Category Archives: Ethics

Politics & Plagiarism

English: Melania Trump at the QVC Red Carpet S...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Drug Prices

Ritalin

Martin Shkreli became the villain of drug pricing when he increased the price of a $13.50 pill to $750. While the practice of buying up smaller drug companies and increasing the prices of their products is a standard profit-making venture, the scale of the increase and Shkreli’s attitude drew attention to this incident. Unfortunately, while the Shkreli episode is the best known case, drug pricing is a sweeping problem. The August 2016 issue of Consumer Reports features an article on high drug prices in the United States and provides an excellent analysis of the matter—I am using it as the basis for the numbers I mention.

From the standpoint of consumers, the main problem is that drugs are priced extremely high—sometimes to a level that literally bankrupts patients. Faced with social pushback, drug companies do provide some attempts to justify the high prices. One standard reason is that the high prices are needed to pay the R&D costs of the drugs. While a company does have the right to pass on the cost of drug development, consideration of the facts tells another story about the pricing of drugs.

First, about 38% of the basic research science is actually funded by taxpayer money—so the public is paying twice: once in taxes and once again for the drugs resulting from the research. This, of course, leaves a significant legitimate area of expenses for companies, but hardly enough to warrant absurdly high prices.

Second, most large drug companies spend almost twice as much on promotion and marketing as they do on R&D. While these are legitimate business expenses, this fact does undercut using R&D expenses to justify excessive drug prices. Obviously, telling the public that pills are pricy because of the cost of marketing pills so people will buy them would not be an effective strategy. There is also the issue of the ethics of advertising drugs, which is another matter entirely.

Third, many “new” drugs are actually slightly tweaked old drugs. Common examples including combining two older drugs to create a “new” drug, changing the delivery method (from an injectable to a pill, for example) or altering the release time. In many cases, the government will grant a new patent for these minor tweaks and this will grant the company up to a 20-year monopoly on the product, preventing competition. This practice, though obviously legal, is certainly sketchy. To use an analogy, imagine a company held the patent on a wheel and an axle. Then, when those patents expired, they patented wheel + axle as a “new” invention. That would obviously be absurd.

Companies also try other approaches to justify the high cost, such as arguing that the drugs treat serious conditions or can save money by avoiding a more expensive treatment. While these arguments do have some appeal, it seems morally problematic to argue that the price of a drug can be legitimately based on the seriousness of the condition it treats. This smells of a protection scheme or coercion: “pay what we want…or you die.” The money saving argument is less odious, but is still problematic. By this logic, car companies should be able to charge vast sums for safety features since they protect people from very expensive injuries. It is, of course, reasonable to make a profit on products that provide significant benefits—but there need to be moral limits to the profits.

The obvious counter to my approach is to argue that drug prices should be set by the free-market: if people are willing to pay large sums for drugs, then the drug companies should be free to charge those prices. After all, companies like Apple and Porsche sell expensive products without (generally) being demonized for making profits.

The easy response is that luxury cars and iWatches are optional luxuries that a person can easily do without and there are many cheaper (and better) alternatives. However, drug companies sell drugs that are necessary for a person’s health and even survival—they are generally not optional products. There is also the fact that drug companies enjoy patent protection that precludes effective competition. While Apple does hold patents on its devices, there are many competitors. For example, since I would rather not shell out $350 for an iWatch, I use a Pebble Watch. I could also have opted to go with a $10 watch. But, if I had hepatitis C and wanted to be cured, I would be stuck with only one drug option.

While defenders of drug prices laud the free market and decry “government interference”, their ability to charge high prices depends on the interference of the state. As noted above, the United States and other governments issue patents to drug companies that grant them exclusive ownership. Without this protection, a company that wanted to charge $750 for a $13.50 pill would find competitors rushing to sell the pill for far less. After all, it would be easy enough for competing drug company to analyze a drug and produce it. By accepting the patent system, the drug companies accept that the state has a right to engage in legal regulation in the drug industry—that is, to replace the invisible hand with a very visible hand of the state. Once this is accepted, the door is opened to allowing additional regulation on the grounds that the state will provide protection for the company’s property using taxpayer money in return for the company agreeing not to engage in harmful pricing of drugs. Roughly put, if the drug companies expect people to obey the social contract with the state, they also need to operate within the social contract, Companies could, of course, push for a truly free market: they would be free to charge whatever they want for drugs without state interference, but there would be no state interference into the free market activities of their competitors when they duplicate the high price drugs and start undercutting the prices.

In closing, if the drug companies want to keep the patent protection they need for high drug prices, they must be willing to operate within the social contract. After all, citizens should not be imposed upon to fund the protection of the people who are, some might claim, robbing them.

