. These revelations do raise some important concerns.

While the Democratic and Republican parties are often wrongly seen as being part of the government, they are private organizations. As such, they operate by their own rules. They are also, obviously, political parties and that means that political dealing is what they do. As such, it could be argued that the partisanship and mockery of the DNC, though certainly worthy of condemnation, are well within the bounds of legitimate behavior for such an entity. After all, most of the Republican party leadership was vehemently opposed to Trump and there was extensive maneuvering to stop Trump. It is, however, to the credit of the Republicans that they conducted their opposition in the open and to Trump’s face rather than via electronic whispering in the digital shadows.

While the DNC did not do anything illegal (as far as is known now), the emails do indicate behavior that should be morally condemned. This, of course, rests on the assumption that the party machinery of the DNC should remain professional and neutral during the primary season. This is, in turn, based on the assumption that the primary process should (as Trump and Bernie both contended) be democratic and based on majority rule in selecting the candidate.

This view can be countered by arguing that the DNC (and the RNC) has purpose other than ensuring majority rule. One might be to select the candidate that has the best chance of winning, regardless of how the people vote. Another might be to select the candidate that matches the goals of the party elite. There are, of course, other possibilities.

My view, which could be quite wrong, is that the DNC and RNC should serve as neutral organizers for the decision making process on the part of the voters. That is, they should (in this very specific context) function in a way analogous to the state run election process and ensure a fair and accurate vote. This is the approach that most matches the democratic ideal.

The emails seem to indicate that the DNC did not take a neutral stance. However, it is not clear if this expressed bias had a significant impact on the outcome. That is, that Sanders would have been the candidate but for the shenanigans of the DNC. On the one hand, it can be argued that Hillary beat Bernie by such a wide margin that the alleged machinations of the DNC were not significant. On the other hand, it could be argued that Bernie was close enough to Hillary that he could have won but for these alleged machinations. If the DNC’s bias did keep Bernie from the nomination, then it could be argued that they interfered with the will of the people, thus potentially making Hillary an illegitimate candidate. This could be countered by arguing that even if the DNC sided with Hillary, the voters still picked her—thus making her legitimate, albeit a bit shady.

Even if the DNC’s alleged bias did not change the outcome (that is, Hillary would have been nominated under the auspices of a neutral DNC), such bias is still problematic. This can be illustrated by using two analogies. First, imagine a hiring committee that has been tasked with selecting a philosophy professor. Even if a biased committee selects the same candidate that a neutral committee would have selected, professional ethics requires that the committee be neutral. Second, consider a football game. Even if biased refereeing still results in a victory by the team that would have won under neutral refereeing, the bias on the part of the referees would still be morally unacceptable.

These analogies can certainly be countered—after all, hiring committees and referees are supposed to be neutral parties while the DNC can be regarded as an interested participant in the process (this takes the matter back to the purpose of the DNC in regards to primaries). If the DNC is looked at as being analogous to a coach rather than a referee, its job would be to get the best players in the game to go up against the opposing team rather than being concerned with neutrality and fairness. So, it comes down to the proper purpose of the DNC (and RNC).

As a closing point, the relevant people in DNC made two classic mistakes. The first was engaging in what seems to be reprehensible and unprofessional behavior. This is a moral flaw. The second was to engage in this behavior via email. This is a flaw in intelligence: using email is like sending a postcard—whatever is on it can be read. Also, they should have known that any target worth hacking will be hacked. If one wants to be shady and smart, then do not write down the evil plans. Better yet, don’t be shady.


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Politics & Plagiarism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 27, 2016

During the 2016 Republican National Convention Melania Trump delivered a speech that plagiarized the speech given by Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. As always, the responses tended to correspond with ideology: the left largely condemned and mocked it; some on the right downplayed and even defended it. As a professor and an author, I condemn plagiarism and have a few students fail themselves each year by doing what Melania’s speechwriter did. I do not fail students; I merely record their failure.

