Category Archives: Ethics

What is the Worst Thing You Should (Be Allowed to) Say?

Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been s...

Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been specifically banned from entering Canada for hate speech. Church members enter Canada, aiming to picket bus victim’s funeral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The murders at Charlie Hedbo and their aftermath raised the issue of freedom of expression in a dramatic and terrible manner. In response to these deaths, there was an outpouring of support for this basic freedom and, somewhat ironically, a crackdown on some people expressing their views.

This situation raises two rather important issues. The first is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should express. The second is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. While these might seem to be the same issue, they are not. The reason for this is that there is a distinction between what a person should do and what is morally permissible to prevent a person from doing. The main focus will be on using the coercive power of the state in this role.

As an illustration of the distinction, consider the example of a person lying to his girlfriend about running strikes all day in the video game Destiny when he was supposed to be doing yard work. It seems reasonable to think that he should not lie to her (although exceptions are easy to imagine). However, it also seems reasonable to think that the police should not be sent to coerce him into telling her the truth. So, he should not lie to her about playing the game but he should be allowed to do so by the state (that is, it should not use its police powers to stop him).

This view can be disputed and there are those who argue in favor of complete freedom from the state (anarchists) and those who argue that the state should control every aspect of life (totalitarians). However, the idea that that there are some matters that are not the business of the state seems to be an intuitively plausible position—at least in democratic states such as the United States. What follows will rest on this assumption and the challenge will be to sort out these two issues.

One rather plausible and appealing approach is to take a utilitarian stance on the matter and accept the principle of harm as the foundation for determining the worst thing that a person should express and also the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. The basic idea behind this is that the right of free expression is bounded by the stock liberal right of others not to be harmed in their life, liberty and property without due justification.

In the case of the worst thing that a person should express, I am speaking in the context of morality. There are, of course, non-moral meanings of “should.” To use the most obvious example, there is the “pragmatic should”: what a person should or should not do in regards to advancing his practical self-interest. For example, a person should not tell her boss what she really thinks of him if doing so would cost her the job she desperately needs. To use another example, there is also the “should of etiquette”: what a person should do or not do in order to follow the social norms. For example, a person should not go without pants at a formal wedding, even to express his opposition to the tyranny of pants.

Returning to the matter of morality, it seems reasonable to go with the stock approach of weighing the harm the expression generates against the right of free expression (assuming there is such a right). Obviously enough, there is not an exact formula for calculating the worst thing a person should express and this will vary according to the circumstances. For example, the worst thing one should express to a young child would presumably be different from the worst thing one should express to adult. In terms of the harms, these would include the obvious things such as offending the person, scaring her, insulting her, and so on for the various harms that can be inflicted by mere expression.

While I do not believe that people have a right not to be offended, people do seem to have a right not to be unjustly harmed by other people expressing themselves. To use an obvious example, men should not catcall women who do not want to be subject to this verbal harassment. This sort of behavior certainly offends, upsets and even scares many women and the men’s right to free expression does not give them a moral pass that exempts them from what they should or should not do.

To use another example, people should not intentionally and willfully insult another person’s deeply held beliefs simply for the sake of insulting or provoking the person. While the person does have the right to mock the belief of another, his right of expression is not a moral free pass to be abusive.

As a final example, people should not engage in trolling. While a person does have the right to express his views so as to troll others, this is clearly wrong. Trolling is, by definition, done with malice and contributes nothing of value to the conversation. As such, it should not be done.

It is rather important to note that while I have claimed that people should not unjustly harm others by expressing themselves, I have not made any claims about whether or not people should or should not be allowed to express themselves in these ways. It is to this that I now turn.

If the principle of harm is a reasonable principle (which can be debated), then a plausible approach would be to use it to sketch out some boundaries. The first rough boundary was just discussed: this is the boundary between what people should express and what people should (morally) not. The second rough boundary begins at the point where other people should be allowed to prevent a person from expressing himself and ends just before the point at which the state has the moral right to use its coercive power to prevent expression.

This area is the domain of interactions between people that does not fall under the authority of the state, yet still permits people to be prevented from expressing their views. To use an obvious example, the workplace is such a domain in which people can be justly prevented from expressing their views without the state being involved. To use a specific example, the administrators of my university have the right to prevent me from expressing certain things—even if doing so would not fall under the domain of the state. To use another example, a group of friends would have the right, among themselves, to ban someone from their group for saying racist, mean and spiteful things to one of their number. As a final example, a blog administrator would have the right to ban a troll from her site, even though the troll should not be subject to the coercive power of the state.

The third boundary is the point at which the state can justly use its coercive power to prevent a person from engaging in expression. As with the other boundaries, this would be set (roughly) by the degree of harm that the expression would cause others. There are many easy and obvious example where the state would act rightly in imposing on a person: threats of murder, damaging slander, incitements to violence against the innocent, and similar such unquestionably harmful expressions.

Matters do, of course, get complicated rather quickly. Consider, for example, a person who does not call for the murder of cartoonists who mock Muhammad but tweets his approval when they are killed. While this would certainly seem to be something a person should not do (though this could be debated), it is not clear that it crosses the boundary that would allow the state to justly prevent the person from expressing this view. If the approval does not create sufficient harm, then it would seem to not warrant coercive action against the person by the state.

As another example, consider the expression of racist views via social media. While people should not say such things (and would be justly subject to the consequences), as long as they do not engage in actual threats, then it would seem that the state does not have the right to silence the person. This is because the expression of racist views (without threats) would not seem to generate enough harm to warrant state coercion. Naturally, it could justify action on the part of the person’s employer, friends and associates: he might be fired and shunned.

As a third example, consider a person who mocks the dominant or even official religion of the state. While the rulers of such states usually think they have the right to silence such an infidel, it is not clear that this would create enough unjust harm to warrant silencing the person. Being an American, I think that it would not—but I believe in both freedom of religion and the freedom to mock religion.  There is, of course, the matter of the concern that such mockery would provoke others to harm the mocker, thus warranting the state to stop the person—for her own protection. However, the fact that people will act wrongly in response to expressions would not seem to warrant coercing the person into silence.