 

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Student Loans

English: Day 3 of the protest Occupy Wall Stre...

The student loan crisis has been getting considerable attention in the media, but the coverage is often quick and shallow. James B. Steele and Lance Williams of Reveal from the The Center for Investigative Reporting have presented a more in-depth examination of the student loan industry. As a former student and current professor, I am concerned about student loans.

The original intention of student loans, broadly construed, was to provide lower income students with an affordable means of paying for college. Like most students, I had to take out loans to pay for school. This was back in the 1980s, when college costs were more reasonable and just as student loans were being transformed into a massive for-profit industry. As such, my loans were fairly modest (about $8,000) and I was able to pay them off even on the pitiful salary I was earning as an adjunct professor. Times have, however, changed.

Making a long story short, the federal government enabled banks and private equity companies to monetize the federal student loan program, enabling them to make significant profits from the loans and fees. Because many state governments embraced an ideology of selfishness and opposition to public goods, these governments significant cut their support for state colleges and universities, thus increasing the cost of tuition. At the same time, university administrations were growing both in number of administrators and their salaries, thus increasing costs as well. There was also an increase in infrastructure costs due to new technology as well as a desire to market campuses as having amenities such as rock climbing gyms. The result is $1.3 trillion in debt for 42 million Americans. On the “positive” side, the government makes about 20% on its 2013 loans and the industry is humming along at $140 billion a year.

While the government holds about 93% of the total debt, the debt collection was contracted to private companies and these were scooped up by the likes of JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup. As would be expected, these contractors profit greatly—about $2 billion per year. The collection process is often very aggressive and the industry has used its control over congress to ensure that the laws are very favorable to them. For example, student loan debt is one of the very few debts that are not discharged by a bankruptcy.

While student loans were originally intended to benefit students, they now benefit the government and the private contractors to the detriment of students. As such, there is a moral concern here in addition to the practical concerns about loans.

If the primary purpose of student loans is to address economic inequality by assisting lower income students attend college, then its current state is a clear violation of this purpose. This is because the system is creating massive debt for students while creating massive profits for the government and private contractors. That is, students are being exploited by both the state and the private sector. The collusion of the state makes seeking redress rather difficult—after all, the people need to turn to the state for redress, yet the state is an interested party and under the influence of the industry. This problem is, of course, not unique to student loans and it is one more example of how privatization is great for the private sector but often awful for citizens.

It could be argued that this is the proper function of the state—to serve the interest of the financial elites at the expense of the citizens. If so, then the student loan program should continue as it is; it is great for the state and the financial class while it is crushing citizens under mountains of debt. If, however, the state should serve the good of the citizens in general, then the status quo is a disaster. My view is, not surprisingly, that of John Locke: the state is to serve the good of the people. As such, I contend that the student loan industry needs to be changed.

One change that would help is for states to return to supporting public higher education. While there are legitimate concerns about budgets, education is actually a great investment in both the private good of the students and the public good. After all, civilization needs educated people to function and people with college degrees end up with higher incomes and thus pay more taxes (paying back the investment many times over). While there are professed ideological reasons for opposing this, there are also financial motivations: dismantling public education would push more students into the awful for-profit schools that devour money and excrete un(der)employed people burdened by massive debt. While this is great for the owners of these schools, it is awful for the students and society as a whole.

Another change, which has been proposed by others, is to change or end the privatized aspects of the system. While there is the myth that the private sector is vastly superior to the inefficient and incompetent state, the fact is that the efficiency of the private sector seems to mostly lie in making a profit for itself rather than running the student loan system in accord with its intended purpose. This is not to say that the state must be great in what it does, just that cutting out the large profits of the collection agencies would reduce the burden on students. This is, of course, a moral question about whether it is right or not to profit on the backs of students.

There has also been talk about reducing the interest rates of student loans and even proposals for free college. I do favor lower interest rates; if the purpose of the loans is to assist students rather than make money, then lower interest rates would be the right thing to do. As far as free college goes, there is the obvious problem that “free” college has to be paid for by someone—it is a matter of shifting the burden from students to someone else. As far as the ethics of such a shift, it depends on who is picking up the tab.

As a closing point, there is also the matter of student responsibility. My loans went entirely to paying education expenses—which is one reason my debt was rather low even for the time. While many students do use the loans wisely, my experiences as a student and a professor have shown that students sometimes use the loan money unwisely and put themselves into debt for things that have no connection to education. For example, faculty often joke that while the administrators drive the best cars, the students drive the second best and the faculty drive the worst. Students that overburden themselves with loans they use irresponsibly have only themselves to blame. However, the fact that some students do this does not invalidate the claim that much of the debt burden inflicted on students is unjust.

 

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Policebots

English: YORKTOWN, VA (July 12, 2009) A child ...

