Category Archives: Ethics

The Gun and I: My Backstory

English: Various donuts from the Dunkin' Donut...

Like everyone else, how I look at the world is shaped by my psychological backstory. While, as a professional philosopher, I have an excellent logical toolkit, my use of these tools is shaped by how I feel about things. Since the matter of guns is a rather emotional issue, I need to sort out how my backstory influences how I assess arguments regarding guns.

Academics, especially philosophers, are often cast as latte sipping effeminate liberals who would get the vapors if they so much as caught sight of a piece of manly steel. The positive version of this stereotype is that an academic is far too civil to have any truck with something as barbarous as guns and far too intelligent to believe that guns have any value. A true intellectual, or so the stereotype goes, should dismiss all pro-gun prattle with the wave of a hand, a bemused smile and a remark about people clinging to God and guns. This slides nicely into a rather negative stereotype of gun owners.

Gun owners are all too often stereotyped as slack jawed ignoramuses, upper lips sweaty with thoughts of killing God’s creatures and who secretly stroke their shooting iron to fantasies of mass murder. The positive reverse of this negative stereotype is that gun owners are practical folks who believe in God, guns and country and want nothing to do with those ivory tower intellectuals and their bemused smiles.

Being a gun toting philosopher, I have been subject to these stereotypes. If an academic colleague or a fellow intellectual learns that I am a gun person (and especially that I have hunted), they tend to react with shock and dismay. Surely, they say, I am too smart and too decent to have anything to do with monstrous guns. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my gun history as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person.

Gun folks who find out I am an academic are often surprised by this—especially when they learn I am a philosopher. They often think of academics as elitist liberals who swoon at the sight of…well, you get the picture. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my being a philosopher as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person. As is true of everyone else, I am who I am today because of who I was. So, on to my gun related backstory.

Like many American boys of my time, my first gun was a BB gun. It was a Daisy BB gun, but not a Red Ryder. It would, however, put an eye out. As boys, we would shoot the hell out of each other with our guns, so it is a wonder that we all made it out of childhood with both eyes. This was the gun I used for my first kill.

While the mists of time have obscured many memories, I clearly recall taking aim at a songbird perched on a powerline by what we called “the frog pond.” Carelessly I shot, not thinking I would hit it. The bird fell, striking the ground as a corpse. Though I was a kid, I knew I had done something terrible—a needless, senseless killing. I had straight up murdered that bird. I was not protecting myself (obviously) and I did not need it for food. That callous and careless murder shaped my view of guns for the rest of my life—my young mind grasped that it is all too easy to silence a song forever.

Eventually I got my first real guns—a Marlin .22 and a single shot .410-gauge shotgun. My father made sure that I knew all the safety rules and he taught me two of the great truths about guns. The first is that a gun is always loaded. The second is that you never point a gun at anything or anyone unless you mean to kill them. The safety lessons stuck—I have never been injured by my own gun and I have never harmed another being without intending to do so.

Once I was old enough, I went hunting with my father. I had to get up at some ungodly hour of the day—I remember feeling very cold. We’d then drive down to the land we owned in Lamoine. On the way we’d get Dunkin Donuts—my favorite part. Sometimes we’d cook up bacon and eggs by the ocean. Sometimes we’d go down the night before—that meant Dinty Moore Beef Stew from the can. These are all positive memories—no one got hurt. Well, no one but the ducks.

While hunters are sometimes cast as bloodthirsty, callous or trophy lusting egomaniacs, nothing could be further from my experiences. My father taught me to respect the animals we hunted and also the natural world. He also taught me a lesson that has shaped my character ever since.

While a duck usually drops immediately when hit, sometimes they just catch enough pellets to badly wound them. These birds are sometimes able to fly some distance before being forced down. They are, no doubt, terrified and in great pain while they struggle to escape. While it might be thought that the right thing to do would be to let such a bird escape, the truth is that it will most likely suffer from an infection and die horribly and slowly. Once, when we were hunting, this happened—the bird made it a good distance, then plummeted into the water, wounded but not dead. My father got the boat into the water and went after the duck, shooting it and retrieving it. The reason was not to avoid losing the duck. The reason was a moral responsibility to that duck. To leave it to suffer and die would be wrong; the duck was his responsibility. This reinforced my belief in the responsibility that comes from using a gun and the moral necessity of being fully accountable for one’s actions.

