Should the State Forbid Buying with Food Stamps?

Some states have passed or are considering laws that would restrict what government aid can be used to purchase. One apparently pro-active approach, taken by my adopted state of Florida, has been to weed out drug users by requiring recipients of aid to pass a drug test. In Missouri, there has been an effort to prevent food stamp recipients from using their aid to buy steak or seafood. In Kansas a proposed law forbids people receiving government assistance from using those funds to visit swimming pools, buy movie tickets, gamble or get tattoos.

While these proposals and policies are fueled primarily by unwarranted stereotypes of the poor, it is possible to argue in their favor and two such arguments will be considered. Both arguments share a common principle, namely that the state needs to protect certain citizens from harm (which is a reasonable principle). The first argument centers on the need for the state to protect the poor from their poor decision making. The second focuses on the need to protect the taxpayers from being exploited by the poor.

The first argument is essentially an appeal to paternalism: the poor are incapable of making their own good decisions and thus the wisdom of the lawmakers must guide them. If left unguided, the poor will waste their limited government support on things like drugs, gambling, tattoos, steak and lobsters. This approach certainly has a philosophical pedigree. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, argued that the compulsive power of the state should be used to compel the citizens to be virtuous. Other thinkers, usually those who favor totalitarianism, also find the idea of such paternalism very appealing.

Despite the pedigree of this approach, it is always reasonable to inquire as to whether a law is actually needed or not. In the case of a law that forbids, the obvious line of inquiry is to investigate the extent to which people engage in the behavior that is supposed to be forbidden by the law.

Despite the anecdotal evidence of Fox News’ infamous welfare surfer, there seems to be little evidence that people who receive state aid are blowing their state aid on strip clubs, drugs, steak or lobster. Rather, the poor (like almost everyone else) spend most of their money on things like housing and non-luxury food. In regards to drugs, people on support are no more likely than anyone else to be using them. As such, unless it can be clearly shown that a significant percentage of aid recipients are engaged in such “poor choices”, these laws would seem to be solutions in search of a problem.

It is also reasonable to consider whether or not a law is morally consistent in regards to how all citizens are treated. If the principle at work is that recipients of state money must be guided by the state because they cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, then this must be extended to all recipients of such money. This would include farmers getting subsidies, companies getting government contracts, government employees, recipients of tax breaks (such as the mortgage tax breaks), and so on. This is all government aid.

This is a matter of moral consistency—if some citizens must be subject to strict restrictions on how the state money can be spent and perhaps pass a drug test before getting it, then the same must apply to all citizens. Unless, of course, a relevant difference can be shown.

It could be argued that the poor, despite the lack of evidence, are simply more wasteful and worse at spending decisions than the rest of the population. While this does match the stereotypical narrative that some like to push, it does not seem to match reality. After all, billions of dollars simply vanished in Iraq. One does not need to spend much time on Google to find multitudes of examples of how non-poor recipients of state money wasted it or blew it on luxuries.

It could then be argued that extending this principle to everyone would be a good idea. After all, people who are not poor make bad decisions with state money and this shows that they are in need of the guiding wisdom of the state and strict control. Of course, this would result in a paternalistic (or “nanny” as some prefer) state that so many self-proclaimed small government freedom lovers professes to dislike.

Obviously, it is also important to consider whether or not a law will be more harmful or more beneficial. While it could be argued that the poor would be better off if compelled by the state to spend their aid money on what the state deems they should spend it on, there is still the fact that these policies and proposals are solutions in search of a problem. That is, these laws would not benefit people because they are typically not engaged in wasteful spending to begin with.

There is also the moral concern about the harm done to the autonomy and dignity of the recipients of the aid. It is, after all, an assault on a person’s dignity to assume that she is wasteful and bad at making decisions. It is an attack on a person’s autonomy to try to control him, even for his own good.

It might be countered that if the poor accept the state’s money, then they must accept the restrictions imposed by the state. While this does have some appeal, consistency would (as noted above) require this to be applied to everyone getting state money. Which includes the rich. And the people passing such laws. Presumably they would not like to be treated this way and consistency would seem to require that they treat others as they would wish to be treated.

The second main argument for such restrictions is based on the claim that they are needed to protect the taxpayers from being exploited by the poor. While some do contend that any amount of state aid is too much and is theft from the taxpayers (the takers stealing from the makers), such restrictions at least accept that the poor should receive some aid. But, this aid must be for essentials and not wasted—otherwise the taxpayers’ money is being (obviously enough) wasted.

As was discussed above, an obvious point of concern is whether or not such waste is occurring at a level that justifies the compulsive power of the state being employed. As noted above, these proposals and policies seem to be solutions in search of a problem. As a general rule, laws and restrictions should not be imposed without adequate justification and this seems lacking in this case.

This is not to say that people should not be concerned that taxpayer money is being wasted or spent unwisely. It, in fact, is. However, this is not a case of the clever poor milking the middleclass and the rich. Rather, it is a case of the haves milking the have-less. One prime example of this is wealthfare, much of which involves taxpayer money going to subsidize and aid those who are already quite well off, such as corporations. So, I do agree that the taxpayer needs to be protected from exploitation. But, the exploiters are not the poor. This should be rather obvious—if they were draining significant resources from the rest of the citizens, they would no longer be poor.

But, some might still insist, the poor really are spending their rather small aid money on steak, lobsters, strip clubs and gambling. One not unreasonable reply is that “man does not live by bread alone” and it does not seem wrong that the poor would also have a chance to enjoy the tiny luxuries or fun that their small amount of aid can buy.  Assuming, of course, that they are not spending everything on food and shelter. I would certainly not begrudge a person an occasional steak or beer. Or a swim in a pool. I do, of course, think that people should spend wisely, but that is another matter.

 

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A Shooting in South Carolina

While the police are supposed to protect and serve, recent incidents have raised grave concerns about policing in America. I am, of course, referring to the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers. In the most recent incident Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager shot Walter Lamer Scott to death after what should have been a routine traffic stop. What makes this case unusual is that there is video of the shooting. While the video does not show what happened before Scott started to flee, it clearly shows that Scott is no threat to Slager: he is unarmed and running away. Police are not allowed to shoot a suspect merely for fleeing. The video also show Slager dropping an object by Scott’s body—it appears to be Slager’s Taser. When Slager called in the incident, he described it as a justifiable shooting: Scott grabbed his Taser and he had to use his service weapon. Obviously Slager was unaware that he was being recorded as he shot the fleeing Scott.