In general, I favor erring on the side of freedom: unless the state can show that silencing expression is needed to prevent a real and unjust harm, the state does not have the moral right to silence expression.

I have merely sketched out a general outline of this matter and have presented three rough boundaries in regards to what people should say and what they should be allowed to say. Much more work would be needed to develop a full and proper account.

 

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Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?

One in a series of posters attacking Radical R...

One in a series of posters attacking Radical Republicans on the issue of black suffrage, issued during the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1866. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been argued that everyone is a little bit racist. Various studies have shown that black America are treated rather differently than white Americans. Examples of this include black students being more likely to be suspended than white students, blacks being arrested at a higher rate than whites, and job applications with “black sounding” names being less likely to get callbacks than those with “white sounding” names. Interestingly, studies have shown that the alleged racism is not confined to white Americans: black Americans also seem to share this racism. One study involves a simulator in which the participant takes on the role of a police officer and must decide to shoot or holster her weapon when confronted by simulated person. The study indicates that participants, regardless of race, shoot more quickly at blacks than whites and are more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than an unarmed white person. There are, of course, many other studies and examples that support the claim that everyone is a little bit racist.

Given the evidence, it would seem reasonable to accept the claim that everyone is a little bit racist. It is, of course, also an accepted view in certain political circles. However, there seems to be something problematic with claiming that everyone is racist, even if it is the claim that the racism is of the small sort.

One point of logical concern is that inferring that all people are at least a little racist on the basis of such studies would be problematic. Rather, what should be claimed is that the studies indicate the presence of racism and that these findings can be generalized to the entire population. But, this could be dismissed as a quibble about induction.

Some people, as might be suspected, would take issue with this claim because to be accused of racism is rather offensive. Some, as also might be suspected, would take issue with this claim because they claim that racism has ended in America, hence people are not racist. Not even a little bit. Other might complain that the accusation is a political weapon that is wielded unjustly. I will not argue about these matters, but will instead focus on another concern, that of the concept of racism in this context.

In informal terms, racism is prejudice, antagonism or discrimination based on race. Since various studies show that people have prejudices linked to race and engage in discrimination along racial lines, it seems reasonable to accept that everyone is at least a bit racist.

To use an analogy, consider the matter of lying. A liar, put informally, is someone who makes a claim that she does not believe with the intention of getting others to accept it as true. Since there is considerable evidence that people engage in this behavior, it can be claimed that everyone is a little bit of a liar. That is, everyone has told a lie.

Another analogy would be to being an abuser. Presumably each person has been at least a bit mean or cruel to another person she has been in a relationship with (be it a family relationship, a friendship or a romantic relationship). This would thus entail that everyone is at least a little bit abusive.

The analogies could continue almost indefinitely, but it will suffice to end them here, with the result that we are all racist, abusive liars.

On the one hand, the claim is true. I have been prejudiced. I have lied. I have been mean to people I love. I have engaged in addictive behavior. The same is likely to be true of even the very best of us. Since we have lied, we are liars. Since we have abused, we are abusers. Since we have prejudice and have discriminated based on race, we are racists.

On the other hand, the claim is problematic. After all, to judge someone to be a racist, an abuser, or a liar is to make a strong moral judgment of the person. For example, imagine the following conversation:

Sam: “I’m interested in your friend Sally. You know her pretty well…what is she like?”

Me: “She is a liar and a racist.”

Sam: “But…she seems so nice.”

Me: “She is. In fact, she’s one of the best people I know.”

Sam: “But you said she is a liar and a racist.”

Me: “Oh, she is. But just a little bit.”

Sam: “What?”

Me: “Well, she told me that when she was in college, she lied to a guy to avoid going on a date. She also said that when she was a kid, she thought white people were all racists and would not be friends with them. So, she is a liar and a racist.”

Sam: “I don’t think you know what those words mean.”

The point is, of course, that terms like “racist”, “abuser” and “liar” have what can be regarded as proper moral usage. To be more specific, because these are such strong terms, they should be applied in cases in which they actually fit. For example, while anyone who lies is technically a liar, the designation of being a liar should only apply to someone who routinely engages in that behavior. That is, a person who has a moral defect in regards to honesty. Likewise, anyone who has a prejudice based on race or discriminates based on race is technically a racist. However, the designation of racist should be reserved for those who have the relevant moral defect—that is, racism is their way of being, as opposed to failing to be perfectly unbiased. As such, using the term “racist” (or “liar”) in claiming that “everyone is a little bit racist” (or “everyone is little bit of a liar”) either waters down the moral term or imposes too harsh a judgment on the person. Either way would be problematic.

So, if the expression “we are all a little bit racist” should not be used, what should replace it? My suggestion is to speak instead of people being subject to race linked biases. While saying “we are all subject to race linked biases” is less attention grabbing than “we are all a little bit racist”, it seems more honest as a description.

 

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Group Responsibility



After the murders in France, people were once again discussing the matter of group responsibility. In the case of these murders, some contend that all Muslims are responsible for the actions of the few who committed murder. In most cases people do not claim that all Muslims support the killings, but there is a tendency to still put a special burden of responsibility upon Muslims as a group.

Some people do take the killings and other terrible events as evidence that Islam itself is radical and violent. This sort of “reasoning” is, obviously enough, the same sort used when certain critics of the Tea Party drew the conclusion that the movement was racist because some individuals in the Tea Party engaged in racist behavior. It is also the same “reasoning” used to condemn all Christians or Republicans based on the actions of a very few.

To infer that an entire group has a certain characteristic (such as being violent or prone to terrorism) based on the actions of a few would generally involve committing the fallacy of hasty generalization. It can also be seen as the fallacy of suppressed evidence in that evidence contrary to the claim is simply ignored. For example, to condemn Islam as violent based on the actions of terrorists would be to ignore the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are as peaceful as people of other faiths, such as Christians and Jews.

