Category Archives: Ethics

The Erosion of the Media

A free and independent press is rightly considered essential to a healthy democracy. Ideally, the press functions like Socrates’ gadfly—it serves to reproach the state and stir it to life. Also like Socrates, the press is supposed to question those who hold power and reveal what lies they might tell. Socrates was, of course, put to death for troubling the elites of Athens. While some countries do the same with their journalists, a different approach has been taken in the United States. To be specific, there has been a concerted effort to erode and degrade the free press.

While the myth of the noble press is just that, the United States has long had a tradition of journalistic ethics and there have been times when journalists were trusted and respected. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite are two examples of such trusted and well-respected journalists. Since their time, trust in the media has eroded dramatically.

Some of this erosion is self-inflicted. While the news is supposed to be objective, there has been an ever increasing blend of opinion and fact as well as clear partisan bias on the part of some major news agencies. Fox News, for example, serves to openly advance a right leaning political agenda and shows shamefully little concern for objective journalism. Its counterpart on the left, MSNBC, serves to advance its own agenda. Such partisanship serves to rightly erode trust in these networks, although this erosion tends to be one sided. That is, partisans often put great trust in their own network while dismissing the rival network. Critics of the media can make an argument by example through piling up example after example of bias and untrue claims on the part of specific networks and it is natural for the distrust to spread broadly. Except, of course, to news sources that feed and fatten one’s own beliefs. A rather useful exercise for people would be to apply the same level of skepticism and criticism they apply to the claims by news sources they like as to those made by the news sources they dislike. If, for example, those who favor Fox News greeted its claims with the same skepticism they apply to the media of the left, they would become much better critical thinkers and be closer to the truth.

While the news has always been a business, it is now primarily a business that needs to make money. This has had an eroding effect in many ways. One impact is that budget cuts have reduced real investigative journalism down to a mere skeleton. This means that many things remain in the shadows and that the new agencies have to rely on being given the news from sources that are often biased. Another impact is that the news has to attract viewership in order to get advertising. This means that the news has to appeal to the audience and avoid conflicts with the advertisers. This serves to bias the news. The public plays a clear role in this erosion by preferring a certain sort of “news” over actual serious journalism. We can help solve this problem by supporting serious journalism and rewarding news sources that do real reporting.

Much of the erosion of journalism comes from the outside and is due to concerted war on the press and truth. As a matter of historical fact, this attack has come from the political right. The modern efforts to create distrust of the media by claiming it has a liberal bias goes back at least to the Nixon administration and continues to this day. Sarah Palin seems to have come up with the mocking label of “lamestream media” as part of her attacks on the media for having the temerity to report things that she actually said and to indicate when she said things that were not true. It is not surprising that she has defended Donald Trump from the media’s efforts to inform the public when Trump says things that are untrue. Given this long history of fighting the press, it is not surprising that the right has developed a set of weapons for battling the press.

One approach, exemplified by Sarah Palin’s “lamestream media” approach is to simply engage in ad homimens and the genetic fallacy. In the case of ad hominems, individual journalists are attacked and this is taken as refuting their criticisms. Such attacks, obviously, do nothing to refute the claims made by journalists (or anyone).  In the case of the genetic fallacy, the tactic is to simply attack the media in general for an alleged bias and concluding, fallaciously, that the claims made have been thus refuted. This is not to say that there cannot be legitimate challenges to credibility, but this is rather a different matter from what is actually done. For example, someone spinning for Trump might simply say the media is liberally biased and favors Hillary and thus they are wrong when they claim that Trump seems to have suggested someone assassinate Hillary Clinton. While it would be reasonable to consider the possibility of bias, merely bashing the media does nothing to disprove specific claims.

Another standard tactic is to claim that the media never criticizes liberals—that is, the media is unfair. For example, when Trump is called out for saying untrue things or criticized for claiming that Obama founded Isis, his defenders rush to claim that the media does not criticize Hillary for her remarks or point out when she is lying. While an appeal for fair play is legitimate, even such an appeal does not serve to refute the criticisms or prove that what Trump said is true. There is also the fact that the press does criticize the left and does call out Hillary when she says untrue things. Politifact has a page devoted to Trump, but also one for Hillary Clinton. While Hillary does say untrue things, she gets accused of this less than Trump on the very reasonable grounds that he says far more untrue things. To use an analogy, to cry foul regarding Trump’s treatment would be like a student who cheats relentlessly in class complaining that another student, who cheats far less, does not get in as much trouble. The obvious reply is that if one cheats more, one gets in more trouble. If one says more untrue things, then one gets called on it more.

Not surprisingly, those who loath Hillary or like Trump with make the claim that fact checkers like Politifact are biased because they are part of the liberal media. This creates a rather serious problem: any source used to show that the “liberal media” has the facts right will be dismissed as being part of the liberal media. Likewise, any support for criticisms made by this “liberal media” will also be rejected by claiming the sources is also part of the liberal media. Bizarrely, even when there is unedited video evidence of, for example, something Trump said this defense will still be used. While presented as satire by Andy Borowitz (clearly a minion of the liberal media), the fact is that Trump regards the media as unfair because it actually reports what he actually says.

While the erosion of the media yields short term advantages for specific politicians, the long term consequences for the United States are dire. One impact of the corrosion of truth is that politicians are ever more able to operate free of facts and criticism—thus making politics almost entirely a matter of feelings unanchored in reality. Since reality always has its way eventually, this is disastrous.

What is being done to the media can be seen as analogous to the poisoning of the village watchdogs by a villager who wishes to engage in some sneaky misdeeds at night and needs the dogs to be silent. While this initially works out well for the poisoner, the village will be left unguarded.  Likewise, poisoning the press will allow very bad people to slip by and do very bad things to the public. While, for example, Trump’s spinning minions might see the advantage in attacking the press for the short term advantage of their candidate, they also clear a path for whatever else wishes to avoid the light of truth. Those on the left who go after the media also deserve criticism to the degree they contribute to the erosion. The spurning of truth is thus something we should be very worried about. Merlin, in Excalibur, put it very well: “when a man lies, he murders some part of the world.” And without a healthy press, people will get away with murder.

 

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Trump & Racist Remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are Relationships Worth It?

My long term, long-distance relationship recently came to an amicable end, thus tossing me back into the world of dating. Philosophers, of course, have two standard responses to problems: thinking or drinking. Since I am not much for drinking, I have been thinking about relationships.

Since starting and maintaining a relationship is a great deal of work (and if it is not, you are either lucky or doing it wrong), I think it is important to consider whether relationships are worth it. One obvious consideration is the fact that the vast majority of romantic relationships end well before death.  Even marriage, which is supposed to be the most solid of relationships, tends to end in divorce.

While there are many ways to look at the ending of a relationship, I think there are two main approaches. One is to consider the end of the relationship a failure. One obvious analogy is to writing a book and not finishing: all that work poured into it, yet it remains incomplete. Another obvious analogy is with running a marathon that one does not finish—great effort expended, but in the end just failure. Another approach is to consider the ending more positively: the relationship ended, but was completed. Going back to the analogies, it is like completing that book you are writing or finishing that marathon. True, it has ended—but it is supposed to end.

When my relationship ended, I initially looked at it as a failure—all that effort invested and it just came to an end one day because, despite two years of trying, we could not land academic jobs in the same geographical area. However, I am endeavoring to look at in a more positive light—although I would have preferred that it did not end, it was a very positive relationship, rich with wonderful experiences and helped me to become better as a human being. There still, of course, remains the question of whether or not it is worth being in another relationship.

One approach to address this is the ever-popular context of biology and evolution. Humans are animals that need food, water and air to survive. As such, there is no real question about whether food, water and air are worth it—one is simply driven to possess them. Likewise, humans are driven by their biology to reproduce and natural selection seems to have selected for genes that mold brains to engage in relationships. As such, there is no real question of whether they are worth it, humans merely do have relationships. This answer is, of course, rather unsatisfying since a person can, it would seem, make the choice to be in a relationship or not. There is also the question of whether relationships are, in fact, worth it—this is a question of value and science is not the realm where such answers lie. Value questions belong to such areas as moral philosophy and aesthetics. So, on to value.

The question of whether relationships are worth it or not is rather like asking whether technology is worth it or not: the question is extremely broad. While some might endeavor to give sweeping answers to these broad questions, such an approach would seem problematic and unsatisfying. Just as it makes sense to be more specific about technology (such as asking if nuclear power is worth the risk), it makes more sense to consider whether a specific relationship is worth it. That is, there seems to be no general answer to the question of whether relationships are worth it or not, it is a question of whether a specific relationship would be worth it.

It could be countered that there is, in fact, a legitimate general question. A person might regard any likely relationship to not be worth it. For example, I know several professionals who have devoted their lives to their careers and have no interest in relationships—they do not consider a romantic involvement with another human being to have much, if any value. A person might also regard a relationship as a necessary part of their well-being. While this might be due to social conditioning or biology, there are certainly people who consider almost any relationship worth it.

These counters are quite reasonable, but it can be argued that the general question is best answered by considering specific relationships. If no specific possible (or likely) relationship for a person would be worth it, then relationships in general would not be worth it. So, if a person honestly considered all the relationships she might have and rejected all of them because their value is not sufficient, then relationships would not be worth it to her. As noted above, some people take this view.

If at least some possible (or likely) relationships would be worth it to a person, then relationships would thus be worth it. This leads to what is an obvious point: the worth of a relationship depends on that specific relationship, so it comes down to weighing the negative and positive aspects. If there is a sufficient surplus of positive over the negative, then the relationship would be worth it. As should be expected, there are many serious epistemic problems here. How does a person know what would be positive or negative? How does a person know that a relationship with a specific person would be more positive or more negative? How does a person know what they should do to make the relationship more positive than negative? How does a person know how much the positive needs to outweigh the negative to make the relationship worth it? And, of course, many more concerns. Given the challenge of answering these questions, it is no wonder that so many relationships fail. There is also the fact that each person has a different answer to many of these questions, so getting answers from others will tend to be of little real value and could lead to problems. As such, I am reluctant to answer them for others; especially since I cannot yet answer them for myself.

 

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Tearing Down

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

Politics has always been a nasty business, but the fact that examples of historic awfulness can be easily found does not excuse the current viciousness. After all, appealing to tradition (reasoning that something is acceptable because it has been done a long time) and appealing to common practice (reasoning that something being commonly done makes it acceptable) are both fallacies.

One manifestation of the nastiness of politics is when it does not suffice to merely regard an opponent as wrong, they must be torn down and cast as morally wicked. To be fair, there are cases in which people really are both wrong and morally wicked. As such, my concern is with cases in which the tearing down is not warranted.

I certainly understand the psychological appeal of this approach. It is natural to regard opponents as holding on to their views because they are bad people—in contrast to the moral purity that grounds one’s own important beliefs. In some cases, there is a real conflict between good and evil. For example, those who oppose slavery are morally better than those who practice the enslavement of their fellow human beings. However, most political disputes are disagreements in which all sides are a blend of right and wrong—both factually and morally. For example, the various views about the proper size of government tend to be blended in this way. Unfortunately, political ideology can become part of a person’s core identity—thus making any differing view appear as a vicious assault on the person themselves. A challenge to their very identity that could only come from the vilest of knaves. Politicians and pundits also intentionally stoke these fires, hoping to exploit irrationality and ungrounded righteous rage to ensure their election and to get their way.

While academic philosophy is not a bastion of pure objective rationality, one of the most important lessons I have learned in my career is that a person can disagree with me about an important issue, yet still be a fine human being. Or, at the very least, not a bad person. In some cases, this is easy to do because I do not have a strong commitment to my position. For example, while I do not buy into Plato’s theory of forms, I have no real emotional investment in opposing it. In other cases, such as moral disputes, it is rather more difficult. Even in cases in which I have very strong commitments, I have learned to pause and consider the merits of my opponent’s position while also taking care to distinguish the philosophical position taken from the person who takes it. I also take care to regard their criticisms of my view as being against my view and not against me as a person. This allows me to debate the issue without it becoming a personal matter that threatens my core identity. It also helps that I know that simply attacking the person making a claim is just some form of an ad hominem fallacy.

It might be objected that this sort of approach to disputes is bloodless and unmanly—that one should engage with passion and perhaps, as Trump would say, want to hit someone. The easy reply is that while there is a time and a place for punching, the point of a dispute over an issue is to resolve it in a rational manner. A person can also be passionate without being uncivil and vicious. Unfortunately, vicious attacks are part of the political toolkit.

One recent and reprehensible example involves the attacks on Ghazala and Khizr Khan, the parents of Captain HumayunKhan (who was killed in Iraq in 2004). Khizr Khan spoke out against Donald Trump’s anti Muslim rhetoric and asserted that Trump did not understand the Constitution. While Trump had every right to address the criticisms raised against him, he took his usual approach of trying to tear down a critic. Trump’s engagement with the family led to bipartisan responses, including an extensive response from John McCain, who was tortured as a prison of war during the Vietnam War. Trump, against the rules of basic decency, continued to launch attacks on Khan.

Since I have a diverse group of friends, I was not surprised when I saw posts appearing on Facebook attacking Khan. One set of posts linked to Shoebat.com’s claim that Khan “is a Muslim brotherhood agent who wants to advance sharia law and bring Muslims into the United States.” As should come as no surprise, Snopes quickly debunked this claim.