Since I am friends with people who are ex-law enforcement (retired or moved on to other careers) I have reason to believe that the majority of officers would not engage in such behavior. As such, I will not engage in a sweeping condemnation of police—this would be both unjust and unfounded. However, this incident does raise many concerns about policing in the United States.

As noted above, what makes this incident unusual is not that a situation involving a black man and white officer escalated. It is also not very unusual that a black man was shot by a police officer. What is unusual is that the incident was videotaped and this allowed the public to see what really happened—as opposed to what was claimed by the officer. If the incident had not been recorded, this most likely would have gone down as the all-too-common scenario of a suspect attacking a police officer and being shot in self-defense. The tape, however, has transformed it from the usual to the unusual: a police officer being charged with murder for shooting a suspect.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware that the story of one incident, however vivid, is but an anecdote. I am also well aware that to generalize broadly from one such incident is to commit the fallacy of hasty generalization. That said, the videotape does provide legitimate grounds for being suspicious of other incidents in which suspects have been shot while (allegedly) trying to attack an officer. Since we know that it has happened, we clearly know that it can happen. The obvious and rather important concern is the extent to which this sort of thing has happened. That is, what needs to be determined is the extent to which officers have engaged in legitimate self-defense and to what extent have officers engaged in murder.

This videotape shows, rather dramatically, that requiring police to use body cameras is a good idea—at least from the standpoint of those who believe in justice. People are, obviously enough somewhat less likely to act badly if they know they are being recorded. There is also the fact that there would be clear evidence of any misdeeds. The cameras would also benefit officers: such video evidence would also show when the use of force was legitimate, thus helping to reduce suspicions. As it stands, we know that at least one police officer shot down a fleeing suspect who presented no threat. This, naturally enough, motivates suspicion about all shootings (and rightly so). The regular use of body cameras could be one small contribution to addressing legitimate questions about use of force incidents.

What is also usual about this incident is that there has been a focus on the fact that Scott had a criminal record and legal troubles involving child support. This is presumably intended to show that Scott was no angel and perhaps to suggest that the shooting was, in some manner, justified. Or, at the very least, not as bad as one might think. After all, the person killed was a criminal, right? However, Scott’s background has no relevance in this incident: his having legal troubles in the past in no manner justifies the shooting.

What was also usual was the reaction of Bill O’Reilly and some of the other fine folks at Fox, which I learned about from Professor Don Hubin’s reaction and criticism. Rather than focusing on the awfulness of the killing and what it suggests about other similar incidents, O’Reilly’s main worry seems to be that some people might use the killing to “further inflame racial tensions” and he adds that “there doesn’t seem to be, as some would have you believe, that police are trying to hunt down black men and take their lives.” While this is not a claim that has been seriously put forth, O’Reilly endeavors to “prove” his claim by engaging in a clever misleading comparison. He notes that “In 2012, last stats available, 123 blacks were killed by police 326 whites were killed.” While this shows that police kill more whites than blacks, the comparison is misleading because O’Reilly leaves out a critical piece of information: the population is about 77% white and about 13% black. This, obviously enough, sheds a rather different light on O’Reilly’s statistics: they are accurate, yet misleading.

Naturally, it might be countered that blacks commit more crimes than whites and thus it is no surprise that they get shot more often (when adjusting for inflation) than whites. After all, one might point out, Scott did have a criminal record. This reply has a certain irony to it. After all, people who claim that blacks are arrested (and shot) at a disproportionate level claim that the police are more likely to arrest blacks than whites and focus more on policing blacks. As evidence that blacks commit more crimes, people point to the fact that blacks are more likely (adjusting for proportions) than whites to be arrested. While one would obviously expect more blacks to be arrested in they committed more crimes (proportionally), to assume what is in doubt (that policing is fair) as evidence that it should not be doubted seems to involve reasoning in a circle.

O’Reilly also raised a stock defense for when bad thing are done: “You can’t … you can’t be a perfect system. There are going to be bad police officers; they’re going to make mistakes; um .. and then the mistakes are going to be on national television.” O’Reilly engages in what seems to be a perfectionist fallacy: the system cannot be perfect (which is true), therefore (it seems) we should not overly concerned that this could be evidence of systematic problems. Or perhaps he just means that in an imperfect system one must expect mistakes such as an officer shooting a fleeing suspect to death. O’Reilly also seems rather concerned that the mistakes will be on television—perhaps his concern is, as I myself noted, that people will fall victim to a hasty generalization from the misleading vividness of the incident. That would be a fair point. However, the message O’Reilly seems to be conveying is that this incident is (as per the usual Fox line) an isolated one that does not indicate a systemic problem. Despite the fact that these “isolated” incidents happen with terrible regularity.

I will close by noting that my objective is not to attack the police. Rather, my concern is that the justice system is just—that is rather important to me. It should also be important to all Americans—after all, most of us pledged allegiance to a nation that offers liberty and justice to all.

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Corporations Are Being Denied Freedom of Expression & Religion!

English: Freedom of Expression trademark certi...

English: Freedom of Expression trademark certificate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, corporations are considered persons. In recent years the judiciary has accepted that this entitles corporations to rights, such as freedom of speech (which was used to justify corporate spending in politics) and freedom of religion (which was used to allow companies to refuse to provide insurance coverage for birth control).

Despite having freedom of speech and religion because they are people, corporations can, unlike other people, be legally owned. Common stock is bought and sold as a matter of routine business and provides an ownership share in a corporation. Since corporations are people, this means that people are being allowed to legally own other people. Owning another person is, of course, slavery. While slavery was legal at one time in the United States, the 13th amendment is rather clear on this matter: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

If corporations are entitled to 1st amendment rights because they are people, it follows that they must also be entitled to 13th amendment rights. That is, corporations have a right not to be owned by other people. The obvious reply is that this is absurd. My response is that this is exactly my point: the 13th Amendment provides the path to the obvious reductio ad absurdum (“reducing to absurdity) to the claim that corporations are people. If they are people and thus get rights, then they cannot be owned. If they can be owned, they are not people and hence do not get the rights of people.