It might be objected that a group can be held accountable for the misdeeds of its members even when those misdeeds are committed by a few and even when these misdeeds are supposed to not be in accord with the real beliefs of the group. For example, if I were to engage in sexual harassment while on the job, Florida A&M University can be held accountable for my actions. Thus, it could be argued, all Muslims are accountable for the killings in France and these killings provide just more evidence that Islam itself is a violent and murderous religion.

In reply, Islam (like Christianity) is not a monolithic faith with a single hierarchy over all Muslims. After all, there are various sects of Islam and a multitude of diverse Muslim hierarchies. For example, the Moslems of Saudi Arabia do not fall under the hierarchy of the Moslems of Iran.

As such, treating all of Islam as an organization with a chain of command and a chain of responsibility that extends throughout the entire faith would be rather problematic. To use an analogy, sports fans sometimes go on violent rampages after events. While the actions of the violent fans should be condemned, the peaceful fans are not accountable for those actions. After all, while the fans are connected by their being fans of a specific team this is not enough to form a basis for accountability. So, if some fans of a team set fire to cars, this does not make all the fans of that team responsible. Also, if people unassociated with the fans decide to jump into action and destroy things, it would be even more absurd to claim that the peaceful fans are accountable for their actions. As such, to condemn all of Islam based on what happened in France would be both unfair and unreasonable. As such, the people who murdered in France are accountable but Islam cannot have these incidents laid at its collective doorstep.

This, of course, raises the question of the extent to which even an organized group is accountable for its members. One intuitive guide is that the accountability of the group is proportional to the authority the group has over the individuals. For example, while I am a philosopher and belong to the American Philosophical Association, other philosophers have no authority over me. As such, they have no accountability for my actions. In contrast, my university has considerable authority over my work life as a professional philosopher and hence can be held accountable should I, for example, sexually harass a student or co-worker.

The same principle should be applied to Islam (and any faith). Being a Moslem is analogous to being a philosopher in that there is a recognizable group. As with being a philosopher, merely being a Moslem does not make a person accountable for all other Moslems.

But, just as I belong to an organization with a hierarchy, a Moslem can belong to an analogous organization, such as a mosque or ISIS. To the degree that the group has authority over the individual, the group is accountable. So, if the killers in France were acting as members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, then the group would be accountable. However, while groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda might delude themselves into thinking they have legitimate authority over all Moslems, they obviously do not. After all, they are opposed by most Moslems.

So, with a religion as vast and varied as Islam, it cannot be reasonably be claimed that there is a central earthly authority over its members and this would serve to limit the collective responsibility of the faith. Naturally, the same would apply to other groups with a similar lack of overall authority, such as Christians, conservatives, liberals, Buddhists, Jews, philosophers, runners, and satirists.

 

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Of Lies & Disagreements

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When people disagree on controversial issues it is not uncommon for one person to accuse another of lying. In some cases this accusation is clearly warranted and in others it is clearly not. Discerning between these cases is clearly a matter of legitimate concern. There is also some confusion of what should count as a lie and what should not.

While this might seem like a matter of mere semantics, the distinction between what is a lie and what is not actually matters. The main reason for this is that to accuse a person of lying is, in general, to lay a moral charge against the person. It is not merely to claim that the person is in error but to claim that the person is engaged in something that is morally wrong. While some people do use “lie” interchangeably with “untruth”, there is clearly a difference.

To use an easy and obvious example, imagine a student who is asked which year the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The student thinks it was in 1944 and writes that down. She has made an untrue claim, but it would clearly not do for the teacher to accuse her of being a liar.

Now, imagine that one student, Sally, is asking another student, Jane, about when the United States bombed Hiroshima. Jane does not like Sally and wants her to do badly on her exam, so she tells her that the year was 1944, though she knows it was 1945. If Sally tells another student that it was 1944 and also puts that down on her test, Sally could not justly be accused of lying. Jane, however, can be fairly accused. While Sally is saying and writing something untrue, she believes the claim and is not acting with any malicious intent. In contrast, Jane believes she is saying something untrue and is acting from malice. This suggests some important distinctions between lying and making untrue claims.

One obvious distinction is that a lie requires that the person believe she is making an untrue claim. Naturally, there is the practical problem of determining whether a person really believes what she is claiming, but this is not relevant to the abstract distinction: if the person believes the claim, then she would not be lying when she makes that claim.

It can, of course, be argued that a person can be lying even when she believes what she claims—that what matters is whether the claim is true or not. The obvious problem with this is that the accusation of lying is not just a claim the person is wrong, it is also a moral condemnation of wrongdoing. While “lie” could be taken to apply to any untrue claim, there would be a need for a new word to convey not just a statement of error but also of condemnation.

It can also be argued that a person can lie by telling the truth, but by doing so in such a way as to mislead a person into believing something untrue. This does have a certain appeal in that it includes the intent to deceive, but differs from the “stock” lie in that the claim is true (or at least believed to be true).

A second obvious distinction is that the person must have a malicious intent. This is a key factor that distinguishes the untruths of the fictions of movies, stories and shows from lies. When the actor playing Darth Vader says to Luke “No. I am your father.”, he is saying something untrue, yet it would be unfair to say that the actor is thus a liar. Likewise, the references to dragons, hobbits and elves in the Hobbit are all untrue—yet one would not brand Tolkien a liar for these words.

The obvious reply to this is that there is a category of lies that lack a malicious intent. These lies are often told with good intentions, such as a compliment about a person’s appearance that is not true or when parents tell their children about Santa Claus. As such, it would seem that there are lies that are not malicious—these are often called “white lies.” If intent matters, then this sort of lie would seem rather less bad than the malicious lie; although they do meet a general definition of “lie” which involves making an untrue claim with the intent to deceive. In this case, the deceit is supposed to be a positive one. Naturally, there are those who would argue that such deceits are still wrong, even if the intent is a good one. The matter is also complicated by the fact that there seem to be untrue claims aimed at deceit that intuitively seem morally acceptable. The classic case is, of course, misleading a person who is out to commit murder.

In some cases one person will accuse another of lying because the person disagrees with a claim made by the other person. For example, a person might claim that Obamacare will help Americans and be accused of lying about this by a person who is opposed to Obamacare.

In this sort of context, the accusation that the person is lying seems to rest on three clear points. The first is that the accuser thinks that the person does not actually believe his claim. That is, he is engaged in an intentional deceit. The accuser also thinks that the claim is not true. The second is that the accuser believes that the accused intends to deceive—that is, he expects people to believe him. The third is that the accuser thinks that the accused has some malicious intent. This might be merely limited to the intent to deceive, but it typically goes beyond this. For example, the proponent of Obamacare might be suspected of employing his alleged deceit to spread socialism and damage businesses. Or it might be that the person is trolling.

So, in order to be justified in accusing a person of lying, it needs to be shown that the person does not really believe his claim, that he intends to deceive and that there is some malicious intent. Arguing against the claim can show that it is untrue, but this would not be sufficient to show that the person is lying—unless one takes a lie to merely be a claim that is not true (so, if someone made a mistake in a math problem and got the wrong answer, he would be a liar). What would be needed would be adequate evidence that the person is insincere in his claim (that is, he believes he is saying the untrue), that he intends to deceive and that there is some malicious intent.

Naturally, effective criticism of a claim does not require showing that the person making the claim is a liar—this is a matter of arguing about the claim. In fact, the truth or falsity of a claim has no connection to the intent of the person making the claim or what he actually believes about it. An accusation of lying, rather, moves from the issue of whether the claim is true or not to a moral dispute about the character of the person making the claim. That is, whether he is a liar or not. It can, of course, be a useful persuasive device to call someone a liar, but it (by itself) does nothing to prove or disprove the claim under dispute.

 

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Symbols & Truth

After the murderous attack on the school in Peshawar, Pakistan an image of a child’s blood-stained shoe began appearing in the social media. While the image certainly fit the carnage, the photo was not taken in Peshawar. It had, instead, been taken in May of 2008 in the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Such “re-use” of images is common, especially in social media.

As might be imagined, some took issue with people claiming (wrongly) that the picture was from Peshawar. Others took the view that it did not matter since the image was an appropriate symbol of the situation.

A somewhat analogous situation to the “re-use” of photos is the reference of incidents in protests that some regard as not being “suitable” for the protest. For example, in response to the protests about the deaths of Brown and Garner some critics have asserted that the protesters have the facts wrong and that Garner and Brown were not exactly innocent angels. The idea seems to be that the protests can be invalidated by disputing the facts of a specific case or by questioning the suitability of the people used as focal points for the protests.

In response to such criticisms, some defenders of the protesters assert that they do have the facts right and contend that even if Garner and Brown were not innocent angels, injustice still occurred.

The general issue in both sorts of cases is the importance of the truth and purity of the symbols used—be the symbol a photo of a shoe or a black man killed by the police.

As a philosopher, I am initially inclined to come out in favor of the strict truth. Even if the shoe image fit the situation, it is not a picture from the actual event and knowingly using it would be an act of deception. This would certainly seem to be morally wrong. In the case of symbols used in protests, the same reasoning should apply. If the symbols represent the situation incorrectly and those using them know this, then they are engaged in deceit. This would, on the face of it, be wrong.

The “purity” of the people used as symbols is somewhat more complicated. In the case of Brown and Garner, the protesters do not (in general) dispute that these men had broken the law and they do not claim that they were innocent angels. Those critical of the protests sometimes claim that the use of these “impure” symbols somehow invalidates the protest to some degree. Looked at from a purely propaganda viewpoint, innocent angels as victims would be “better”, but injustice does not require that the victim be such an angel. It just requires that a wrong occurs. There is still, however, the moral question of whether or not Garner and Brown were victims of injustice. If they were not, then the protests would be legitimately undermined—after all, a protest about an alleged injustice requires that the injustice be real. If they were victims of injustice, then the protests would obviously have a valid foundation—even though the men were not angels.

As a philosopher who teaches aesthetics, I am willing to consider the possibility that the “factual truth” of a symbol might not be as important as its “symbolic truth.” This, obviously enough, opens the door wide to numerous accusations about my integrity and commitment to the truth. Despite this risk, this is certainly an avenue worth strolling down—though I might not wish to take up residence there.

The reason that I mention aesthetics is that one of the most plausible lines of justification for the use of such “untrue” symbols can be found in the realm of art. As philosophers have long noted, art is a beautiful untrue thing. As such, factual veracity is usually not of critical importance in art. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, works of art can present general truths through what might be regarded as specific untruths. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a factual documentary on slavery, Lord of the Flies is not a report of real events, nor is Romeo & Juliet a factual account of a real tragedy. Despite this, these and so many other works convey general truths or make moral points using untrue things.

Assuming that works of art can legitimately use untrue things, it can be argued that the same can be said of symbols, such as the image of the shoe. While the picture of the shoe was, in fact, taken in 2008 in Israel and not in Pakistan, it still serves as a true symbol of the event. That is, it powerfully conveys a general truth about the slaughter of children that goes beyond the specific facts. To dismiss the symbol by saying “why, that is not a picture from the event” is to miss the point of its use as a symbol. As a symbol it is not being presented as a factual representation of the events. Rather, it is being presented as standing for a general truth. Thus, while the symbol is an untrue thing in one sense (it is not a photo of that actual event) it is true in other senses. It symbolizes the killing of children in political struggles and captures the horror of the slaughter of innocents.

Naturally, it is perfectly reasonable to point out that such symbols are not accurate reporting of the event. It is thus completely legitimate to claim that such images should not be used in news reports (except, of course, to report that they are being used, etc.). After all, the true business of news is (or should be) reporting the cold facts. However, there are contexts (such as expressing how one feels on social media) when symbols are appropriate. As long as these are kept properly distinct, then both seem to be legitimate. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that clips from fictional films should not be used in news stories does not entail that fictional films have no place or use in making statements.