Breitbart.com also leaped into the fray asserting that Khan “financially benefits from unfettered pay-to-play Muslim migration into America.” The site also claimed that Khan had deleted his law firm’s website. On the one hand, it is certainly legitimate journalism to investigate speakers at the national convention. After all, undue bias legitimately damages credibility and it is certainly good to know about any relevant misdeeds lurking in a person’s past. On the other hand, endeavoring to tear a person down and thus “refute” their criticism is simply an exercise in the ad hominem fallacy. This is bad reasoning in which an attack on a person is taken to thus refute their claims. Even if Khan ran a “pay to play” system and even if he backed Sharia law, his criticisms of Donald Trump stand or fall on their own merits—and they clearly have merit.  There is also the moral awfulness in trying to tear down a Gold Star family. As many have pointed out, such an attack would normally be beyond the pale. Trump, however, operates far beyond this territory. What is one of the worst aspects of this is that although he draws criticism even from the Republican leadership, his support remains strong. He is, perhaps, changing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a way that might endure beyond his campaign—a change for the worse.

It might be objected that a politician must reply to critics, otherwise the attacks will stand. While this is a reasonable point, the reply made matters. It is one thing to respond to the criticisms by countering their content, quite another to launch a personal attack against a Gold Star family.

It could also be objected that engaging in a rational discussion of the actual issues is too difficult and would not be understood by the public. They can only handle emotional appeals and simplistic notions. Moral distinctions are irrelevant and decency is obsolete. Hence, the public discourse must be conducted at a low level—Trump gets this and is acting accordingly. My only reply is that I hope, but cannot prove, that this is not the case.

 

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Fear of Immigrants & Refugees

English: Immigrants entering the United States...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Public Lands & Privatization

Everglades, Florida, U.S.A.: Corkscrew Swamp S...

Thanks to people such as Teddy Roosevelt, the United States has vast areas of public lands—including the famous national parks. While most Americans have a positive view of these public lands, there has long been a push to privatize them. While the very few who would benefit from privatization have a compelling interest in ending public lands, I will show that the vast majority of citizens should strongly support keeping public lands public.

One somewhat abstract argument in favor of public lands is that they provide the basis for common ownership of the country even for those who do not own their own private land. As citizens, they have a stake and a share in the public lands. While people might not feel this ownership, it seems to be an important part of being a citizen of a democratic state. In monarchies of the past (and present) and dictatorships of the present, the common folk do not own the lands—rather, they belong to the monarch or tyrant. In contrast, public lands seem to be a rather important part of a democratic state—if only as a symbol of democracy.

It could be countered that a democracy does not require public lands—after all, they have existed without them and there is no necessary link between democracy and public lands. This is certainly a reasonable point: a democratic United States could exist in which there are no public lands; merely private lands and government property such as military bases, schools and courthouses. There might even be no real change in the attitudes of most people. As such, I must concede that the stake argument, though appealing, is perhaps too abstract to have significant strength.

A second, and stronger argument, is that public lands are needed to preserve nature. While individuals live but a short while and easily change their minds, land that is protected by enduring law can be persevered for as long as the state stands. This preservation of nature has value in many ways. One is that people have a psychological need for nature. For those who favor evolution, we evolved to be a part of this world. For those who accept the divine, it can be contended that we need to look upon the handiwork of the creator and preserving His work is to show respect for God.

I can also point to the obvious fact that the natural areas of the world serve as the life support for our planet. To use the obvious analogy, to allow some passengers of a spaceship to rip apart and sell the life support systems would be clearly stupid and wrong. While they would make a short term profit, they would do so at the expense of everyone. There is also the matter of future generations: to ruin the land for decades or centuries for short term profits would seem to be a crime against the future.

I noted above that there are a very few that would benefit from privatizing public lands. They and their supporters typically argue that privatization would take the land back from the government and thus restore freedom and put the decision making back into the hands of the people.

While this sort of rhetoric has considerable appeal, it is fundamentally a lie. This is because the transition from public ownership to private ownership would mean control over the land with no input from you or I and all access to the formerly public land would be at the discretion of the owner. In the case of public land, the citizens have a role in the control of the land through voting and the political process. If I do not like how the land is being used or the restrictions placed on its use, I can take action to get the laws and rules changed. However, if the land is privately owned, then I no longer have any real influence or control. While it is true that the very few owners would have greater control and freedom under private ownership, the vast majority of people would have no control or influence under private ownership. So, when people use the freedom argument, they mean to give freedom to the very, very few and take it away from the vast majority.

There is also the argument that privatizing public lands would result in profits and economic growth, so they should be privatized. This argument is certainly compelling—at least for the tiny fraction of people who would profit from the privatization. While some of the wealth would “trickle down”, the vast majority of people would gain nothing and would, in fact, lose access to those lands. Privatization would mean that the least who have the most would get even more, while the most who have the least would be losers. This would be great for the privileged few, but awful for the rest of us.

 

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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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