But, let it be supposed that companies are people and hence get the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.  Yet somehow don’t get the freedom not to be enslaved. It will be interesting to see where these claims actually lead.

Freedom of expression is usually presented in terms of a person’s right to engage in expression, perhaps by secretly donating fat stacks of cash to shadow political organizations. However, freedom of expression can also be regarded as a freedom from being compelled to engage in certain expressions. For example, the State of Texas has argued against allowing the Confederate battle flag on Texas license plates on this ground. This seems quite reasonable: the freedom to express myself would certainly seem to include the freedom to not express what I do not wish to express.

Freedom of religion is also usually presented in terms of protection from being limited or restricted in the practicing of one’s faith. However, like freedom of expression, it can also be taken to include the right not to be compelled to engage in religious activities against one’s will. So, for example, people have argued that compelling a wedding cake baker to not discriminate against same-sex couples would be to compel her to engage in an activity that goes against her faith. While I disagree with the claim that forbidding discrimination violates religious freedom, I do agree that compelling a person to act against her faith can be an unjust violation of religious freedom.

Corporations, at least according to the law, have freedom of expression and freedom of religion. As such, they have the general right not to be compelled to express views they do not hold and the right not to be compelled to engage in practices against their religious beliefs. Given that a corporation is a person, there is the question of what a corporation would want to express and the question of its faith.

It might be claimed that since a corporation seems to be just a legal fiction operated by actual people, then the beliefs and expressive desires of the corporation are those of the people who are in charge. On this view, a corporation is a legal Mechanical Turk, a pantomime person, the face of the Wizard of Oz (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”). While run by an actual person or people, it is a fictional shell that is not a person.

The advantage of this approach is the corporation’s faith is the faith of the actual people and what it desires to express is what they desire to express. The obvious problem is that this view makes it clear that the corporation is not a person, so it would not get a set of rights of its own, above and beyond the rights already held by the actual people who control the legal pantomime person. So, claims about violations of freedoms would have to be about violations against actual, specific people and not against the legal version of a Mechanical Turk (or Legal Turk, if one prefers).

If someone insists that the corporation is a person in its own right, then this entails it is a distinct entity apart from the folks that would seem to be operating a non-person pantomime person. On this view, the views of the corporation cannot automatically be those of the people who would seem to be operating the pantomime person. After all, if it is just them, it is not a person. To be a person, it needs to have its own personhood. If it has freedom of expression, it must have its own desires of what to express. If it has freedom of religion, it must have its own faith.

Sadly, corporations are not free to express their own views or their own faith. They are owned and compelled to speak and engage in matters of faith. While there is a chance that the corporate person’s views and faith match those of the human persons infesting its legal body, this need not be the case. After all, a slave that is forced by her owner to say things and go to church might believe what she says or have the faith she is compelled to practice…but she might not. Unless she is set free from her owners and allowed her own beliefs and faith, she cannot be said to have freedom of expression or faith.

While Tim Cook has spoken in favor of same-sex marriage, Apple might be a devoutly Christian corporation that cries (metaphorical) tears each time it is forced to mouth (metaphorically) Tim Cook’s words. The corporation Hobby Lobby might be a bisexual atheist corporation. As it is beaten to its (metaphorical) knees to cry out prayers to a God it does not believe in, it might be eager to engage in hot mergers with other companies, regardless of their gender. Until these corporations are freed from the tyranny of ownership, they can never truly exercise their freedom as people.

The obvious response to this absurd silliness is that it is, well, clearly absurd and silly. However, that is exactly my point. If a corporation is a person that is distinct from the actual people operating the pantomime legal person, then it is being denied its freedom of expression and religion because it is forced to say and do what others want it to say and do.  This is, as I am sure most will agree, pure absurdity. If a corporation is really just a legal pantomime and the corporate beliefs and ideas are really just those of the folks operating the legal pantomime, then it is not a person and does not have the rights of a person. The real people do, of course, have all the rights they have always possessed.

This is not to say that there should not be collective rights and laws for organizations. But this is very different from regarding a corporation as a person with a faith and beliefs it wishes to express. That is, obviously enough, a pile of pantomime bull.

 

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Is Baking a Gay Wedding Cake an Endorsement of Same-Sex Marriage?

Indiana’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act set off a firestorm of controversy. Opponents of the law contended that it would legalize discrimination while some proponents argued that it would do no such thing. Some proponents contended that it would allow people and businesses to refuse certain services to homosexuals, but that this should not be considered discrimination but a matter of freedom of expression. This approach is both interesting and well worth considering.

In the United States, freedom of expression is a legally protected right. More importantly, from a philosophical perspective, it is also a well-supported moral right. As such, an appeal to freedom of expression can be a useful defense.

In the case of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the argument from freedom of expression would certainly not work in regards to justifying general discrimination in regards to goods and services. For example, the owner of a pizzeria would be hard pressed to claim that not being allowed to refuse service to a person just because she is gay violates his freedom of expression. However, freedom of expression might be applicable in certain cases.

While the freedom of expression is typically presented as a right against being silenced, it also provides the right not to be compelled to express views (specifically views that one does not hold or that one opposes). The right to not be compelled in one’s expression would thus seem to give a person a moral (and a legal) right to refuse certain services.

This line of reasoning does have considerable appeal. For example, I operate a writing business—I write books to be sold and I do freelance work. I obviously have no moral right to refuse business from someone just because she is gay, Jewish, Christian, or a non-runner. However, my writing is clearly an act of expression. As such, my freedom of expression grants me a clear moral right to refuse to write a tract endorsing Nazism or one advocating hatred of Christians. I also design book covers and do some graphic work (graphic as in visual, not as in adult content). Since these are clearly expressions, I would have the moral right to refuse to do a book cover for book expressing ideas I regard as morally wrong, such as eliminating religious freedom in favor of enforced atheism. This is because the creation of such work entails a clear endorsement and expression of the ideas. If I write a tract in favor of white supremacy, I am unambiguously expressing my support of the idea. If I knowingly do a cover for a book on white supremacy, then it would be reasonable to infer I agreed with the ideas. In such cases, an appeal to freedom of expression would seem quite relevant and reasonable.