Turning to the matter of protests, the matter is somewhat different from that of the image. An image, such as the shoe, can be taken as expressing a general truth. Though the shoe belonged to an Israeli child, it can stand in for the shoe of any child who has been the victim of a terrible attack and it expressed the general horror of such violence. Saying “that picture is not from Pakistan” does not show that the wounding or slaughter of children is not horrible.

However, the truth of the symbolic cases used in protests does seem to matter. As argued above, if the symbolic cases used by protestors turn out to be factually untrue (that is, the narrative of the protesters does not match reality), then that is a problem. For example, if protesters use the killing of a specific black man as a symbol of injustice, but it turns out that the shooting was morally justified, then the protest is undermined. After all, if there was no injustice in a case, then there is no injustice to protest.

One counter to this is that even if a specific symbolic case has been exposed as untrue, this does not discredit the other symbolic cases. For example, the revelation that the Rolling Stone rape article contained numerous untrue claims does discredit that symbolic case, but does not disprove the other cases—they stand or fall on their own merits or defects. This is quite reasonable: the fact that one example is not true does not prove that the other examples are untrue (though it can, of course, raise concerns). So, even if a symbolic case embraced by protesters turns out to not fit, this does not show that the protest is rendered invalid. Using the specific example of campus rape, the fact that the Rolling Stone story unraveled under investigation does not, by itself, show that sexual assault is not a problem on campuses.

But, of course, a claim can be undermined by properly discrediting the supporting examples, be they symbolic or not. So, for example, if it is claimed that the police treat black citizens differently than white citizens and it turns out that this is not generally true, then protests based on this would be undermined. Facts, obviously enough, do matter. However, the weight of each fact must be properly considered: as noted above, showing that one symbolic case is untrue does not discredit all the supporting examples. So, for example, if it is shown that a specific symbolic case does not match the facts, this does not show that the protest is unwarranted.

 

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Cyber Warfare: Proportionality

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (March 10, 2009) Information...

As predicted by science fiction writers, cyber warfare has become a rather real thing. The United States and Israel, some say, launched a cyber-attack on the Iranian nuclear program. North Korea, some say, launched a cyber-attack on Sony.

On the face of it, cyber-attacks seem to be a special sort of thing. While conventional attacks can be secret and hard to trace, the typical cyber-attack does not cause the sort of damage and causalities that a traditional attack causes. For example, a conventional attack aimed at the Iranian nuclear program would have most likely killed people and caused considerable damage. In contrast, the cyber-attack was narrowly focused and did not kill anyone. People often seem to “feel” that cyber-attacks are just “different” since they do not involve the sorts of things that most people think of as weapons and do not do the sort of damage that people tend to associate with military attacks. Despite this conceptual problem, it seems quite reasonable to accept that cyber-attacks can have qualities that make it reasonable to regard them as military attacks. To use the obvious analogy, criminals and soldiers both use guns, but the difference between a bank robber and a military attack lies in the agents carrying out the attack, those ordering the attack, and the goals of the attack. In the case of cyber-attacks, cyber-criminals and cyber-soldiers both use similar weapons. The distinction lies in the agents, those behind the action and the goals.

As mentioned above, some people lay the blame of the attack on Sony on North Korea. If this is true, then this would seem to have the potential of being a military action. After all, it was carried out by a state and had political goals as motivating factors. That said, it could also be argued that the attack was state-sponsored crime. After all, the target was Sony rather than a state target and the operation was more vandalism and extortion than a military strike. This can, of course, be countered by the claim that economic warfare is still warfare—North Korea was attacking an economic entity in another sovereign state (assuming North Korea was behind the attack).

President Obama took the attack seriously and seems to have accepted that North Korea was responsibility. He did fall short of calling it a military action and described it in terms of vandalism. He did, however, say that the United States would have a proportional response.

A proportional response is, as matter of general principle, the right thing to do. After all, the retaliation should be proportional to the provocation. Excessive response would be morally problematic. To use the obvious analogy, if someone shoves me in a dispute and I shoot them in the head with a twelve-gauge shotgun, then I would have acted wrongly. Naturally, there can be considerable debate about the matter of proportionality as well as the value of using a “robust” response as a deterrence (such as pulling a gun when the other person has a stick).

One problem with cyber-attacks is that they are relatively new. Because of this, states have not worked out the norms governing these interactions and there are, as of yet, no clear and specific international treaties and rules laying out the rules of cyber-warfare in a way comparable to the norms and rules of traditional war. We are now in the stages of making up the norms and rules. It should be expected that there will be some problems with this and, no doubt, some defining incidents. The attack on Sony might be one of these.

Obama’s decision to use a proportional response does seem sound and will, perhaps, serve as a starting point for the norms and rules of cyber warfare. This approach is certainly analogous to how conventional attacks are handled. This nicely fits the existing model, namely that incidents in the “physical world” between countries usually stay proportional. For example, with North Korea does something provocative with its military, the United States does not over-react, such as by firing cruise missiles into the country.

One obvious problem with cyber-attacks is working out the proportionality, especially if non-cyber responses are being considered. In such cases, the challenge would be working out what sort of conventional military response would be a proportional response to a cyber-attack. It is not uncommon for people to see cyber-attacks as somehow less “serious” and damaging than “real” world attacks. If North Korea had, for example, sent a strike team to the United States to physically grab computers and erase drives on the spot, then people would feel that something more serious had happened—though the results would have been the same. In such a case, the proportional response would almost certainly be more robust than a proportional response to a cyber-attack. Perhaps this would be justified on the grounds that a physical intrusion is a greater violation of territorial integrity than a virtual intrusion. But, this might simply be a matter of “feeling” and a result of “old-fashioned” thinking—that is, people thinking about attacks in the old way.

I think a reasonable case can be made to treat cyber-attacks as being comparable to traditional attacks and using the results as the measure of proportionality. That is, the United States’ response to the (alleged) North Korean intrusion should be treated the same way that the United States should react to a team of North Koreans physically breaking into Sony at the behest of the state. To treat cyber-attacks as somehow less serious because they are “virtual” seems, as I have been suggesting, a mistake based on outdated concepts of warfare.

 

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Food Waste

"CLEAN YOUR PLATE...THERE'S NO FOOD TO WA...

“CLEAN YOUR PLATE…THERE’S NO FOOD TO WASTE” – NARA – 516248 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many Americans my age, I was cajoled by my parents to finish all the food on my plate because people were starving somewhere. When I got a bit older and thought about the matter, I realized that my eating (or not eating) the food on my plate would have no effect on the people starving in some far away part of the world. However, I did internalize two lessons. One was that I should not waste food. The other was that there is always someone starving somewhere.

While food insecurity is a problem in the United States, we Americans waste a great deal of food. It is estimated that about 21% of the food that is harvested and available to be consumed is not consumed. This food includes the unconsumed portions tossed into the trash at restaurants, spoiled tomatoes thrown out by families ($900 million worth), moldy leftovers tossed out when the fridge is cleaned and so on. On average, a family of four wastes about 1,160 pounds of food per year—which is a lot of food.

On the national level, it is estimated that one year of food waste (or loss, if one prefers) uses up 2.5% of the energy consumed in the U.S., about 25% of the fresh water used for agriculture, and about 300 million barrels of oil. The loss, in dollars, is estimated to be $115 billion.

The most obvious moral concern is with the waste. Intuitively, throwing away food and wasting it seems to be wrong—especially (as parents used to say) when people are starving. Of course, as I mentioned above, it is quite reasonable to consider whether or not less waste by Americans would translate into more food for other people.

On the one hand, it might be argued that less wasted food would surely make more food available to those in need. After all, there would be more food.

On the other hand, it seems obvious that less waste would not translate into more food for those who are in need. Going back to my story about cleaning my plate, my eating all the food on my plate would certainly not have helped starving people. After all, the food I eat does not help them. Also, if I did not eat the food, then they would not be harmed—they would not get less food because I threw away my Brussel sprouts.

To use another illustration, suppose that Americans conscientiously only bought the exact number of tomatoes that they would eat and wasted none of them. The most likely response is not that the extra tomatoes would be handed out to the hungry. Rather, farmers would grow less tomatoes and markets would stock less in response to the reduced demand.

For the most part, people go hungry not because Americans are wasting food and thus making it unavailable, but because they cannot afford the food they need. To use a metaphor, it is not that the peasants are starving because the royalty are tossing the food into the trash. It is that the peasants cannot afford the food that is so plentiful that the royalty can toss it away.

It could be countered that less waste would actually influence the affordability of food. Returning to the tomato example, farmers might keep on producing the same volume of tomatoes, but be forced to lower the prices because of lower demand and also to seek new markets.

It can also be countered that as the population of the earth grows, such waste will really matter—that food thrown away by Americans is, in fact, taking food away from people. If food does become increasingly scarce (as some have argued will occur due to changes in climate and population growth), then waste will really matter. This is certainly worth considering.

There is, as mentioned above, the intuition that waste is, well, just wrong. After all, “throwing away” all those resources (energy, water, oil and money) is certainly wasteful. There is, of course, also the obvious practical concern: when people waste food, they are wasting money.

For example, if Sally buys a mega meal and throws half of it in the trash, she would have been better off buying a moderate meal and eating all of it. As another example, Sam is throwing away money if he buys steaks and vegetables, then lets them rot. So, not wasting food would certainly make good economic sense for individuals. It would also make sense for businesses—at least to the degree that they do not profit from the waste.

Interestingly, some businesses do profit from the waste. To be specific, consider the snacks, meats, cheese, beverages and such that are purchased and never consumed. If people did not buy them, this would result in less sales and this would impact the economy all the way from the store to the field. While the exact percentage of food purchased and not consumed is not known, the evidence is that it is significant. So, if people did not overbuy, then the food economy would be reduced that percentage—resulting in reduced profits and reduced employment. As such, food waste might actually be rather important for the American food economy (much as planned obsolescence is important in the tech fields). And, interestingly enough, the greater the waste, the greater its importance in maintaining the food economy.

If this sort of reasoning is good, then it might be immoral to waste less food—after all, a utilitarian argument could be crafted showing that less waste would create more harm than good (putting supermarket workers and farmers out of work, for example). As such, waste might be good. At least in the context of the existing economic system, which might not be so good.

 

 

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Responsibility for Shootings

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In December 2014 two NYC police officers, Rafeal Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were shot to death by Ismaaiyl Brinsley. Brinsley had earlier shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend. Brinsley claimed to have been acting in response to the police killings of Brown and Garner.  There have been some claims of a connection between Brinsley’s actions and the protests against those two killings. This situation does raise an issue of moral responsibility in regards to such acts of violence.

Not surprisingly, this is not the first time I have written about gun violence and responsibility. After Jared Lee Lougher shot congresswoman Giffords and others in 2011, there was some blame placed on Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Palin, it might be recalled, made use of cross hairs and violent metaphors when discussing matters of politics. The Tea Party was also accused of creating a context of violence.

Back in 2011 I argued that Palin and the Tea Party were not morally responsible for Lougher. I still agree with my position of that time. First, while Palin used violent metaphors, she clearly was not calling on people to engage in actual violence. Such metaphors are used regularly in sports and politics with the understanding that they are just that, metaphors.

Second, while there are people in the Tea Party who are very much committed to gun rights, the vast majority of them do not support the shooting of their fellow Americans—even if they disagree with their politics. While there are some notable exceptions, those who advocate and use violence are rare. Most Tea Partiers, like most other Americans, prefer their politics without bloodshed. Naturally, specific individuals who called for violence and encouraged others can be held accountable to the degree that they influence others—but these folks are not common.