After my initial mild condemnation of the plagiarism, I came to what is an obvious realization: almost all political speeches are acts of plagiarism. I am not claiming that the vast majority of speechwriters are stealing the words and ideas of others; the plagiarism is of a different sort and this will be clear with a bit of explanation. Put a bit roughly, plagiarism occurs when someone tries to claim that substantial words and ideas are their own when they actually belong to another. By this simplistic definition, when a politician (or spouse) delivers a political speech that was written by someone else as if they were presenting their own words and ideas, then they are plagiarizing. Unless, of course, they engage in proper citation practices. As such, Melania Trump was engaged in double plagiarism: trying to pass off as her own the words stolen from Michelle Obama’s speech by the speechwriter.

An obvious reply to my assertion is that nearly all politicians have speechwriters and the commonness of the practice thus makes it acceptable. This is, obviously enough, the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice: the mere fact that something is commonly done does not make it right. It is, however, fair to point out that if nearly all politicians engage in this practice, then it follows that it would be unfair to single out any particular politician for special criticism.

Another, and better, reply is that speechwriters merely assist the politician in presenting their ideas and words. To use the obvious analogy, when the editors suggest changes to my writing and I follow them, I am not plagiarizing from the editors—this is a legitimate and proper part of the writing process. To use another analogy, if a student goes to a university writing center and gets assistance with improving their paper, that is not plagiarism.  Likewise, if a politician has others edit their speech, then that is also legitimate.

This is a point both fair and just, provided that the speechwriters are actually speech editors who assist the politician in crafting their speech. While there is considerable gray area between assistance and plagiarism, there is also a clear zone of plagiarism—the most obvious being a speech written entirely by another. While I cannot draw a clear line that would apply in all cases, a sensible consideration of amount contributed by the alleged author can resolve questions about plagiarism.

While plagiarism is condemned in academics and copyright violations are illegal, it might be claimed that it does not really matter that politicians almost never write their own speeches. After all, only the most naïve or ignorant would think that the words a politician reads from a teleprompter or paper are their own. However, I contend that it does matter and especially matters when a politician is running for office. I will focus on that specific scenario in the discussion that follows.

In theory, one point of a speech by a political candidate is to inform the voters of their views, ideas and policies. As such, the politician should write their speech, Otherwise, the politician is like an actor in a commercial who is endeavoring to sell someone else’s product using a script written by another. This can be countered by contending that a person could have excellent ideas and policies, yet lack the writing skills to craft an effective speech—thus the need for speechwriters.

While I would certainly put an “F” on a paper written this way, it does seem acceptable in the case of politics. To use an analogy, if a skilled doctor who was a poor communicator had her more eloquent assistant explain things to me, then there would be no problem: what matters is not who crafts the exact words, but the information behind them.

That said, there is more to a campaign speech than just putting forth ideas—it also supposed to reveal more about the politician such as wit, skill and character. While it is obviously true that the audience does get to see the politician’s skill at delivering words and timing, this merely reveals the politician’s skill as an actor and orator if the words are not their own. This creates the Cyrano de Bergerac problem: the voters are won over by the fine words of the writer, yet think they “love” the person speaking them. The voters are not, as Trump would rightly say, getting authenticity—they are getting an actor mouthing the words of another. Thus, when a politician reads a speech written by another, voters learn about the actor’s skills and not the actual person.

Some might counter this view by pointing out that what matters is actions—what a person does. After all, a politician could be a skilled writer, yet awful at the job. This is certainly a reasonable point: no one should be judged by words alone (especially when the words are not their own). It is also reasonable to point out that reading a prepared speech is relatively easy—the real challenge lies in a Socratic engagement. This is something that the vast majority of politicians are loath to do for they know how it would go for them. This is why the presidential debates in the United States are not actual debates—just people giving short speeches that have probably been pre-written for them. What, in general, the voters see is a spokesperson for a product that is themselves spewing advertising copy written by someone else. So, the voters have no clear idea of what they are actually buying.


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Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 8, 2016

English: NRA (National Recovery Administration...

Put a bit simply, a silencer is a device attached to a gun for the purpose of suppressing the sound it makes. This is usually done to avoid drawing attention to the shooter. This makes an excellent analogy for what happens to proposals for gun regulation: the sound is quickly suppressed so as to ensure that attention moves on to something new.