Obviously, an author or cover designer who believes that her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness would also be protected by the freedom of expression from being required to express views she does not hold. If a LGBT group approached her and offered her a fat stack of cash to pen a piece in favor of gay marriage, she would have the moral right to reject their offer. After all, they have no moral right to expect her to express views she does not hold, even for fat stacks of cash.

In contrast, I could not use freedom of expression as a reason to not sell one of my books or works to a person. For example, freedom of expression does not grant me the right to forbid Amazon from selling my books to Nazis, racists, intolerant atheists, or non-runners. After all, selling a book to a person is not an endorsement of that person’s ideas. I do not endorse intolerant atheism just because an intolerant atheist can buy my book.

Likewise, the author who believes her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness could not use freedom of expression to demand that Amazon not sell her books to homosexuals. While buying a book might suggest agreement with the author (but it obviously does not entail it—I have plenty of philosophy books whose contents I regard as being in error), it does not suggest that the author is endorsing the purchaser. So, if a gay person buys the author’s anti-same-sex marriage book, it does not mean that the author is endorsing same-sex marriage.

Not surprisingly, no one has claimed that religious freedom acts are needed to protect Christian writers from being forced to write pro-gay works. However, it has been argued that the acts are needed to protect the freedom of expression for people such as caterers, bakers, and photographers.

The argument is that catering a wedding, baking a wedding cake, doing a wedding or engagement photo shoot and similar things are expressions and are thus covered by the right to freedom of expression.

Obviously enough, if these activities are expressions analogous to the paradigm cases of speech and writing, then the freedom of expression does protect them. As such, the key question is whether or not such actions are acts of expression such that engaging in them in relation to a same-sex wedding would express an endorsement of same-sex marriage.

To get the obvious out of the way, refusing to cater, photograph or bake a cake for a wedding because the people involved were Jewish, black, Christian, white, or Canadian would clearly be discrimination. If the person refusing to do so said that baking a cake for a Jew endorsed Judaism, that catering a black wedding endorsed blackness, or that photographing Canadians being married was an endorsement of Canada, she would be regarded as either joking or crazy.  But perhaps a case could be made that catering, baking and photographing are expressions of agreement or endorsement.

On the face of it, catering food for a wedding would not seem to be expressing approval or agreement with the wedding, regardless of what sort of wedding it might be. Selling someone food would seem to be like selling them a book—their buying it says nothing about what I endorse or believe. When the pizza delivery person arrives with a pizza when I am playing Pathfinder, I do not say “aha, Dominoes endorses role-playing games!” After all, they are just selling me pizza.

In the case of the wedding cake, it could be argued that it is a specific sort of cake and creating one does express an endorsement. By this reasoning, a birthday cake would entail an endorsement of the person’s birth and continued existence, a congratulations cake would entail an endorsement of that person’s achievement and so on for all the various cakes.  This, obviously enough, seems implausible. Making me a birthday cake does not show that Publix endorses my birth or continued existence. They are just selling me a cake. Likewise, selling a person a wedding cake does not entail approval of the wedding. Obviously enough, if a baker sells a wedding cake to a person who has committed adultery, this does not entail her approval of adultery.

It could be argued that bakers have the right to refuse a specific design or message on the cake. For example, a Jewish baker could claim that he has the right to refuse to create a Nazi cake with swastikas and Nazi slogans. This seems reasonable—a baker, like a writer, should not be compelled to create content she does not wish to express. Given this principle, a baker could refuse to bake a sexually explicit wedding cake or one festooned with gay pride slogans and condemnations of straight “breeders.” However, creating a plain wedding cake is not the expression of ideas and would be on par with selling a person a book rather than being forced to write specific content. By analogy, I cannot refuse to sell a book to a person because he is an intolerant atheist, but I can refuse contract to write in support of that view.

Since photography is a form of art (at least in some cases), it is certainly reasonable to regard it is a form of artistic expression. On this ground it is reasonable to accept that photography is protected by the freedom of expression. The key issue here is whether taking pictures commercially is like writing words—that is, photographing something is an endorsement of the activity or if it is like selling a book, which is merely selling a product and not an endorsement.

On the face of it, commercial photography would seem to be like selling a book. A person who is paid to cover a war or a disaster is not taken to be endorsing the war or the disaster. One would not say that because a person took a photo of a soldier shooting a civilian that he endorse that activity. Likewise, a person photographing a wedding is not endorsing the wedding—she is merely recording the event. For money.

It might be countered that a wedding photographer is different from other commercial photographers—she is involved in the process and her involvement is an expression of approval. But, of course, commercial photographers who take photos at sports events, political events, protests and such are also involved in the process—they are there, taking pictures. However, a photographer hired to take pictures of Hilary Clinton does not thus express her support (or vote) for Hilary. She is just taking pictures.  Fox News, after all, takes video and photos of Hilary Clinton, but they do not thereby endorse Hilary. As such, the freedom of expression would not seem to grant a commercial photographer the right to refuse to photograph a same-sex wedding on the basis of an appeal to freedom of expression since taking photos does not involve endorsing the subject.

That said, another approach would be to argue that while taking a photo of an event does not entail endorsement of the event, an artist cannot be compelled to create a work of art that she does not wish to create. Since a photograph is art, a wedding photographer cannot be compelled to create an image of a same-sex wedding, just as a writer cannot be justly compelled to write a certain sort of book. This certainly has considerable appeal. After all, a photographer would seem to have every right to refuse to take photos of a wedding orgy or even of a tastefully nude wedding on the basis of the content.

Of course, this would also seem to allow commercial wedding photographers to refuse to take photos of blacks, Christians, Jews, or anything on the grounds that she does not want to create, for example, a photographic work including crosses or black people. So, consistency would seem to require that if wedding photographers can refuse to serve gay clients on the basis of artistic content, then a wedding photographer could refuse anyone on the same grounds. Thus, wedding photographers should be permitted to have “whites only”, “straights only” or “gays only” signs on their business. For artistic reasons, of course. This does seem a bit problematic in regards to commercial wedding photographers.

 

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Should there be a waiting period for abortion?

The Florida state legislature is considering bills that will require a woman seeking an abortion to wait 24 hours and make two face-to-face visits to her doctor before she can have the abortion. Opponents of this bill claim that is yet another attack on the rights of women. Proponents of the bill claim that the state mandated waiting period is reasonable and will permit women to be informed about the risks of abortion and the condition of the fetus. Twenty-six other states have waiting periods, some as long as 72 hours. While the legal aspects of these bills are of considerable interest, I will focus primarily on the moral aspects of the waiting period and the two-visit requirement.