Some might say that this tale is all well and good, but that the real lesson is that a person should not be out there shooting animals in the first place. As a philosopher, I do agree there are excellent moral arguments against harming animals (I have, of course, read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation-which is why I no longer eat veal). However, to hunt for the sake of food and to do so with respect for the animal is to accept that I am part of the natural world. That is, I am a hunter and the duck is prey. Someday, I too shall pass and my mortal shell will be consumed. As I see it, it is morally acceptable to kill the duck for food, provided that the kill is clean and that if it is not the matter is set right.

Those who embrace vegetarianism can raise very reasonable moral objections against killing even for food—why kill an animal that can suffer instead of eating a plant that (supposedly) cannot? I do find considerable merit in these arguments and accept that killing animals for food is morally worse than killing plants. However, I accept the moral weight of my actions and this makes me reluctant to kill. In fact, I would so only for defense or true hunger.

When I went to college and then to graduate school, I learned a great deal about ethics. It is, in fact, a subject I teach. Interestingly, what I learned about ethics did not radically change my views of guns (or hunting). Mainly it gave me a better theoretical framework in which to discuss the issues.

While I have not been hunting in many years, I still engage in target shooting with friends. We go to a gun range, follow all the safety protocols (and watch out for the fools who do not) and usually get lunch afterwards. We get, I think, the same enjoyment from this that people get from playing golf. While there is some risk of injury, that is true of many activities—so I have never regarded target shooting as immoral.

While assault rifles are the big news these days, the hottest field in guns is concealed carry. Some states allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon while others require a license. When I got my first permit in Maine, the process was very easy and was handled by the local police. When I got a permit in Florida, I had to take a safety course (which was a bit weird, since I had been shooting for almost 40 years) and pass a fairly thorough background check.

When I was in Maine, I had the permit mainly as a matter of convenience—so I could carry my .357 under my jacket while hunting (it was a backup in case my rifle malfunctioned and I had to finish off a wounded deer (a fellow I know once had to finish off a deer with a small knife, which was horrifying) and to go to target shoot. I got the permit in Florida mainly for convenience in taking a gun to the range and also to be legally safe in regards to carrying a knife (being from Maine, I always have a knife—pretty sure that is some sort of natural law).

Some people get permits because of fear of being attacked. While I am aware that this could happen, I am not particularly afraid that I will be attacked—I understand how statistics work. I also understand how being afraid actually creates more danger—a person whose mind is shaped by fear is far more likely to overreact violently. I practice a casual alertness: I know that some people I encounter will be friendly, the vast majority will be neutral and the odds of encountering an attacker are incredibly low. But, it is unwise to be unaware. I have been in a few situations that could have gone very badly, but my preferred resolution is talking—that has worked so far.

I do, however, believe that a person has a moral obligation to be capable of self-defense. To expect others to bear the burden of defense is moral selfishness, worse than expecting someone else to do one’s cooking and cleaning. After all, defending a person can result in death. Naturally, I do accept that the helpless and those who are less capable should be protected; but being willfully helpless is a moral failing. I am not, however, claiming that everyone should get a gun. A gun is a great responsibility and should, as a matter of ethics, only be entrusted with those of the right character who are willing to learn to use the weapon properly and responsibly. I think the same way about all dangerous machines, including automobiles. While there is the right to be armed, not everyone is up to exercising that right properly. This is, of course, distinct from the legality of the matter. To use an analogy, I think there are people who should not have children because they are awful parents. However, they have every legal right to do so—until they cross certain boundaries. The same applies to guns.

That, then, is my gun backstory that shapes the lens through which I see gun issues. Naturally, I expect people to have moral criticisms of my backstory as well as the position I take as the result of reasoning colored by this backstory. But, those who disagree with me should consider their own backstories and how they impact their views. As should those who agree with me.


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Gun Control

Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine

The June, 2016 mass shooting in Orlando has thrown gasoline on the political fire of gun control. While people on the left and right both agree that mass shootings should be prevented, they disagree about what steps should be taken to reduce the chances that another one will occur.