Third, while Lougher was apparently interested in politics, he seemed to have a drug problem and serious psychological issues.  His motivation to go after Giffords seems to be an incident from when he was a student. He went to one of Giffords’ meetings and submitted a rather unusual question about what government would be if words had no meaning. Giffords apparently did not answer the question in a way that satisfied him. This, it is alleged, is the main cause of his dislike of Gifford

As such, the most likely factors seem to be a combination of drug use and psychological problems that were focused onto Giffords by that incident. Because of these reasons, I concluded that Sarah Palin and the Tea Party had no connection the incident and should not have been held morally accountable. This is because neither Palin nor the Tea Party encouraged Lougher and because he seemed to act primarily from his own mental illness.

As far as who is to blame, the obvious answer is this: the person who shot those people. Of course, as the media psychologists point out, it can be claimed that others are to blame as well. The parents. The community college. Society.

On the one hand, this blame sharing seems to miss the point that people are responsible for their actions. The person who pulled that trigger is the one that is responsible. He did not have to go there that day. Going there, he did not have to pull the trigger.

On the other hand, no one grows up and acts in a perfect vacuum. Each of us is shaped by factors around us and, of course, we have responsibilities to each other. There was considerable evidence that Lougher was unstable and likely to engage in violence. As such, it could be argued that those who were aware of these facts and failed to respond bear some of the blame for allowing him to be free to kill and wound.

Back in 2011 I did state that there were some legitimate concerns about Palin’s use of violent rhetoric and the infamous cross-hair map. I ended by saying that Palin should step up to address this matter. Not because she was responsible, but because these were matters worth considering on their own. I now return to the 2014 shooting by Brinsley.

Since consistency is rather important, I will apply the same basic principles of responsibility to the Brinsley case. First, as far as I am aware, no major figure involved in the protests has called upon people to kill police officers. No one with a status comparable with Palin’s (in 2011) has presented violent metaphors aimed at the police—as far as I know.  Naturally, if there are major figures who engaged in such behavior, then this would be relevant in assigning blame. So, as with Sarah Palin in 2011, the major figures of the protest movement seem to be morally blameless for Brinsley. They did not call on anyone to kill, even metaphorically.

Second, the protest movements seem to be concerned with keeping people from being killed rather than advocating violence. Protesters say “hands up, don’t shoot!” rather than “shoot the police!” People involved in the protests seem to have, in general, condemned the shooting of the officers and have certainly not advocated or engaged in such attacks. So, as with the Tea Party in 2011, the protest movement (which is not actually a political party or well-defined movement) is not accountable for Brinsley’s actions. While he seems to have been motivated by the deaths of Brown and Garner, the general protest movement did not call on him to kill.

Third, Brinsley seems to be another terrible case of a mentally ill person engaging in senseless violence against innocent people. Brinsley seems to have had a history of serious problems (he shot and wounded his girlfriend before travelling to NYC). Like Lougher, Brinsley is the person who pulled the trigger. He is responsible. Not the protestors, not the police, and not the slogans.

As with Lougher, there is also the question of our general responsibility as a society for those who are mentally troubled enough to commit murder. I have written many essays on gun violence in the United States and one recurring theme is that of a mentally troubled person with a gun. This is a different matter than the protests and also different from the matter of police use of force. As such, it is important to distinguish these different issues. While Brinsley claims to have been motivated by the deaths of Brown and Garner, the protesters are not accountable for his actions, no more than the NYC officers were accountable for the deaths of Brown and Garner.

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Beef

Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, published in...

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, published in 1975, became pivotal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the challenges presented by the ever-growing human population is producing enough food to feed everyone. There is also the distribution challenge: being able to get the food to the people and ensuring that they can afford a good diet.

The population growth is also accompanied by an increase in prosperity—at least in some parts of the world. As people gain income, they tend to change their diet. One change that people commonly undertake is consuming more status foods, such as beef. As such, it seems almost certain that there will be an ever-growing population that wants to consume more beef. This creates something of a problem.

Beef is, of course, delicious. While I am well aware of the moral issues surrounding the consumption of meat, at the end of each semester I reward myself with a Publix roast beef sub—with everything. Like most Americans, I am rather fond of beef and my absolute favorite meal is veal parmesan. However, I have not had veal since my freshman year of college: thanks to Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation I learned the horrific price of veal and could not, in good conscience, eat it anymore. The argument is the stock utilitarian one: the enjoyment I would get from veal is vastly exceeded by the suffering of the animal. This makes the consumption of veal wrong.  Naturally, I have given similar consideration to beef.

In the case of American cattle, the moral argument I accept in regards to veal fails: in general, American beef growers treat their cattle reasonably well right up until the moment of slaughter. Obviously, there are still cases of cattle being mistreated and that does provide some ammunition for the suffering argument. If I knew that my roast beef sandwich included the remains of a cow that suffered, then I would have to accept that I should give up roast beef as well. I am completely open to that sort of argument.

But, suppose that it is assumed that beef will be created humanely and that the cattle will have a life as good (or better) than they would have in the wild. At least up until the end. This still leaves open some moral concerns about beef.

Sticking with the utilitarian focus, there are two main concerns here. The first is the cost in resources of producing beef relative to other foods. The second is the environmental cost of beef.

Creating 1,000 calories of beef requires 1,557 square feet of land (this includes the pasture and cropland required). In contrast, the same number of calories in chicken requires 44 square feet. For pork it is 57 square feet. Interestingly, dairy production of that number of calories requires only 94 square feet. As such, even if it is assumed that eating meat is morally fine, there is the concern that the land requirements for beef make it an impractical food. There is also the moral concern that land should be used more effectively, at least as long as there is not enough food for everyone.

One counter is that the reason chicken and pork requires less land is that these animals are infamously confined to very small areas. As such, they gain their efficiency by paying a moral price: the animals are treated worse. Obviously those who do not weigh the moral concerns about animals heavily (or at all) will not find this matter to be a problem and they could argue that if cattle were “factory farmed” more efficiently, then beef would cost vastly less.