Peaceful protest is an integral part of the American political system. Sadly, murder is also an integral part of our society. The two collided in Dallas, Texas: after a peaceful protest, five police officers were murdered. While some might see it as ironic that the police rushed to protect the people protesting police violence, this actually serves as a reminder of how the police are supposed to function in a democratic society. This stands in stark contrast with the unnecessary deaths inflicted on citizens by bad officers—deaths that have given rise to many protests.

While violence and protests are both subjects worthy of in depth discussion, my focus will be on the ethical questions raised by the use of a robot to deliver the explosive device that was used to kill one of the attackers. While this matter has been addressed by philosophers more famous than I, I thought it worthwhile to say a bit about the matter.

While the police robot is called a robot, it is more accurate to describe it as a remotely operated vehicle. After all, the term “robot” is often taken as implying autonomy on the part of the machine. The police robot is remote controlled, like a sophisticated version of the remote controlled toys. In fact, a similar result could have been obtained by putting an explosive charge on a robust enough RC toy and rolling it within range of the target.

Since there is a human operator directly controlling the machine, it would seem that the ethics of the matter are the same as if more conventional machines of death (such as rifles or handguns) had been used to kill the shooter. On the face of it, the only difference is in how the situation is seen: a killer robot delivering a bomb sounds more ominous and controversial than an officer using a firearm. The use of remote controlled vehicles to kill targets is obviously nothing new—the basic technology has been around since at least WWII and the United States has killed many people with our drones.

If this had been the first case of an autonomous police robot sent to kill (like an ED-209), then the issue would be rather different. However, it is reasonable enough to regard this as the same old ethics of killing, only with a slight twist in regards to the delivery system. That said, it can be argued that the use of a remote controlled machine does add a new moral twist.

Keith Abney has raised a very reasonable point: if a robot could be sent to kill a target, it could also be sent to use non-lethal force to subdue the target. In the case of human officers, the usual moral justification of lethal force is that it is the best option for protecting themselves and others from a threat. If the threat presented by a suspect can be effectively addressed in a non-lethal manner, then that is the option that should be used. The moral foundation for this is set by the role of police in society: they are to protect the public and expected to take every legitimate effort to deliver suspects for trial in the criminal justice system. They are not supposed to function as soldiers that are engaging an enemy that is to be defeated—they are supposed to function as agents of the criminal justice system. There are, of course, cases in which suspects cannot be safely captured—these are situations in which the use of deadly force is justified, usually by imminent threat to the officer or citizens. A robot (or, more accurately, a remote controlled machine) can radically change the equation.

While a police robot is an expensive piece of hardware, it is not a human being (or even an artificial being). As such, it only has the moral status of property. In contrast, even the worst human criminal is a human being and thus has a moral status above that of a mere object. As such, if a robot is sent to engage a human suspect, then in many circumstances there would be no moral justification for using lethal force. After all, the officer operating the machine is in no danger as she steers the robot towards the target. This should change the ethics of the use of force to match other cases in which a suspect needs to be subdued, but presents no danger to the officer attempting arrest. In such cases, the machine should be outfitted with less-than-lethal options. While television and movies make safely disabling a human seem easy enough, it is actually rather challenging. For example, a rifle butt to the head is often portrayed as safely knocking a person out, when in reality it would cause serious injury or even death. Tasers, gas weapons and rubber bullets also can cause injury or death. However, the less-than-lethal options are less likely to kill a suspect and thus allow her to be captured for trial—which is the point of law enforcement. Robots could, as they often are in science fiction, be designed to withstand gunfire and physically grab a suspect. While this is likely to result in injury (such as broken bones) and could kill, it would be far less likely to kill than a bomb. An excellent example of a situation in which a robot would be ideal would be to capture an armed suspect barricaded in his house or apartment.

It must be noted that there will be cases in which the use of lethal force via a robot is justified. These would include cases in which the suspect presents a clear and present danger to officers or civilians and the best chance of ending the threat is the use of such force. An example of this might be a hostage situation in which the hostage taker is likely to kill hostages while the robot is trying to subdue him with less-than-lethal force.

While police robots have long been the stuff of science fiction, they do present a potential technological solution to the moral and practical problem of keeping officers and suspects alive. While an officer might be legitimately reluctant to stake her life on less-than-lethal options when directly engaged with a suspect, an officer operating a robot faces no such risk. As such, if the deployment of less-than-lethal options via a robot would not put the public at unnecessary risk, then it would be morally right to use such means.

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Guns & Suicide

English: A Smith & Wesson Military & Police ha...

Judging from the news coverage, it would be natural to think that mass shootings with assault rifles are the most common form of gun violence. As is often the case, the extent of media coverage is no indicator of the true facts of the matter—to think otherwise would be to fall victim to the spotlight fallacy. While mass shootings are all too common, the number of people killed per year in such events is only a small fraction of deaths involving guns. The vast majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted: 21,334 of the 33,599 known gun deaths in 2014 were suicides. Of the remaining deaths, homicides accounted for 10,945, accidents 586 and police interventions resulted in 464 deaths. The death tolls in these three categories has been stable since 2000, but gun suicides increased significantly during this time. As should be expected, there have been various attempts to address this problem.

When attempts to prevent successful suicide focus on guns, a common counter is to repeat the saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Put in non-slogan form, the argument is that there is no reason to focus on guns because doing so will have no significant impact on suicide rates. Those who are intent on killing themselves will merely find some other means of doing so, be it hanging or pills. This is analogous to the response to other proposals to address gun violence. For example, when gun regulation is raised as a means of addressing mass shootings, the response is that people will simply use something else, such as homemade bombs.

This counter can be addressed by considering some key facts about guns and suicide. The first is that research indicates that a person will typically start planning a very short time before the attempt (often less than an hour). That is, there is typically a limited window of vulnerability. The second, and the most relevant, is that guns are very effective suicide machines: 85% of suicide attempts with guns succeed, followed by 69% for hanging. The use of poison succeeds 2% of the time. This is hardly surprising: guns are designed to kill effectively and quickly. At this point, an objector might contend that the effectiveness of guns is not really relevant—a person will just keep trying if they fail with a low success method. This leads to the third fact.

While it seems reasonable to believe that a person who tries to commit suicide and fails will keep trying, the evidence seems to show that the vast majority of people who fail do not try again. As such, if the first attempt fails, there probably will not be another—especially if there is an intervention on behalf of the person. As such, if a suicidal person did not have access to a gun, then his chance of not dying would be significantly better than if he did. This is not to ignore the other means of committing suicide; it is merely to consider the facts of the success rate.

While a lack of access to a gun would significantly reduce the chances a person will succeed in a suicide attempt, there is the problem of making this a reality. Some countries have addressed gun violence by very strong restrictions on gun ownership, thus reducing all forms of gun violence (including suicide). As a matter of political reality, this is not an option in the United States. As such, the challenge of suicide by gun must be addressed in other ways.

One approach, which is analogous to one of many proposals for addressing mass shootings, is a requirement to confirm the mental health a person purchasing a gun. In the case of suicide prevention, the mental health issues of concern would tend to be different from those involved with mass shootings or other forms of gun violence. Though this is reasonable, it does have two significant gaps. The first is that it does nothing about guns that are already owned. The second is that it requires that the person have an established and known history that would indicate a likely attempt at suicide.

In regards to guns already owned, the main solution is for the guns to be made inaccessible to the person. This could be done by the person themselves, by friends/relatives or by the authorities in certain cases. The main problem here is that suicide, as noted above, tends to not be planned well in advance—so there may be little or no time for an intervention. There are also the legal and practical challenges in taking a person’s guns away without their consent. If the person has proven themselves a danger to themselves (or others), then there are procedures for this. However, if a person is merely suspected of having the potential of committing suicide, there is the problem of justifying taking the person’s guns. Given that gun ownership is taken as a basic right, the authorities would have no legal right to take away a person’s guns without adequate justification. Friends and relatives, of course, would not need legal justification to intervene—but taking a person’s guns without his consent would be theft (not to mention the potential risk). This is analogous to attempts to prevent mass shootings by taking away guns from people who might engage in such behavior—the problem is that until they act or make clear threats, there is little legal basis for such action.

In regards to the established and known history of mental illness, the problem (as with the case of some mass shootings) is that before a person actually takes action, her background is very often the same as people who will never engage in gun violence. This is the general problem of prediction—one that is rather difficult in the case of suicide. There are also the ethical and legal problems associated with acting on mere predictions. This is based on the fact that gun ownership is a legal right in the United States as well as the usual moral arguments in favor of gun ownership as a moral right.

There do not seem to be many technological options to addressing the use of guns in suicide. After all, the requirement of a safety feature that prevents a gun from being fired at humans would never pass in the United States, even if such a feature was a technical possibility. A feature that prevented a weapon from firing at designated person (such as the owner) might have some appeal (and is a feature of some science fiction weapons)—but even if it were possible, a person could bypass this feature or get another weapon. The solution, obviously enough, must be a human one.

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Philosophers (including me) on the Ethics of Voting

I, and other philosophers, were recently interviewed by Quartz about the ethics of voting. The article is short, but an interesting read. I am, of course biased.

Here is the link:

Ethicists say voting with your heart, without a care about the consequences, is actually immoral

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

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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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