As would be expected, people on the left (and broad center) favor efforts focused on guns. While this is normally called “gun control”, this is a phrase that should no longer be used. This is not as a matter of duplicity, to present proposals under a false guise. Rather, this is because “gun control” has become so emotionally charged that the use of the phrase interferes with a rational discussion of proposals. If a proposal is labeled as “gun control”, this will tend to trigger immediate opposition from people who might otherwise support a specific proposal, such as one aimed precisely at preventing criminals and potential terrorists from acquiring guns.

Coming up with a new phrase might be problematic. “Gun safety” is already taken and deals with the safe handling of weapons. “Gun regulation” is a possibility, but “regulation” has become an emotional trigger word as well. The phrase should certainly not be a euphemism or sugar coated—doing so would certainly open the usage up to a charge of duplicity. Since I do not have a good enough phrase, I will continue to use the loaded “gun control” and hope that the reader is not too influenced by the connotation of the phrase.

Positions on gun control are largely set by emotions rather than a logical analysis of the matter. In my case, I am emotionally pro-gun. This is because, as a boy in Maine, I grew up with guns. All my gun experiences are positive: hunting with my dad and target shooting with friends. I am well aware that guns are lethal, but I have no more fear of guns than I have of other lethal machines, such as automobiles and table saws. No close friend or relative has been a victim of gun violence. Fortunately, I have enough empathy that I can feel for people who loath guns because of some awful experience. But, as with all complicated problems, one cannot feel a way to a solution. This requires rational thought.

Being a professional philosopher, I have some skill at considering the matter of gun control in rational terms. While there are many possible approaches to gun control, there are currently to main proposals. As is always the case, these proposals are arising from the specifics of the latest incident rather than a broad consideration of the general problem of gun violence.

The first type of proposal involves banning people on the no fly list from purchasing guns. This has been proposed because of the belief that the Orlando shooter was on this list and if this proposal had been enacted, then the shooting would have not taken place. On the face of it, this seems to make sense: people who are evaluated as too much of a threat to fly would seem to also be too much of a threat to buy guns. There are, however, a few problems with this proposal. The first is that the no fly list has been a mess, with people ending up on the list who should not be there. This can be addressed by improving the quality of list management—though there will always be mistakes. The second problem is a matter of rights. While there is no constitutional right to fly, there is the Second Amendment and banning a person from buying guns because they have been put on such a list is certainly problematic. It could be countered that felons and mentally incompetent people are denied the right to buy guns, so it is no more problematic to ban potential terrorists. The problem is, however, that a person can end up on the no fly list without going through much in the way of due process. That is, a basic constitutional right can be denied far too easily. This can, of course, be addressed by making the process of being on the list more robust or developing an alternative list with stricter requirements and far better management. There would still be the legitimate concern about denying people a right on the basis of suspicion of what they might do rather than as a response to what they have actually done. There is also the fact that the overwhelming majority of gun violence in the United States is committed by people who are not on that list. So, this proposal would have rather limited impact.

The second type of proposal is a return to the ban on assault weapons and high capacity clips (what a friend of mine calls “the ‘scary gun’ ban”). This proposal is based on the belief that if only the Orlando shooter had not been able to acquire a semiautomatic assault rifle and high capacity clips, then the casualties would have been far less.

For those not familiar with weapons, a semiautomatic fires one round with each pull of the trigger and will do so until the magazine is exhausted. Each shot “cocks” the gun again, allowing rapid fire. This is in contrast with, for example, a bolt, pump or lever action weapon. These weapons require the operator to manually move a round from the magazine to the chamber for each shot. These weapons fire considerably slower than semiautomatics, although a skilled user can still fire quite rapidly. There are also weapons that fire in bursts (firing a certain number of rounds with each trigger pull) and those that are fully automatic (firing for as long as the trigger is held and ammunition remains).

While many people believe otherwise, it is often perfectly legal to buy an automatic weapon—a person just has to go through a fairly complicated process including a thorough background check. I know people who own such weapons—legally and above board. The strict process of acquisition and high cost of such weapons generally keeps them out of hands of most people. As such, this could serve as a model for placing stronger limitations on other weapons.

While many people fear what are called “assault rifles” because they look scary to them (merely firing one gave timid journalist Gersh Kuntzman PTSD), the appearance of a gun does not determine its lethality. The typical assault rifle fires a 5.56mm round (though some fire the 7.62mm round) and they are less powerful than the typical hunting rifle. This is not surprising: assault rifles were developed to kill medium sized mammals (humans) and many hunting rifles were designed to kill larger mammals (such as moose and bears). While assault rifles are generally not “high powered”, they do suffice to kill people.