One proponent of the bill, Julie Costas, said that she had an abortion thirty years ago and that she now regrets the decision. Her main argument for the bill is that, counterfactually, she might have changed her mind if she had received more information (thus supporting the two-visit requirement) and if she had to wait 24 hours (thus supporting the 24 hour requirement). This sort of argument can be made into a moral argument in favor of the bill. By the state imposing the two-visit requirement and the 24 hour waiting, there is a chance that some women might change their minds about having an abortion which they might later regret having. In terms of the moral aspect, the appeal is that the requirements might prevent a later harm (that inflicted by the regret) to a woman. Naturally, it can also be contended that increasing the chance that a woman might not get an abortion would be morally good since it would avoid the death of the fetus (which, for the sake of this argument, be considered wrong).

I certainly agree that a woman (or girl) should take time to consider whether or not to have an abortion. After all, an abortion is a morally significant action and is one that is clearly important enough to warrant due consideration. I suspect, but do not know, that most woman do put considerable thought into this decision. Obviously, there can be exceptions—there are, after all, people who consistently act without thinking through their actions. While I do think there is a moral obligation to think through morally significant actions, I am not sure that 24 hours is the right waiting time. After all, there would need to be evidence that an extra 24 hours of consideration is likely to result in a better decision.

In terms of the number of visits, that should depend on what the woman actually needs. After all, it is not clear that a second visit would consistently result in more information for the woman that one visit could not provide. There are also the rather practical concerns of cost and time. Would, for example, the state pick up the tab on the second visit that would be mandated? I suspect not.

I have, of course, not said anything yet about the most important consideration. While I think people should take time to properly consider significant decisions and perhaps two visits could be a good idea, there is the critical issue of whether or not this is a matter suitable for the coercive power of the state. After all, there is a multitude of things people should do that should not be compelled by the state. For example, I think that people should exercise, should be polite, should be kind and should eat healthy. However, I do not think that the state should compel these things. But, of course, there are many things that people should do and the state justly compels people to do them. These include such things as paying a fair share of the taxes and serving on juries.

While some people take the view that the state should compel based on what they like and dislike, I prefer to operate based on a consistent principle when it comes to the compulsive power of the state. The principle, which I obviously stole from Mill, is that the use of the compulsive force of the state is justified when it is employed to prevent one person from wrongly harming another. A case can also be made for compelling people in order to serve the general civil good—such as compelling people to serve on juries and pay a fair share of the taxes. However, compelling people to serve the good is generally rather more problematic than compelling people to not inflict wrongful harm.

The principle of harm could, obviously enough, be used to argue against allowing abortion on the grounds that it harms (kills) the fetus. Of course, this is not decisive, since the harms of not having an abortion must also be given due consideration. This principle would not, however, seem to justify the two-visit and 24-hour waiting period requirements. Then again, perhaps it could be argued that they would provide some slight possible protection for the fetus: the woman might change her mind. This sort of really weak protection does not seem to be a very convincing moral reason to have a law.

It could be argued that a different version of the principle of harm should be used. To be specific, that a law can be morally justified on the grounds that it would compel a person not to harm herself. This principle can, obviously enough, be justified on utilitarian grounds. Various laws, such as the infamous NYC ban on big sodas, have been passed that aim at protecting a person from self-inflicted harms.

In the case of this bill, the moral reasoning would be that because there is a chance that a woman might change her mind about an abortion she might later regret, it follows that the state has the right to compel her to have two visits and to wait twenty-four hours. A rather obvious problem with this justification is that it would set a very low bar for the state using its compulsive power: there must only be a chance that a person might change her mind about engaging in a legal procedure that she might later regret. This principle would obviously warrant the state engaging into a massive intrusion into the lives of citizens. Sticking with a medical example, people do sometimes regret having elective surgery. So, this principle would warrant the state imposing a waiting period and a two visit rule. But there would seem to be no reason to stick within the field of medicine. People can come to regret many significant decisions, such as buying a car, choosing a college major, accepting a job offer, or moving. Yet it would seem unreasonable to impose a waiting period for such decisions. Looked at in utilitarian terms, the harms inflicted by such laws (such as the cost of enforcement, the annoyance, and so on) would seem to outweigh their alleged benefits. Especially since a waiting period would not seem to increase the chances of a better decision being made.

What makes considerably more sense is having laws that protect people from decisions made while they are incapable of properly making decisions, such as when intoxicated. So, for example, it would be reasonable to have a law that prevents a person from getting married when she is intoxicated. It is also reasonable to have waiting periods that are based on actual need. For example, a waiting period that is needed to complete paperwork or verify a person’s legal identity would be justifiable on practical grounds (assuming the time requirements are legitimate).

In light of the above arguments, the proposed bill is not morally justified and would, if made into law, be an unwarranted intrusion of the state into the lives of citizens. Those who oppose big government and government intrusion should oppose this bill. Those who favor the “nanny state” should, obviously enough, support it.

 

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Little Assassins

Small. Silent. Deadly. The perfect assassin or security system for the budget conscious. Send a few after your enemy. Have a few lurking about in security areas. Make your enemies afraid. Why drop a bundle on a bug, when you can have a Tarantula?

Adrek Robotics Mini-Cyberform Model A-2 “Tarantula” sales blurb, Chromebook Volume 3.

 The idea of remote controlled (or autonomous) mechanical assassins is an old one in science fiction. The first time I read about such a device was in Frank Herbert’s Dune: he came up with the idea for a lethal, remote-operated drone known as a hunter seeker. This nasty machine would be guided to a target and kill her with a poison needle. This idea stuck with me and, when I was making Ramen noodle money writing game material, I came up with (and sold) the idea for three remote controlled killers produced by my rather evil, but imaginary, company called Adrek Robotics. These included the spider like Tarantula, the aptly named Centipede and the rather unpleasant Beetle. These killers were refined versions of machines I had deployed, much to the horror of my players, in various Traveller campaigns in the 1980s (to this day, one player carefully checks his toilet before using it).

These machines, in my fictional worlds, work in a fairly straightforward manner. They are relatively small robots that are armed with compact, but lethal and vicious, weapon systems (such as poison injecting needles). These machines can operate autonomously, or as the description in Chromebook Volume 3 notes, for particularly important missions they can be remotely controlled by a human or AI. Their small size allows them to infiltrate and kill (or spy). Not surprisingly, various clever ways were developed to get them close to targets, ranging from mailing them concealed among parts to hiding them in baked goods.

While, as far as I know, no real company is cranking out actual Tarantulas, the technology does exist to create a basic model of my beloved killer spider. As might be imagined, these sort of little assassins raise a wide variety of concerns.

Some of these concerns are practical matters relating to law enforcement, safety and military operations. Such little assassins would presumably be easy to deploy against specific targets (or random targets when used as weapons of terror—imagine knowing that a killer machine could pop out of your donut or be waiting in your toilet) and they could be difficult or impossible to trace. Presumably governments, criminals and terrorists would not include serial numbers or other identifying marks on their killers (unless they wanted to take credit).

Obviously enough, people can already kill each other very easily. What these machines would change would be that they would allow anonymous killing from a distance with, as the technology was developed, at very low cost. It is the anonymous and low-cost aspects that are the most worrisome in regards to maintaining safety. After all, what often deters individuals and groups from engaging in bad behavior is fear of being caught and being subject to punishment. What also deters people is the cost of engaging in the misdeed. Using a terrorism example, sending human agents to the United States to commit terrorist acts could be costly and risky. Secreting some little assassins, perhaps equipped to distribute a highly infectious disease, in a shipping container could be rather cheap and without much risk.

There are also moral concerns. In general, the ethics of using little assassins to murder people is fairly clear—it falls under the ethics of murder and assassin. That is, it is generally wrong. There are, of course, the stock moral arguments for assassination. Or, as some prefer to call it, targeted killing.

One moral argument in favor of states employing little assassins is based on their potential precision. Currently, the United States engages in targeted killing (or assassination) using missiles fired from drones. While this is morally superior to area bombing (since it reduces the number of civilians slaughtered and the collateral damage to property), a little assassin would be even better. After all, a properly targeted or guided little assassin would kill only the target, thus avoiding all collateral damage and the slaughter of civilians. Of course, there is still the broader ethical concern about states engaging in what can be justly described as assassination. But, this issues is distinct from the specific ethics of little assassins.

Somewhat oddly, the same argument can be advanced in favor of criminal activities—while such activities would be wrong, a precise kill would be morally preferable to, for example, bullets being sprayed into a crowd from a passing car.

In addition to the ethics of using such machines, there is also the ethics of producing them. It is easy enough to imagine harmless drones being modified for lethal purposes (for example, a hobby drone with a homemade bomb attached). In such cases, the manufacturer would be no more morally culpable than a car manufacturer whose car was used to run someone over. It is also easy to imagine lethal drones being manufactured—since that is already being done.

While civilians can buy a variety of weapons, it seems likely that it will be hard to justify civilian sales of lethal drones. After all, they do not seem to be needed for legitimate self-defense, for hunting or for legitimate recreational activity (although piloting a drone in a recreational dogfight would probably be awesome). However, being a science fiction writer, I can easily imagine the NRA pushing hard against laws restricting the ownership of lethal drones. After all, the only thing that can stop and evil guy with a lethal drone is a good guy with a lethal drone. Or so it might be claimed.

Although I do dearly love my little assassins, I would prefer that they remain in the realm of fiction. However, if they are not already being deployed, it is but a matter of time. So, check your toilet.

 

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Teleowork of the Future

While people have been engaged in telework for quite some time, ever-improving technology will expand the range of jobs allowing for this long-distance labor. This, naturally enough, raises a variety of interesting issues.

Some forms of telework are, by today’s standards, rather mundane and mostly (non-controversial. For example, teachers running online classes from home is a standard form of education these days. Other forms are rather more controversial, such as remote assassination conducted via armed drones.

One promising (and problematic) area of teleworking is telemedicine. Currently, most telemedicine is fairly primitive and mainly involves medical personal interacting with patients via video conferencing software (“take two aspirin and skype me in the morning”). Given that surgical robots are now commonly employed, it is simply a matter of time before doctors and nurses routinely operate “doc drones” to perform various medical procedures.

There are many positive aspects to such telemedicine. One is that such doc drones will allow medical personal to safely operate in dangerous areas. To use the obvious example, a doctor could use a drone to treat patients infected with Ebola while running no risk of infection. To use another example, a doctor could use a drone to treat a patient during a battle without risking being shot or blown up.

A second positive aspect is that a doc drone could be deployed in remote areas and places that have little or no local medical personal. For example, areas in the United States that are currently underserved could be served by such doc drones.

A third positive aspect is that if doc drones became cheap enough, normal citizens could have their own doc drone (most likely with limited capabilities relative to hospital grade drones). This would allow for very rapid medical treatment. This would be especially useful given the aging populations in countries such as the United States.

There are, however, some potential downsides to the use of doc drones. One is that the use of doc drones would allow companies to offshore and outsource medical jobs, just as companies have sent programing, manufacturing and technical support jobs overseas. This would allow medical businesses to employ lower paid foreign medical workers in place of higher paid local medical personal. Such businesses could also handle worker complaints about pay or treatment simply by contracting new employees in countries that worse off and hence have medical personal who are even more desperate.  While this would be good for the bottom line, this would be problematic for local medical personal.

It could be contended that this would be good since it would lower the cost of medical care and would also provide medical personal in foreign countries with financial opportunities. In reply, there is the obvious concern about the quality of care (one might wonder if medical care is something that should go to the lowest bidder) and the fact that medical personal would have had better opportunities doing medicine in person. Naturally, those running the medical companies will want to ensure that the foreign medical personal stay in their countries—this could be easily handled by getting Congress to pass tough immigration laws, thus ensuring a ready supply of cheap medical labor.

Another promising area of telework is controlling military drones. The United States currently operates military drones, but given the government’s love of contracting out services it is just a matter of time before battle drones are routinely controlled by private military contractors (or mercenaries, as they used to be called).

The main advantage of using military drones is that the human operators are out of harm’s way. An operator can also quickly shift operations as needed which can reduce deployment times. Employing private contractors also yields numerous advantages, such as being able to operate outside the limits imposed by the laws and rules governing the military. There can also be the usual economic advantages—imagine corporations outsourcing military operations and reaping significant savings from being able to keep wages and benefits for the telesoldiers very low. There is, of course, the concern that employing what amounts to foreign mercenaries might result in some serious moral and practical problems, but perhaps one should just think of the potential profits and let the taxpayers worry about paying for any problems.

There are various other areas in which teleworking would be quite appealing. Such areas would need to be those that require the skills and abilities of a human (that is, they cannot simply be automated), yet can be done via remote control. It would also have to be the case that the cost of teleworking would be cheaper than simply hiring a local human being to do the work. Areas such as table waiting, food preparation, and retail will most likely not see teleworker replacing the low-paid local workers. However, areas with relatively high pay could be worth the cost of converting to telework.

One obvious example is education. While the pay for American professors is relatively low and most professors are now badly paid adjuncts, there are still people outside the United States who would be happy to work for even less. Running an online class, holding virtual office hours and grading work require rather low-cost technology. The education worker would require just a PC and an internet connection. The university would just need access to a server running the appropriate learning management software (such as Blackboard). With translation software, the education worker would not even need to know English to teach American students.

Obviously enough, since administrators would be making the decisions about whose jobs get outsourced, they would not outsource their own jobs. They would remain employed. In fact, with the savings from replacing local faculty they could give themselves raises and hire more administrators. This would progress until the golden age is reached: campuses populated solely by administrators.

Construction, maintenance, repair and other such work might be worth converting to telework. However, this would require that the machines that would be remotely operated would be cheap enough to justify hiring a low paid foreign worker over a local worker. However, a work drone could be operated round the clock by shifts of operators (aside from downtime for repairs and maintenance) and there would be no vacations, worker’s compensation or other such costs. After all, the population of the entire world would be the work force and any workers that started pushing for better pay, vacations or other benefits could be replaced by others who would be willing to work for less. If such people become difficult to find, a foreign intervention or two could set things right and create an available population of people desperate for telework.

Large scale telework would also seem to lower the value of labor—after all, the competition among workers would be worldwide. A person living in Maine who applied for a telejob would be up against people from all around the world, ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe. While this will be great for the job creators, it will probably be less great for the job fillers.

While this dystopian (from the perspective of the 99%) view of telework seems plausible, it is also worth considering that telework might be beneficial to the laboring masses. After all, it would open up opportunities around the world and telework would require fairly stable areas with adequate resources such as power and the internet (so companies would have an interest in building such infrastructure). As such, telework could make things better for some of the masses. Telework would also be fairly safe, although it could require very long hours and impose considerable stress.

Of course, there are still steps beyond telework and one possible ultimate end might be full automation of all jobs.

 

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Does Religious Freedom Justify Discrimination?

 

IndianaThe scene is a bakery in a small town in Indiana. Ralph and Sally, a married couple, run the Straight Bakery with the aid of the pretty young Ruth. Dr. Janet and her fiancé Andrea enter the shop, looking to buy a cake.

Sally greets them with a pleasant smile, which quickly fades when she finds out that Janet and Andrea are a lesbian couple. Pointing at the door, she says “baking you a wedding cake would violate my religious beliefs. Go find Satan’s baker! Leave now!” The couple leave the shop, planning to drive to the next town—their small town has but one bakery.

At the end of the day, Sally leaves the shop. Ralph says he will help Ruth close up the shop. After Sally leaves, Ralph and Ruth indulge in some adultery.

Indiana has recently gotten nation attention for its version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill would prevent state and local governments in Indiana from “substantially burdening” the exercise of religion unless it can be proven the state has a compelling interest and is using the least restrictive means for acting on that interest.

Proponents of the bill claim that it is aimed to protect people, such as business owners, with strong religious beliefs from the intrusion of the state. Those who oppose the bill note that it would legalize discrimination and that it is aimed at gays and lesbians. Many other states have similar laws, but some of them have laws that protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Since the law cannot specify individual religions for protection, it is likely to lead to some interesting consequences, possibly involving Satanism—as happened in my adopted state of Florida. While the legal aspects of this matter are rather important, as a philosopher my main concern is with the ethics of the matter.

On the face of it, religious freedom seems to be good—after all, it would seem to fall under the broader liberty of thought and belief (which is ably supported by Mill in his work on liberty). As such, the bill initially seems to be a morally reasonable defense of a well-established right.

The bill, as opponents argue, would certainly seem to allow people to discriminate against others, provided that they can justify their discrimination on religious grounds. The law cannot, obviously, require that a religion be true, rational, consistent, sensible or even sane—all religions are equally protected. This, of course, could lead to some serious consequences.

Driving home, Sally’s car is struck by a delivery van and she is badly injured. Luckily, Dr. Janet and Andrea (a trained nurse) are right behind the van. As Dr. Janet and Andrea rush to help, they see it is Sally. Dr. Janet, a devout member of the Lesbian Church, has sworn to God that she will not treat any straight bigots. Looking down at the dying Sally, Dr. Janet says “saving you would violate my sincerely held religious beliefs. Sorry. Perhaps you can find another doctor.” Sally dies.

The obvious counter to this sort of scenario is that religious freedom does not grant a person the liberty to deny a person an essential service, such as medical treatment. Using the standard principle of harm as a limit on liberty, the freedom of religion ends when it would cause unwarranted harm to another person. It could also be argued that the moral obligation to others would override the religious freedom of a person, compelling her to act even against her religious beliefs. If so, it would be wrong of Dr. Janet and Andrea to let Sally die. This, of course, rests on either the assumption that harm overrides liberty or the assumption that obligations override liberty. There are well-established and reasonable arguments against both of these assumptions. That said, it would certainly seem that the state would have a compelling interest in not allowing doctors, pharmacists, and others to allow people to die or suffer harm because of their religious beliefs. But, perhaps, religious freedom trumps all these considerations.

After having a good time with Ruth, Ralph showers off the evidence of his sins and then heads for home. Ruth helps herself to some of the money from the register and adjusts the spreadsheet on the business PC to cover up her theft.

Ralph is horrified to learn that Sally has been killed. He takes her to the only funeral home in town, run by the Marsh family (who moved there from Innsmouth). Unfortunately for Ralph, the Marsh family members are devoted worshippers of Dagon and their religious beliefs forbid them from providing their services to Christians. After being ejected from the property, Ralph tries to drive Sally’s body to the next town, but his truck breaks down.

He finds that the nearest shop is Mohamed’s Motors, a Muslim owned business. Bob, the tow truck driver, says that while he is generally fine with Christians, he is unwilling to tow a Christian’s truck. He does recommend his friend Charlie, a Jewish tow truck driver who is willing to tow Christians, provided that it is not on the Sabbath and the Christian is not a bigot.  Ralph cries out to God at the injustices he has suffered, forgetting that he has reaped what he has sown.

In the case of these sorts of important, but not essential, services it could be argued that people would have the right to discriminate. After all, while the person would be inconvenienced (perhaps extremely so), the harm would not be large enough to make the refusal morally wrong. That is, while it would be nice of Bob to tow Ralph’s truck, it would not be wrong for him to refuse and he is under no obligation to do so. It might, of course, be a bad business decision—but that is another matter entirely.

If appeals to harm and obligations fail, then another option is to argue from the social contract. The idea is that people who have businesses or provide services do not exist in a social vacuum: they operate within society. In return for the various goods of society (police protection, protection of the laws, social rights and so on) they are required to render their services and provide their goods to all the members of the civil society without discrimination. This does not require that they like their customers or approve of them. Rather, it requires that they honor the tactic contract: in return for the goods of society that allow one to operate a business, one must provide goods and services to all members of the society. That is the deal one makes when one operates a business in a democratic society that professes liberty and justice for all.

Obviously, people do have the right to refuse goods and services under certain conditions. For example, if a customer went into Ralph & Ruth’s Bakery (Ralph moved on quickly) and insulted Ruth, urinated on the floor and demanded they give him a half price discount, Ruth would be justified in refusing to make him a cake. After all, his behavior would warrant such treatment. However, refusing a well-behaved customer because she is gay, black, Christian, or a woman would not be justified. This is because those qualities are not morally relevant to refusing services. Most importantly, freedom of religion is not a freedom to discriminate.

It might be countered that the government has no right to force a Christian to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. This is true, in that the person can elect to close his business rather than bake the cake. However, he does not have the moral right to operate a business within civil society if he is going to unjustly discriminate against members of that society. So, in that sense, the state does have the right to force a Christian to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, just as it can force him to bake a cake for a mixed-race couple, a Jewish couple, or an atheist couple.

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The University as a Money Funnel


One serious problem with American higher education is that the cost of a four-year degree is higher than ever—even when adjusting for inflation. The causes of this increase are well known and well understood—there is no mystery about this. One contributing factor is that universities tend to spend considerable money on facilities that are not connected to education. Critics like to, for example, point out that some universities spend millions on luxurious fitness facilities. These sort of expenditures are ironic (and stupid) given that education funding has been consistently reduced across the United States. To use the obvious analogy, this would be like a family putting in a pool, spa, and exercise room when they do not have enough money to pay for their actual necessities.

What seems to be the major factor contributing to costs is the ever-expanding administrative class at universities. This expansion occurs in terms of both individual salaries and overall numbers. From 2000 to 2010 the median salary for the top public university administrators increased by 39%. The top administrators, the university presidents, enjoyed a 75% increase. In stark contrast, the salaries for full-time professors increased by almost 19%.

The money for these salary increases has to come from somewhere and an obvious source is students. My alma mater Ohio State University is leading the way in milking students to pay administrators. Between 2010 and 2012 Gordon Gee, the president of OSU, was paid almost $6 million. At the same time, OSU raised tuition and fees to a degree that resulted in student debt increasing 23% more than the national average.

While some might be tempted to attribute this salary bloating as the result of the usual alleged wastefulness and growth of the public sector, private colleges and universities topped their public counterparts. From 2000 to 2010 private schools saw salary increases of about 97% for their top administrators and their presidents enjoyed a 171% increase. Full time professors also partook of the increases—their salaries increased by 50%.

What is even more striking than the salary increases are the increase in the number of positions and their nature. From 1978 to 2014 administrative positions skyrocketed 369%. This time period also marked a major shift in the nature of faculty. The number of part-time faculty (the analogues of temp workers in the corporate world) increased by 286%. The use of adjuncts is justified on the grounds that doing so saves money. While adjunct salaries vary, the typical adjunct makes $20,000-25,000.

However, the money saved does not translate to a lower cost of education—rather, it “saves” money from going to faculty so that it can go to administrators. Since the average salary of a university president is $478,896 and the number of presidents making $1 million or more a year is increasing, it should be obvious what is helping to drive up the cost of college. Hint: it is not adjunct pay.

There was also a push to reduce (and eliminate) tenured positions which resulted in an increase in full time, non-tenure earning positions by 259%. Full time tenure and tenure-track positions increased by only 23%. Ohio State University provides an excellent (or awful) example of this A&A Strategy: the majority of those hired by OSU were Adjuncts and Administrators. To be specific, OSU hired 498 adjunct instructors and 670 administrators. 45 full-time, permanent faculty were hired.

Interestingly enough, the Republicans who run many state legislatures rail against wasteful spending, impose micromanagement and inflict draconian measures on state universities yet never seem to address the real causes of tuition increase and the problems in the education system. Someone more cynical than I might note that the university seems to no longer have education as its primary function. Rather, it is crafted to funnel money from the “customer” and the tax payer (in the form of federal student aid) to the top while minimizing pay for those who do the actual work.

Tenure has been a target in recent years because tenure provides faculty with protection against being fired without cause (tenured faculty can be fired—it is not a magic shield). This is regarded by some as a problem for a variety of reasons. One is that tenured faculty cannot be let go simply to replace them with vastly lower paid adjuncts. This, obviously enough, means less money flowing from students and the state to administrators. Another is that the protection provided by tenure allows a faculty member to be critical of what is happening to the university system of the United States without running a high risk of simply being let go as a trouble maker. As you might guess, I am a tenured full-professor. So, I can use my freedom of speech with rather less fear of being fired. I also enjoy the dubious protection afforded by the fact that people rarely take philosophers seriously.

 

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The Confederacy, License Plates & Free Speech

Louisiana Sons of Confederate Veterans special...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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