Part of this suppression is deliberate. After each mass shooting, the NRA and other similar groups step up pressure on the politicians they influence to ensure that new regulations are delayed, defeated or defanged. While it is tempting to cast the NRA as a nefarious player that subverts democracy, the truth seems to be that the NRA has mastered the democratic process: it organizes and guides very motivated citizens to give money (which is used to lobby politicians) and to contact their representatives in the government. This has proven vastly more effective than protests, sit-ins and drum circles. While it is true that the NRA represents but a fraction of the population, politics is rather like any sport: you have to participate to win. While most citizens do not even bother to vote, NRA member turnout is apparently quite good—thus they gain influence by voting. This is, of course, democracy. Naturally, another tale could be told of the NRA and its power and influence. A tale that presents the NRA and its members as subverting the will of the majority.

Certain pundits and politicians also engage in suppression. One standard tactic is, after a shooting, to claim that it is “too soon” to engage in discussion and lawmaking. Rather, the appropriate response involves moments of silence and prayer. While it is appropriate to pay respects to the wounded and dead, there is a difference between doing this and trying to run out the clock with this delaying tactic. Those that use it know quite well that if the discussion can be delayed, interest will fade and along with it the chances of any action being taken.

It is, in fact, appropriate to take action as soon as possible. To use the obvious analogy, if a fire is ravaging through a neighborhood, then the time to put out that fire is now. This way there will be less need of moments of silence and prayers for victims.

Another stock tactic is to accuse those proposing gun regulation of playing politics and exploiting the tragedy for political points or to advance an agenda. This approach can have some moral merit—if a person is engaged in a Machiavellian exploitation of some awful event (be it a mass shooting, a terrorist attack or a wave of food poisoning) without any real concern for the suffering of others, then that person would be morally awful. That said, the person could still be acting rightly, albeit for all the wrong reasons. This would be in terms of the consequences, which could be quite good despite the problematic motivations. For example, if a politician cynically exploited the harm inflicted by lead contaminated water in order to gain national attention, then that person would hardly be a good person. However, if this resulted in changes that significantly reduced lead poisoning in the United States, then consequences would certainly seem good and desirable.

It is also worth considering that using an awful event to motivate change for the better could result from laudable motives and a recognition of how human psychology generally works. To use an analogy, a person who loves someone who just suffered from a lifestyle inflicted heart attack could use that event to get the person to change her lifestyle and do so for commendable reasons. After all, people are most likely to do something when an awful event is fresh in their minds; hence this is actually the ideal time to address a problem—which leads to the final part of the discussion.

Although active suppression can be an effective tactic, it often relies on the fact that interest in a matter fades as time passes—this is why those opposed to new gun regulation use delaying tactics. They know that public attention will shift and fade.

On the one hand, the human tendency to lose interest can be regarded as a bad thing. As Merlin said in Excalibur, “for it is the doom of men that they forget.” In the case of mass shootings and gun violence, people quickly forget an incident—at least until another incident reminds them. This allows a problem to persist and is why action needs to be taken as soon as possible.

On the other hand, our forgetting is often our salvation. If the memory of fear and pain did not fade over time, they would be as wounds that did not heal. Just as a person would bleed to death physically from wounds that never healed, a person would bleed out emotionally if memory did not fade.

To use another analogy, if the mind is like a ship and memory is like a cargo, just as a ship that could never lighten its load would plunge to the ocean floor, a person that could never lighten her emotional load would be dragged into the great abyss of emotions and thus be ruined. Thus, forgetting is both our doom and our salvation. Of course, we would have far less need to forget if we remembered what we need to fix. And fixed it.


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Orlando & Terrorism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 13, 2016

On June 12, 2016 fifty people died in an Orlando Nightclub. 49 of these were victims of the 50th, who has been identified as Omar Mateen. This is the latest and the largest mass shooting in the United States. As always happens in such cases, there are inquiries into motives and, most importantly, into how such a slaughter was able to take place.

Mr. Mateen, the alleged shooter, was a 29 year old American who worked for the G4S security company. It has been claimed that he committed domestic violence against his then wife (although no charges were apparently filed), that he spoke of his hatred of blacks, gays and Jews, and a coworker has alleged that he often spoke of wanting to kill people. He was investigated by the F.B.I. in 2013 and 2014 in regards to suspected connections to terrorism. These investigations failed to yield adequate evidence for action to be taken against him and he was able to legally purchase the weapons used in the attack.