Assault rifles are more of a threat than other rifles for two reasons. The first is that the assault rifle is semi-automatic, which allows a far more rapid rate of fire relative to lever, bolt and pump action weapons. The slower a person fires, the slower they kill—thus allowing a greater chance they can be stopped. However, there are also plenty of semiautomatic non-assault rifles, which leads to the second factor, magazine size. Assault rifles of the sort sold to civilians typically have 20 or 30 round magazines, while typical hunting rifle (non-assault) holds far less. Maine, for example, sets a legal magazine limit of 5 rounds (plus one in the chamber) for hunting rifles.

A ban on semiautomatic rifles sales could have an impact on mass shootings, provided that the shooter had to purchase the rifle after the ban and did not already have access to a semiautomatic weapon. While some hunters do prefer semiautomatic weapons, it is possible to hunt as effectively with pump, lever and bolt action weapons. When I went duck hunting, I used a pump shotgun (which I actually prefer, having seen semiautomatic shotguns jam from time to time) and for deer hunting I used a bolt action rifle.

The main impact of such a ban would be that shooters who have to acquire new weapons for their shooting would have weapons with a lower rate of fire. They could still kill many people, but the kill rate would be slower—thus the death toll should be lower in such cases.

A ban on high capacity clips would also have an impact on the kill rate of shooters who have to buy new clips for their mass shooting. If magazines were limited to 10 rounds, a shooter would need to reload more often and reloading time would afford a chance to stop the shooter.

Combining the two bans would mean that shooters who had to acquire new weapons for their mass shooting would be limited to low capacity, slower firing weapons. This could significantly reduce the death toll of future shootings.

As has been noted, these sorts of bans would only affect a shooter who had to acquire a new weapon or clips. Shooters who already have their weapons would not be impacted by the ban. As such, what would be needed would be to remove existing semiautomatic weapons and high capacity clips—something that seems politically impossible in the United States.


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Orlando & Terrorism

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

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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The University that Wasn’t

While Hillary Clinton is mired in the tar pit of her email server scandal, Trump’s foes are hoping that Trump University will prove to be the quicksand that puts an end to him. While Trump named it “Trump University”, in 2005 the state of New York took action to make him change the name on the grounds that it was not, in fact, a university. A university has to meet certain standards and Trump’s operation did not meet these. This, however, is not the problem that Trump now faces.

As this is written, there is a class action lawsuit against Trump (who owned 93% of the “university”) that is based on an allegation of fraud against Trump. It has been claimed that the “university” was a scheme aimed at taking money from the elderly and the uneducated using carefully scripted high pressure sales tactics. The trial is scheduled in November, shortly after the presidential election. Because of this, president elect Trump might find himself in the courtroom after his victory. Assuming, of course, that he wins.

While I will not comment on the legal issues, the “university” seems to have been morally problematic. As noted above, calling it a university seems to have been deceptive, given that it was not a university. Naturally, Trump could be defended by arguing that he and everyone else involved were ignorant of the requirements for an institution being a university. While this would indicate poor planning, it would mitigate the charge of deception.

The practices laid out by the verified documentation show practices that are morally problematic. As noted above, the “university” seemed to have been targeted at the elderly and uneducated, people who would be regarded as easy targets for this sort of operation. Also as noted above, the sales tactics (though standard) seem morally dubious. There is also the fact that the customers seemed to have gotten little in return for their money and, in some cases, did not get what they were promised. One of the main focuses has been on the claim that Trump handpicked the instructors—a claim that was proven to be untrue. What adds an icing of awfulness to the whole wicked cake is that the “university” focused on how to cash in on the housing collapse. While making money off the suffering and misfortune of others is legal and often lauded in the United States, it should strike those with a conscience as reprehensible on its face.

Trump’s defenders can certainly address such moral condemnation. The easy any obvious avenue is to point out that it has yet to be shown that Trump did anything illegal. Targeting the vulnerable, using high pressure sales tactics, providing services of dubious value and training people to profit on the misfortune of others all seem to be legal. In fact, a case can be made that these are excellent things in regards to making a profit. Trump could even make the case that far from being a moral stain on his campaign, the way Trump University operated serves as proof that he knows how to get things done and that he has no qualms about doing what it takes to achieve his ends. Some might regard these traits as laudable in a president.