In addition to the cost in land usage, cattle also need food and water. It takes 36,200 calories of feed and 434 gallons of water to produce 1,000 calories of beef. Not surprisingly, other animals are more efficient. The same calories in chicken requires 8,800 calories of feed and 38 gallons on water. From an efficiency standpoint, it would make more sense for humans to consume the feed crops (typically corn) directly rather than use them to produce animals. Adding in concerns about water, decreasing meat production would seem to be a good idea—at least if the goal is to efficiently feed people.

It can be countered that we will find more efficient ways to feed people—another food revolution to prevent the dire predictions of folks like Malthus from coming to pass. This is, of course, a possibility. However, the earth obviously does have limits—the question is whether these limits will be enough for our population.

It can also be countered that the increasing prosperity will reduce populations. So, while there will be more people eating meat, there will be less people. This is certainly possible: if the usual pattern of increased prosperity leading to smaller families comes to pass, then there might be a reduction in the human population. Provided that the “slack” is taken up elsewhere.

A final point of concern is the environmental impact of beef. There are the usual environmental issues associated with such agriculture, such as contamination of water. There is also the concern about methane and carbon dioxide production. A thousand calories of beef generates 9.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide, while a comparable amount of chicken generates 1.9 kilograms. Since methane and carbon dioxide are greenhouse gases, those who believe that these gases can influence the climate will find this to be of concern. Those who believe that these gases do not influence the climate will not be concerned about this, in the same manner that people who believe that smoking does not increase their risk of cancer will not be worried about smoking. Speaking of health risks, it is also claimed that beef presents various dangers, such as an increased chance of getting certain cancers.

Overall, if we cannot produce enough food for everyone while producing beef, we should reduce our beef production. While I am reluctant to give up my roast beef, I would do so if it meant that others could eat. But, of course, if it can be shown that beef production and consumption is morally fine and that it has no meaningful impact on people not having enough quality food, then beef would be just fine. Deliciously fine.

 

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Torture

English: John McCain official photo portrait.

English: John McCain official photo portrait. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In December of 2014 the US Senate issued its report on torture. While there has been some criticism of the report, the majority of pundits and politicians have not come out in defense of torture. However, there have been attempts to justify the use of torture and this essay will address some of these arguments.

One criticism of the report is not a defense of torture as such. The talking point is a question, typically of the form “why bring this up now?” The argument lurking behind this point seems to be that since the torture covered in the report occurred years ago, it should not be discussed now. This is similar to another stock remark made to old wrongs, namely “get over it.”

This does raise a worthwhile concern, namely the expiration date of moral concern. Or, to use an analogy to law, the matter of the moral statute of limitations on misdeeds. On the face of it, it is reasonable to accept that the passage of time can render a wrong morally irrelevant to today. While an exact line can probably never be drawn, a good rule of thumb is that when the morally significant consequences of the event have attenuated to insignificance, then the moral concern can be justly laid aside. In the case of the torture employed in the war on terror, that seems to be “fresh” enough to still be unexpired.

Interestingly, many of the same folks who insist that torture should not be brought up now still bring up 9/11 to justify the current war on terror. On the face of it, if 9/11 is still morally relevant, then so is the torture it was used to justify. I agree that 9/11 is still morally relevant and also the torture.

One of the stock defenses of the use of torture is a semantic one: that the techniques used are not torture. One way to reply is to stick with the legal definitions, such as those in agreements the United States has signed and crimes it has prosecuted—especially the prosecution of German and Japanese soldiers after WWII. Many of the techniques used in the war on terror meet these definitions. As such, it seems clear that as a nation we accept that these acts are, in fact, torture. I will admit that there are gray areas—but we clearly crossed over into the darkness.

Perhaps the best moral defense of torture is a utilitarian one: while torture is harmful, if it produces good consequences that outweigh the harm, then it is morally acceptable. It has been claimed that the torture of prisoners produced critical information that could not have been acquired by other means.

However, the senate report includes considerable evidence that this is not true—including information from the CIA itself regarding the infectiveness of torture as a means of gathering reliable intelligence. As John McCain said, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.”

As such, the utilitarian justification for torture fails on the grounds that it does not work. As such, it produces harms with no benefits, thus making it evil.

Another stock defense of torture is that the enemy is so bad that we can do anything to them.  No doubt the terrorists tell themselves the same thing when they murder innocent people. This justification is often combined with the utilitarian argument, otherwise it is just a defense of torture on the grounds of retaliation.

This notion is founded on a legitimate moral principle, namely that the actions of one’s enemy can justify actions against that enemy.  To use the easy and obvious example, if someone tries to unjustly kill me, I have a moral right to use lethal force in order to save my life.

However, the badness of one’s enemy is not sufficient to morally justify everything that might be done to that enemy. After all, while self-defense can be morally justified, there are still moral boundaries in regards to what one can do. This is especially important if we wish to claim that we are better than the terrorists. As McCain says, “”the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.” He is right about this—if we claim that we are better, we must be better. If we claim that we are good, we must accept moral limits on what we will do. In short, we must not torture.

A final stock argument worth considering is the idea that America’s exceptionalism allows us to do anything, yet remain good. Or, as one pundit on Fox News put it, be “awesome.” The idea that such exceptionalism allows one to do terrible things while remaining righteous is a common one—terrorists typically also believe this about themselves.

This justification is, obviously enough, terrible. After all, being really good and exceptional means that one will not do awful things. That is what it is to be morally exceptional and awesome. The idea that one can be so good that one can be bad is obviously absurd.

I do agree that America is awesome. Part of what makes us awesome is that we (eventually) admit our sins and we take our moral struggles seriously. To the degree that we live up to our fine principles, we are awesome. As Churchill said, ”you can always count on Americans to do the right thing-after they’ve tried everything else.”

 

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