This mass shooting, like others before it, give rise to an important epistemic question: how can we know when a person will become a mass shooter (or terrorist)? While it is certainly tempting to infer that expressions of hate and expressed desires to engage in violence are good indicators, they are not. A little reflection and a little time on the internet show that hate is abundant as are expressions of desires to engage in violence. The vast majority of these people never make the move from expression to mass shooting. As such, while this sort of behavior is an indicator, it is a very weak indicator. What would be needed would be clearer evidence that a person is preparing to go from thought to action.

It might be believed that signs of connection to terrorism (such as expressing support or having some personal ties to terrorists) are good indicators. While this is also tempting, there are many who express support of terror (be it for ISIS or for using terror against minorities, women, LGBT people, etc.) yet never escalate from expressing support to murdering. There are also people who have personal ties with terrorists who themselves never become terrorists—in fact, these people include some who condemn terrorism.  As such, what would be needed is clearer evidence that there will be a transition from support or connections to violent action.

It could be claimed that there was adequate evidence Mateen was going to become a shooter and the F.B.I. failed in its investigation. This is, of course, a factual matter and one that would be addressed by investigating the investigation. While some might be inclined to believe that the F.B.I was sloppy or incompetent, it seems quite likely that there simply was not enough evidence to justify taking action against him. As it stands, this seems to be the case, despite Mateen allegedly calling 911 to express his loyalty to ISIS (and a mishmash of other groups that actually oppose each other). While ISIS has been happy to claim Mateen’s expression of fealty, this seems to be an affiliation of opportunity: there is currently no evidence that ISIS directed the attack nor evidence that Mateen had any substantial prior connection with ISIS. As such, the best hypothesis at this time is that Mateen was seeking to transform a hateful mass murder to a hateful mass murder for a cause and that ISIS was once again happy for the gift of blood.

It could be asserted that action should be taken against people who might engage in a mass shooting or who might become terrorists. In the case of Mateen, it could be claimed that the F.B.I. should have acted against him even without adequate evidence. This is where the discussion switches from epistemology (what can be known) to morality (what should be done).

The matter of determining the level of warranted suspicion that justifies taking action against a person is a rather important moral concern. On the side of public safety, the stock argument is that by acting on a relative low threshold of warranted suspicion, the public is kept safer. This is a stock utilitarian argument in which the morality of an action is a matter of weighing the harms against the benefits. In the case of Mateen and others, the claim would be that if action had only been taken on the basis of the available evidence, then the murders might have been averted. As a specific example, if expressing hatred of the sort linked to mass shootings resulted in a person being legally banned from owning guns, then there would be less likelihood of a mass shooting occurring. As another example, if the state could detain people on the basis of limited evidence of connections to terrorists, then terrorist attacks would be less likely to occur because more possible terrorists would be locked away (perhaps without trial).

On the side of liberty, the stock argument is that acting on a relatively low threshold would violate rights and create more harm than safety. This is also a utilitarian argument; the difference being in the assessment of harms and benefits. For example, supporters of the Second Amendment such as the NRA would be quick to claim there would be terrible harms and dangers of being able to deny people their gun rights based on the mere expression of hatred or a mere suspicion a person is going to engage in a mass shooting.  In fact, the usual claims are being presented that the shooting could have been prevented or mitigated if only more people had guns.

As another example, those who support the idea of having to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt would oppose such a low threshold of detention for suspicion that a person might engage in a mass shooting. These would tend to be people who respect the idea of the rule of law (though law can be made awful).

It can even be argued that such a low threshold policy would make the public less safe: the violation of rights and low-threshold detentions would create anger and resentment that would lead to more and not less harm. My own position is in opposition to a low threshold—the cost is not worth the gain (if any) of such an approach. In regards to the gun regulation debate that the murders have ignited (once again), I really have nothing new to say about guns—nor, does it seem, does anyone else.


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Trump, Endorsements & Racism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 10, 2016

It has become something of a truism that everyone is a little bit racist. If this is true, then a meaningful accusation of racism requires showing that a person has crossed a threshold in regards to her racism. As might be suspected, there is no precise line—to require one to exist would be to fall into the line drawing fallacy. It suffices that clear cases of racism can be recognized and that less-clear cases can be rationally debated.

While Trump has not donned a white hood or burned crosses, it has been claimed that he has a track record of racism. During his run to be the Republican nominee, he routinely said things that certainly appear racist and that would have been career ending for almost any other American politician. In June, 2016 Trump accused Judge Gonzalo Curiel of being biased against him because of Curiel’s Mexican ancestry. While this sort of attack is a standard Trump maneuver, the Republican establishment believes they need the Hispanic vote and they are aware that attacking Hispanics for being Hispanic is not a winning strategy. As such, it is not surprising that Paul Ryan criticized Trump, saying that his remark was “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Other Republican leaders also condemned the remark. Such overt racism is certainly not approved by the Republican establishment.

While Ryan and others have condemned Trump’s remark, they have also endorsed him for President. Other Republicans have refused to do so and some have even embraced a “never Trump” view. While the opposition to Trump seems quite rational, those who condemn him while still endorsing him present a more interesting situation that is worth some consideration.

On the face of it, two sensible explanations for the simultaneous condemnation and endorsement would be pragmatic politics and party loyalty. Trump is the anointed Republican Presidential candidate and backing him would seem to both the practical choice and the choice of a party loyalist. Condemning him would be a way of maintaining some moral distance; thus this would be a case of wanting to praise the cake and condemn it, too. This can be a risky strategy: if Trump wins, he will certainly remember the condemnations. If Trump loses in a spectacular sinking of his political ship, the endorsements could serve as tethers dragging others down along with the wreck.

Those more cynical than I might venture that those who endorse Trump while disavowing his racist remarks are condemning not his racism, but his overt and clumsy racism. This is a rejection of style and not content. But, suppose that the condemnation is actually of the racism. This would seem to raise a moral concern for those that are endorsing Trump.

If Paul Ryan and others have disavowed Trump because they regard racism as wrong, they face the challenge of morally justifying endorsing someone who engages in immoral behavior. One way this could be done is by arguing that Trump’s relentless racist remarks are a minor flaw relative to his other virtues, thus he can be endorsed in good conscience. Given the revelations about Trump University (which have resulted in an upcoming trial with Curiel as the judge) and other facts about Trump, this seems like a problematic answer.

Another way this could be done is to argue that although Trump is to be morally condemned, he is still morally superior to Hillary. That is, Trump is the lesser of two evils and endorsing him increases the odds that the lesser evil will win. I am not sure how Trump would feel about being cast as a lesser evil—presumably he would want to be the greatest evil. This view would require establishing that Hillary Clinton is morally worse than Trump—something that could certainly be argued.

A third way is to argue that the terrible consequences of electing Hillary (whether she is morally better or worse than Trump) justify backing Trump. That is, backing him would result in a lesser evil in regards to consequences. This is different from voting for someone who is lesser in evil, although the two can obviously be connected. The greater a person’s evil, the greater evil they are likely to try to bring about. But, a person who is less evil might bring about worse consequences than someone who is a worse person.

A final way is to contend that the moral obligation of party loyalty requires a Republican leader to endorse the nominee, even if the nominee engages in behavior that must be condemned on moral grounds. To use the obvious analogy, this is similar to how the obligations of family can require standing up for a morally problematic relative.


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Trump Rhetoric: Naming, Insulting & Mocking

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 3, 2016

Listening to one of Trump’s speeches, I tried to remember when I had heard this style of rhetoric before. While negative rhetoric is a stock part of modern American politics, he had created a brand that stands out in its negative magnificence. My first thought was it reminded me a great deal of the incoherent hate spewing I recall from gaming on Xbox Live. Then I realized it matched much earlier memories, that of the bullying and name calling of junior high school and earlier. I realized then that Trump’s main rhetorical style was a more polished version of that deployed by angry children.

One tactic that most people should recall from their youth is that of name calling. Kids would call each other things like “Stinky Susan” or “Fat Fred” in order to mock and insult each other. As people grew up, their name calling and mockery tended to become more sophisticated—at least in terms of the vocabulary.

Trump, however, seems to instinctively grasp the appeal of schoolyard level name calling, insults and mockery. He gives his foes (and almost everyone gets to be a foe of Trump) names such as “crooked Hillary”, “Lying Ted Cruz”, “Goofy Elizabeth”, and “Crazy Bernie.”

While name calling has no logical force (it proves nothing), it can have considerable rhetorical force. One obvious intended effect is to persuade the audience that the person given the insulting name is thus “bad” or “failed” as Trump loves to say. Perhaps the most important effect is how it impacts status: giving someone an insulting name is, at the core, a power play about relative status. The insulting name is intended to lower the targets status (from Senator Ted Cruz to “lying Ted) and thus raise the relative status of the attacker. Trump has used this with great effect against foes such as “low energy George Bush” and “Little lightweight Marco Rubio.” While these men were both professional politicians, they never seemed to hit on an effective counter to this attack. Trying to engage Trump in a battle of naming, insults and mockery is rather like trying to out squeeze a python—so it is no wonder this did not work. Trying to elevate the battle to the usual political style of negative rhetoric also proved ineffective—Trump’s schoolyard bullying seems to have won the hearts of many Americans who were not inclined to accept a change of rhetorical venue. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Trump swept aside his Republican foes like a bully swats aside the smaller and weaker children. Trump won the status battle by playing the schoolyard status game with his usual skill. His opponents were playing politics as usual, which was the wrong game to play with a population largely tired of that game.

From a logical standpoint, no one should be convinced by name calling. It has, obviously enough, no function as evidence or reasons for a claim. Calling Elizabeth Warren “goofy” does nothing to refute her claims. As such, the defense against being swayed by name calling is to be aware of this, to think “that is an insulting name…that proves nothing.”

If one is the target of an insulting or mocking name calling, then the defense is a bit more challenging. This is because what tends to matter is how other people are influenced by the name calling. While it is tempting to think about “sticks and stones”, Trump has established that name calling can hurt—at least in terms of a person’s status. Which means it hurts a lot. We are, after all, status obsessed monkeys in pants.

One way to reply is to respond with crude name calling, insults and mockery. From a logical standpoint, this proves nothing. From a practical standpoint, the main question is whether or not it will work. Part of the concern is whether or not one can engage and “beat” the name caller using this tactic. That is, whether one can out-insult the person and lower his status in the eyes of the other primates. Another part of the concern is whether or not this is the right tactic to use in terms of getting the desired result. A person might, for example, get in good shots at the name caller, yet end up losing in the long term. As might be imagined, people vary in their ability to name call as well as the impact name calling will have on how they are perceived. People expect Trump to be vulgar and insulting, so he loses nothing with this tactic. While people tend to think Hillary Clinton is corrupt, they also expect her to have a much higher degree of class and professionalism than Trump: playing his game would be a loss for her, even if she “won.”

Another way to reply is with more sophisticated name calling, insults and mockery. This, of course, is still logically empty—but can be combined with actual arguments. Hillary Clinton, for example, presented a speech aimed at mocking Trump. While she used the same basic tactic as Trump, trying to lower his status, her attacks were far more refined. To use an analogy, Trump is a barbarian hacking away with a great axe, while Hillary is fencing. The goal is the same (kill the other person) but one is crude and the other rather more elegant. The question is, of course, which will work. In the case of the rhetorical battle, the outcome is decided by the audience—do American voters prefer the axe of Trump or the rapier of Hillary? Or neither?

It is also possible to engage name calling with logic and counter with actual arguments. While this can work with some people, those who are subject to logic would tend to already reject such tactics and those who are not so amendable to logic will be unaffected. In fact, they would probably regard the use of such a method as confirming the bestowed name. Aristotle was among the first to point out the weakness of logic as a persuasive device and nothing has proven him wrong.


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Inheritance & Welfare

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

In general, conservatives tend to oppose welfare and similar sorts of social programs. They also tend to be protective of inheritance—for example, they refer to the tax on inheritance with the dysphemism “death tax” and have endeavored to battle this tax. While these positions might seem compatible, a strong case can be made that the arguments against social programs would also apply as strong criticisms of inheritance.

One stock criticism of programs like welfare is that receiving something without earning it is intrinsically wrong. People should, the reasoning goes, earn what they receive. This is often the logic behind proposals to make people work to receive social support.

On the face of it, inheritance would seem the same as unearned social support: a person just receives whatever is left to her. If receiving something without earning it is wrong, this would make inheritance wrong.

A sensible objection is that people sometimes do earn what they inherit. For example, young Lord Trump might have toiled in his father’s business, thus earning the inherited wealth from this business. The same would also apply to social programs. People often earned the social support they receive by the work they did before needing the support. For example, a person who was fired as part of boosting the stock value of the company would have earned unemployment benefits by his past labor. Those getting Social Security retirement benefits in the United States also paid in, thus earning what they received.

It might be contended that some do receive social support without having earned it through labor and hence it would be wrong for them to receive it. This same principle would also apply to unearned inheritance: so, if people should not get support on the basis of this principle, they should also not get an inheritance that is unearned.

A second stock criticism of social support programs is that the resources could be better spent. For example, it could be argued that eliminating benefits in favor of tax cuts for businesses would be more beneficial. After all, some claim, the poor waste the money on drugs –at least that seems to be the reasoning behind mandatory drug tests for recipients of support. This sort of utilitarian reasoning should also apply to inheritances: money that would be squandered by the idle rich like Paris Hilton should be used where it would do far more good, such as funding education or infrastructure repairs (perhaps replacing the lead pipes used to transport water).

A reasonable reply is that a person has the moral right to decide how her possessions will be distributed after her death—this is a matter of choice. In contrast, social programs involve the takers taking the money of the makers (presumably to squander on drugs). Thus, a relevant difference here is the matter of choice. Inheritance is chosen, being taxed to support the takers is not.

The easy counter to this, at least in a democratic state, is that providing such support is a choice: the citizens have decided that this is what they want. As such, the people have chosen, thus making it a matter of choice.

An individual can raise the objection that she did not chose to provide for the takers—she does not want her tax dollars going to them. As such, there is an important distinction between inheritance and social support.

I do admit that there is a certain appeal in the idea of a pay-as-you-go state system that also allows choice. That is, citizens would pay for the services they use (such as schools, roads, the legal system, defense, police and so on) and they can volunteer to pay for other things. Naturally, citizens who elected to not pay into the social support programs would be ineligible for benefits in these systems—so the makers who wish not to contribute would need to hope that fickle fate or poor decisions did not transform them into takers.

Despite the appeal of such a system, it seems likely that it would result in the collapse of civilization. This is the sort of argument Locke used when arguing why the citizens need to go along with the decision of the majority: the alternative is the destruction of the political body.

A final stock objection against social programs is that they have a harmful impact on the moral character of the recipients. Some common claims are that social support destroys the incentive to work, breeds a culture of dependence and destroys self-respect. These are, it is claimed, are the consequences of getting something for nothing.

These same consequences should also arise from inheritance, which is also getting something for nothing (the matter of earned inheritance and support was addressed above). As such, if social programs should be eliminated on this ground, so should inheritance. Mary Wollstonecraft argued at length in support of the claim that inherited wealth is morally deleterious in her Vindication of the Rights of Women.

One reply to this is to argue that there is relevant difference between the two: most inheritances are very small and thus do not destroy incentives or breed dependence. For example, if a young person receives $1,000 from an inheritance, that will not suffice to destroy his incentives or breed dependence. This is because $1,000 will not last long. In contrast, social support can provide a person with enough to live on, thus allowing dependence to take root and incentive to rot away.

This argument does show that small inheritances would be fine, but would show that substantial inheritances would have the harmful effects attributed to the social programs. If having bare survival support from the state suffices to create dependence and destroy incentive, then receiving considerable wealth from an inheritance should inflict massive harm on the recipient. As such, if people need to be protected from the harms of social support, they must also be protected from the terrible danger presented by significant inheritances. Since most people receive little or no inheritances, the majority of people will be safe from this harm and their inheritances should be allowed. However, the wealthy are in danger proportional to their wealth and must be protected from this dire threat to their independence and ambition.

It could be countered that only the poor are especially vulnerable to the danger of unearned wealth and the wealthy can, in general, safely accept it without harm. This is certainly an empirical matter and objective research should suffice to show whether this is true or not.

It would seem that many of the arguments against social support would also apply to inheritance. As such, if these arguments work against social support, they should also work against inheritance. But, perhaps so much social support would not be needed if wealth were less concentrated.


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