Trump has, as would be expected, responded to the explosion in the media. He has used the well-honed tactic of attacking the media, tapping into the well-established dislike and distrust crafted by Republicans and Fox News. While criticism of objectivity is a legitimate tactic, bashing the media is both a red herring (a rhetorical tool to distract attention from the issue) and a genetic fallacy (taking an alleged defect in the source of the claim as evidence the claim is not true). While the claims made about Trump by the professional media seem to be well and objectively documented, what matters politically is what impact this will have on the voters. Democrats are no doubt hoping for a “Trump U. Gate” to draw attention from Hillary’s server woes. However, Trump’s supporters might not care at all. This would be especially ironic, given that the allegation is one of fraud and his supporters tend to point to his authenticity as a major reason for their allegiance.

Trump has also gone after the U.S. District Judge who is presiding over the case. Trump has said that Judge Gonzalo Curiel is a “hater” and has said the Indiana native is Mexican. The hater remark is a mere ad hominem, which is a standard Trump tactic: to use personal attacks instead of providing actual reasons. Presumably Trump’s claim that he believes the judge is Mexican is also some sort of attack and perhaps a tactic to spin a narrative that he is being persecuted by the Mexicans for his courageous political incorrectness (or racism, as some see it).

This approach might play will with his supporters and he probably runs little risk in pushing people off the fence to the Democrat’s side. After all, if his remarks and behavior have not already pushed someone off the fence, these remarks should not be the rock that knocked the bird off the fence.

Trump has managed to thrive by behaving in ways that would have been political suicide for just about any other candidate, thus showing that the rules are different for him (at least for now). What remains to be seen is whether or not the revelations about Trump University will harm him politically. On the one hand, such allegations should damage his reputation as authentic and successful. On the other hand, while the details about Trump University are new to the public, it seems that they show nothing new about Trump himself. As such, it seems most likely that this will not hurt Trump much. That said, this might help Hillary a bit by getting the media, public and pundits focused on Trump University and not on Hillary’s server. Trump must get these eyes pushed back to gaze upon the server, which he is endeavoring to do.


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Inheritance & Welfare

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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The Incredible Shifting Hillary

When supporters of Donald Trump are asked why they back him, the most common answers are that Trump “tells it like it is” and that he is “authentic.” When people who dislike Hillary are asked why, they often refer to her ever shifting positions and that she just says what she thinks people want to hear.

Given that Trump has, at best, a distant relation with the truth it is somewhat odd that he is seen as telling it like it is. He may be authentic, but he is most assuredly telling it like it is not. While Hillary has shifted positions, she has a far closer relationship to the truth (although still not a committed one). Those who oppose Hillary tend to focus on these shifts in making the case against her. Her defenders endeavor to minimize the impact of these claims or boldly try to make a virtue of said shifting. Given the importance of the shifting, this a matter well worth considering.

While the extent of Hillary’s shifting can be debated, the fact that she has shifted on major issues is a matter of fact. Good examples of shifts include the second Iraq War, free trade, same-sex marriage and law enforcement. While many are tempted to claim that the fact that she has shifted her views on such issues proves she is wrong now, doing this would be to fall victim to the classic ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This is an error in reasoning in which it is inferred that a person’s current view or claim is mistaken because they have held to a different view or claim in the past. While two inconsistent claims cannot be true at the same time, pointing out that a person’s current claim is inconsistent with a past claim does not prove which claim is not true (and both could actually be false). After all, the person could have been wrong then while being right now. Or vice versa. Or wrong in both cases. Because of this, it cannot be inferred that Hillary’s views are wrong now simply because she held opposite views in the past.

While truth is important, the main criticism of Hillary’s shifting is not that she has moved from a correct view to an erroneous view. Rather, the criticism is that she is shifting her expressed views to match whatever she thinks the voters want to hear. That is, she is engaged in pandering.

Since pandering is a common practice in politics, it seems reasonable to hold that it is unfair to single Hillary out for special criticism. This does not, of course defend the practice. To accept that being common justifies a practice would be to fall victim to the common practice fallacy. This is an error in reasoning in which a practice is defended by asserting it is a common one. Obviously enough, the mere fact that something is commonly done does not entail that it is good or justified. That said, if a practice is common yet wrong, it is still unfair to single out a specific person for special criticism for engaging in that practice. Rather, all those that engage in the practice should be criticized.

It could be argued that while pandering is a common practice, Hillary does warrant special criticism because her shifting differs in relevant and significant ways from the shifting of others. This could be a matter of volume (she shifts more than others), content (she shifts on more important issues), extent (she shifts to a greater degree) or some other factors. While judging the nature and extent of shifts does involve some subjective assessment, these factors can be evaluated with a reasonable degree of objectivity—although partisan influences can interfere with this. Since Hillary is generally viewed through the lenses of intense partisanship, I will not endeavor to address this matter—it is unlikely that anything I could write would sway partisan opinions. I will, however, address the ethics of shifting.

While there is a tendency to regard position shifting with suspicion, there are cases in which is not only acceptable, but laudable. These are cases in which the shift is justified by evidence or reasoning that warrants such a shift. For example, I was a theoretical anarchist for a while in college: I believed that the best government was the least government and preferably none at all. However, reading Locke, Hobbes and others as well as gaining a better understanding of how humans actually behave resulted in a shift in my position. I am no longer an anarchist on the grounds that the position is not well supported. To use another example, I went through a phase in which I was certain in my atheism. However, arguments made by Hume and Kant changed my view regarding the possibility of such certainty. As a final example, I used to believe in magical beings like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. However, the evidence of their nonexistence convinced me to shift my view. In all these cases the shifts are laudable: I changed my view because of considered evidence and argumentation. While there can be considerable debate about what counts as good evidence or reasoning for a shift, the basic principle seems sound. A person should believe what is best supported by evidence and reasoning and this often changes over time.

Turning back to Hillary, if she has shifted her views on the basis of evidence and reasoning that justly support her new views, then she should not be condemned for the shift. For example, if she believed in the approach to crime taken by her husband when he was President, but has changed her view in the face of evidence that this view is flawed, then her change would be quite reasonable. As might be expected, her supporters tend to claim this is why she changes her views. The challenge is to show that this is the case. Her critics typically claim that the reason for her shifts is to match what she thinks will get her the most votes, which leads to the question of whether this is a bad thing or not.

A very reasonable concern about a politician who just says what she thinks the voters want to hear is that the person lacks principles, so that the voters do not really know who they are voting for. As such, they cannot make a good decision regarding what the politician would actually do in office.

A possible reply to this is that a politician who shifts her views to match those of the voters is exactly what people should want in a representative democracy: the elected officials should act in accord with the will of the people. This does raise the broad subject of the proper function of an elected official: to do the will of the people, to do what they said they would do, to act in accord with their character and principles or something else. This goes beyond the limited scope of the essay, but the answer is rather critical to determining whether Hillary’s shifting is a good or bad thing. If politicians should act on their own principles and views rather than doing what the people want them to do, then there would seem to be good grounds for criticizing any politician whose own views are not those of the people.

A final interesting point is to argue that Hillary should not be criticized for shifting her views to match those that are now held by the majority of people (or majority of Democrats). If other people can shift their views on these matters over time in ways that are acceptable, then the same should apply to Hillary. For example, when Hillary was against same-sex marriage that was the common view in the country. Now, most Americans are fine with it—and so is Hillary. Her defenders assert that she, like most Americans, has changed her views over time in the face of changing social conditions. Her detractors claim she is merely pandering and has no commitment beyond achieving power. This is a factual matter, albeit one that is hard to settle without evidence as to what is really going on in her mind. After all, a mere change in her view to match the general view is consistent with both unprincipled pandering and a reasoned change in a position that has evolved with the times.


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Antibiotics & the Cost of Agriculture

Modern agriculture does deserve considerable praise for the good that it does. Food is plentiful, relatively cheap and easy to acquire. Instead of having to struggle with raising crops and livestock or hunting and gathering, I can simply drive to the supermarket and stock up with the food I need to not die. However, as with all things, there is a price.

The modern agricultural complex is now highly centralized and industrialized, which does have its advantages and disadvantages. There are also the harms of specific, chosen practices aimed at maximizing profits. While there are many ways to maximize profits, two common ones are to pay the lowest wages possible (which the agricultural industry does—and not just to the migrant laborers, but to the ranchers and farmers) and to shift the costs to others. I will look, briefly, at one area of cost shifting: the widespread use of antibiotics in meat production.

While most people think of antibiotics as a means of treating diseases, food animals are now routinely given antibiotics when they are healthy. One reason for this is to prevent infections: factory farming techniques, as might be imagined, vastly increase the chances of a disease spreading like wildfire among an animal population. Antibiotics, it is claimed, can help reduce the risk of bacterial infections (antibiotics are useless against viruses, of course). A second reason is that antibiotics increase the growth rate of healthy animals, allowing them to pack on more meat in less time—and time is money. These uses allow the industry to continue factory farming and maintain high productivity—which initially seems laudable. The problem is, however, that this use of antibiotics comes with a high price that is paid for by everyone else.

Eric Schlosser wrote “A Safer Food Future, Now”, which appeared in the May 2016 issue of Consumer Reports. In this article, he notes that this practice has contributed significantly to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Each year, about two million Americans are infected with resistant strains and about 20,000 die. The healthcare cost is about $20 billion. To be fair, the agricultural industry is not the only contributor to this problem: improper use of antibiotics in humans has also added to this problem. That said, the agricultural use of antibiotics accounts for about 75% of all antibiotic usage in the United States, thus converting the factory farms into for resistant bacteria.

The harmful consequences of this antibiotic use have been known for years and there have, not surprisingly, been attempts to address this through legislation. It should, however, come as little surprise that our elected leaders have failed to take action. One likely explanation is that the lobbying on the part of the relevant corporations has been successful in preventing action. After all these is a strong incentive on the part of industry to keep antibiotics in use: this increases profits by enabling factory farming and the faster growth of animals. That said, it could be contended that the lawmakers are ignorant of the harms, doubt there are harms from antibiotics or honestly believe that the harms arising from their use are outweighed by the benefits to society. That is, the lawmakers have credible reasons other than straight up political bribery (or “lobbying” as it is known in polite company). This is a factual matter, albeit one that is difficult to settle: no professional politician who has been swayed by lobbying will attribute her decision to any but the purist of motivations.

This matter is certainly one of ethical concern and, like most large scale ethical matters that involves competing interests, is one that seems best approached by utilitarian considerations. On the side of using the antibiotics, there is the increased productivity (and profits) of the factory farming system of producing food. This allows more and cheaper food to be provided to the population, which can be regarded as pluses. The main reasons to not use the antibiotics, as noted above, are that they contribute to the creation of antibiotic resistant strains that sicken and kill many people (vastly more Americans than are killed by terrorism). This inflicts considerable costs on the sickened and those who are killed as well as those who care about them. There are also the monetary costs in the health care system (although the increased revenue can be tagged as a plus for health care providers). In addition to these costs, there are also other social and economic costs, such as lost hours of work. As this indicates, the cost (illness, death, etc.) of the use of the antibiotics is shifted: the industry does not pay these costs, they are paid by everyone else.

Using a utilitarian calculation requires weighing the cost to the general population against the profits of the industry and the claimed benefits to the general population. Put roughly, the moral question is whether the improved profits and greater food production outweigh the illness, deaths and costs suffered by the public. The people in the government seem to believe that the answer is “yes.”

If the United States were in a food crisis in which the absence of the increased productivity afforded by antibiotics would cause more suffering and death than their presence, then their use would be morally acceptable. However, this does not seem to be the case—while banning this sort of antibiotic use would decrease productivity (and impact profits), the harm of doing this would seem to be vastly exceeded by the reduction in illness, deaths and health care costs. However, if an objective assessment of the matter showed that the ban on antibiotics would not create more benefits than harms, then it would be reasonable and morally acceptable to continue to use them. This is partially a matter of value (in terms of how the harms and benefits are weighted) and partially an objective matter (in terms of monetary and health costs). I am inclined to agree that the general harm of using the antibiotics exceeds the general benefits, but I could be convinced otherwise by objective data.


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Understanding & “An Open Letter to My White Colleagues”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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The Chart that Explains Everyone

Back in March, 2016 I did an interview about the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system and the real world. Part of this interview appears here:

The audio is here: