Category Archives: Philosophy

Wedding Cakes & Freedom, Again

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The United States Supreme Court is, as of this writing, considering a case involving a wedding cake. The gist of the battle is between the right of freedom of expression and the right to not be discriminated against. One the one side is a Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding based on his religious belief that same-sex marriage is wrong. On the other side is the couple who claim that they are being discriminated against by this refusal.

A primary argument being advanced in the baker’s defense is based on the 1st Amendment: being forced to make a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his freedom of expression. This right of free expression has a clear legal foundation and has very strong moral foundations, courtesy of various philosophical arguments in its favor. But, of course, there are also strong legal and moral foundations for not allowing discrimination against potential customers.

While the freedom of expression is usually presented as a right against being silenced, it also provides the right not to be compelled to engage in an act of expression. This freedom from compelled expression provides a person with a moral (and a legal) right to refuse certain services.

This line of reasoning does have considerable appeal and I endorse it both on philosophical and selfish grounds. I operate a writing business in which I get paid to write books. I accept that I have no legal or moral right to refuse business from someone just because she is gay, Jewish, Christian, or a non-runner. However, my writing is an act of expression. So, my freedom of expression grants me a moral right to refuse to write in support of views I oppose. For example, I have the right to refuse to write a tract advocating the persecution of Christians. This is because the creation of such work entails endorsement of a view I oppose. If I write a tract in favor of persecuting Christians, I would be unambiguously expressing my support of the idea. In such cases, an appeal to freedom of expression would seem quite relevant and reasonable. This can be generalized into the principle that it is wrong to compel expression and that people have the right to refuse compelled expression.

Since I am consistent, I extend this principle to everyone and do not limit it merely to myself or those I agree with. So, if a fellow author believes that her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness, then she would be protected by the freedom of expression from being required to write in favor of same-sex marriage. If a LGBT group approached her with a lucrative offer to pen a piece in favor of gay marriage, she would have the moral right to reject it. They have no moral right to expect her to express views she does not hold, even for cash.

This principle does, of course, have limits. One obvious limit is that my right of freedom of expression does not entail that I have a right to forbid my books from being sold to people I disapprove of or disagree with. For example, it does not give me the right to forbid Amazon from selling my books to racists, smug liberals, or smokers. This is because selling a book to a person is not an endorsement of that person’s ideas and is thus not compelled expression. I do not endorse intolerant atheism just because an intolerant atheist can buy my book.

As such an author who believes her religion condemns same-sex marriage could not use freedom of expression to demand that Amazon not sell her books to homosexuals. While buying a book might suggest agreement with the author, it does not suggest that the author is endorsing the purchaser. So, if a gay person buys the author’s anti-same-sex marriage book, it does not mean that the author is endorsing same-sex marriage. Likewise, if Donald Trump buys one of my books, it does not mean that I am endorsing Trump.

Not surprisingly, the case before the supreme court does not involve a Christian writer being asked to write pro-gay works—writers clearly have a right to refuse such jobs. As noted above, the case being considered involves a wedding cake. The key question, then, is selling a wedding cake more like being compelled to write in favor of a position one opposes or like someone buying a book one has written? If it like writing, then the freedom of expression would apply. If it is like someone buying a book, then the freedom of expression would not apply.

To get the obvious out of the way, refusing to bake a cake for a wedding because the people involved were Jewish, black, Christian, white, or Canadian would seem to be discrimination. If the person refusing to do so said that baking a cake for a Jew endorsed Judaism, that baking a cake for a  a black wedding endorsed blackness, or that baking a wedding cake for  Canadian endorsed Canada, they would be regarded as either joking or crazy.  But perhaps it can be argued that baking a wedding cake for a same-sex couple would be a compelled expression of agreement or endorsement.

On the face of it, making a wedding cake would not seem to be expressing approval or agreement with the wedding, regardless of what sort of wedding it might be. Selling someone food would seem to be like selling them a book—their buying it says nothing about what I endorse or believe. When the pizza delivery person arrives with a pizza when I am playing D&D, I do not say “aha, Dominoes endorses role-playing games!” After all, they are just selling me pizza. Likewise, if a Nazi buys my books on Amazon, I am not therefore endorsing Nazi ideology.

In the case of the wedding cake, it could be argued that it is a special sort of cake and creating one does express an endorsement. By this reasoning, a birthday cake would entail an endorsement of the person’s birth and continued existence, a congratulations cake would entail an endorsement of that person’s achievement and so on for all the various cakes.  This, obviously enough, seems implausible. Making me a birthday cake does not show that Publix endorses my birth or continued existence. They are just selling me a cake. If a baker makes a congratulatory cake, they do not require customers to prove that the congratulations is for something the baker agrees with. It also does not follow that a baker who bakes such a cake is therefore endorsing what the cake congratulates. For example, if someone gets a friend a cake congratulating them on their first murder, it does not follow that the baker approves of murder. As such, selling a person a wedding cake does not entail approval of the wedding. For example, if a baker sells a wedding cake to a person who has committed adultery and is remarrying so they can steal from their new spouse, this does not entail the baker’s approval of adultery or theft.

It can easily be argued that bakers do have the right to refuse a specific design or message on the cake. For example, a Jewish baker could claim that he has the right to refuse to create a Nazi cake with swastikas and Nazi slogans. This seems reasonable—a baker, like a writer, should not be compelled to create content she does not wish to express. Given this principle, a baker could rightly refuse to bake a sexually explicit wedding cake or one festooned with gay pride slogans.

However, creating a plain wedding cake would not seem to be an expression of ideas and would be on par with selling a person a book rather than being forced to write specific content. By analogy, I cannot refuse to sell a book I have written to a person because he is an intolerant atheist, but I can refuse a contract to write in support of atheism.

The obvious counter would be to argue that making a generic wedding cake is an act of creation and is thus an expression. As such, it would be protected by the freedom of expression. While this does have some appeal, it does run into some problems.

One obvious problem is that accepting this as a general principle would entail that anyone who creates anything would thus have the right to refuse to sell their work based on their values. So, for example, an atheist could forbid Amazon to sell their books to Christians, Muslims and Jews. As another example, a cook at a restaurant could refuse to sell a meal to people whose values they opposed. Perhaps even a surgeon could claim that they express their views via surgery and thus could not be compelled to perform surgery on someone whose values they reject. As should be clear, this would essentially be a license to discriminate and thus is problematic.

This problem can, of course, be addressed by carefully restricting what counts as expression. However, if baking a generic wedding cake would count, then this would open the door quite wide in terms of what would count as expression. After all, if a generic cake is expression, then it would seem to follow that so is a pizza, a piece of furniture, a shed, or a shirt.

It could be argued that making a wedding cake is special because of the event. But, the same principle would need to be extended to all things made for events that one might oppose. This would also seem to open the door wide to discrimination.

The problem can also be addressed by carefully restricting what counts as discrimination and what does not. For example, laws can easily be created that make it discrimination to not sell to someone based on their religion, but not discrimination to refuse based on their sexual orientation. This, of course, does not address the moral concerns about discrimination.

Another obvious problem is that this approach would entail that selling a person something one has created would be an act of endorsement towards that person. In the case of the wedding cake, the claim is that being forced to sell a generic cake would be to express approval of the wedding. But, as noted above, selling something to someone is not in itself an act of approval. If, for example, Nazi’s buy handmade Tiki torches to wave at their rally, then this does not entail that the maker is endorsing Nazis. Naturally, the torch maker has every right to refuse to carve Nazi symbols into their torches. Likewise, if a gay couple buys a wedding cake for their wedding, the baker is no more endorsing the wedding than the gas station that will sell them the gas they will use to drive to their wedding. Or the sub maker who will sell them the subs that will fuel them through their gay wedding night.

In light of the above, selling a generic wedding cake is not compelled expression and hence a baker does not have the right to refuse to sell one to a same-sex couple. But, a suitably custom wedding cake would be an act of expression and a baker has every right to refuse any design they do not endorse. To go back to the book analogy, my being unable to forbid sales of my books is not compelled expression—even though the books are expressive creations. However, being forced to write a custom book specifically for a view I do not endorse would be compelled expression.

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Why Do Good People Do Bad?

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Recent events have raised the old question of why (seemingly) good people do bad things. For example, Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor were both widely respected, but have now fallen before accusations of sexual misdeeds. As another example, legendary Democrat John Conyers’s was regarded as a heroic figure by some, but is now “retiring” in the face of accusations.

One easy and obvious way to explain why people who seem good do bad things is that they merely appeared to be good. Like Plato’s unjust man from the story of the Ring of Gyges, these people presented a virtuous front to the world. But, unlike the perfectly unjust man, their misdeeds were finally exposed to the world. On this view, these are not cases of good people doing bad, they are cases of bad people who masqueraded as good people and finally lost their masks. While this cynical and jaded approach does have considerable appeal, there are alternatives that are worth considering. It must be noted that the situations of individuals obviously vary a great deal and it is not being claimed that one explanation fits everyone.

An alternative explanation of why seemingly good people do bad things is the fact that people tend to be complicated rather than simple when it comes to ethics. Or, as is often said in popular culture, everyone is a mix of good and evil. As such, it is no wonder that even those who are good people (that is, more good than evil) sometimes do bad things. There is also the obvious fact that people are imperfect creatures who fail to always act in accord with their best principles.

One way to understand this is to use a method that the philosopher David Hume was rather fond of: he would routinely ask his reader to consider their own experiences and see if they matched his views. In the case of why good people do bad, I will ask the reader to think of the very worst thing they ever did and to think of why they did it. Presumably each of us, including you, think of themselves as good people. But, we all do bad things—and honestly considering why we do these things will help us understand the motivations and reasons of others.

A third option explains why seemingly good people do bad in terms of why people might think a bad person is good (other than deception). One possibility is that people often confuse a person being good at their profession, being charming, being beautiful or possessing other such positive qualities (virtues) with being a good person. For example, Kevin Spacey is a skilled actor and this no doubt led some people to think he was thus a good person. As another example, Garrison Keillor is a master story teller and created a show that is beloved by many—and some no doubt regarded him as a good person because of these talents.

Both Plato and Kant were aware of this sort of problem—the danger of a person with only some of the virtues, or in Kant’s terms, lacking a good will. Plato warned of the clever rogue: “Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue‑how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eye‑sight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?” Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, raises a similar point:

Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they, are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad; and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.

This should be taken as a warning about judging people—while the positive virtues of a person can easily lead people to judge them a good person, judging the whole person based on a few qualities can easily lead to errors. This is not to say that it should be assumed that people are always bad, but it is to say that it should not be inferred that a person is good based on a limited set of positive traits or accomplishments.

Another possibility is that a person will think another person is good because they agree with their professed values, religion, ideology, etc. The person’s reasoning is probably something like this:

Premise 1: I believe in value V.

Premise 2: Person A professes belief in value V.

Premise 3: I (think I) am a good person (because I believe V).

Conclusion: Person A is a good person.

For example, Democrats would be more inclined to think that Bill Clinton, John Conyers and Al Franken are good people—because they are fellow Democrats. Likewise, Republicans would be more inclined to think that Trump and Roy Moore are good people. This sort of reasoning is also fueled by various cognitive biases, such as the tendency of people to regard members of their own group as better than those outside the group.

While this reasoning is not entirely terrible, those using it need to carefully consider whether Person A really holds to value V, whether believing in V really is a mark of goodness, and whether they really are a good person. Not surprisingly, people do tend to uncritically accept the professed goodness of those who profess to share their values and this cuts across the entire political spectrum, across all religions and so on. People even hold to their assessment in the face of evidence that contradicts person’s A professed belief in value V.

This discussion does not, of course, exhaust possible explanations as to why (seemingly) good people do bad things. But it does present some possible accounts that are worth considering when trying to answer this question in specific cases.

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Embarrassment & Punishment

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2017 saw the fall of several influential men, ranging from Bill O’Reilly to Garrison Keillor, because of allegations of sexual harassment or worse. Politicians, such as Franken and Moore, have also faced allegations of misdeeds. As of this writing, no politician has recently lost an election or their current position because of such allegations. One obvious reason for this is that the political system is not like the employment system: while an employee has someone who can fire them, the removal of a politician is more complicated.

While many male elites have been accused of sexual misdeeds, the accusations vary a great deal. On the low end of the spectrum, Keillor claims that he merely accidentally touched a woman’s bare back. On the extreme end of the spectrum, Weinstein and Spacey have been accused of sexual assault and, on some accounts, rape. Somewhere in there is Matt Lauer. In all cases the punishment has been roughly the same: each man was fired. In the case of Keillor, there has been a thorough purge: old episodes of his “A Prairie Home Companion” will no longer be distributed and while the show will continue, it will do so under a new name (Keillor retired from the show about a year ago). In addition to being fired, the careers of most of these men will probably be over—it is unlikely that anyone will want to employ them in their former fields.

While it is tempting to regard these results as long-overdue justice, there is still a reasonable concern about such a system of punishment. It is not that these men are being punished for their misdeeds—that is, after all, a critical part of justice. It is that the punishment seems to be the same regardless of the severity of the misdeed. This violate a basic principle of justice, namely proportionality. This notion is typically presented in the saying “let the punishment fit the crime.” The basic idea is that the severity and nature of the punishment should be proportional to the offense. One moral justification for this principle is that punishment beyond what is deserved creates a new wrong rather than serving the ends of justice. By punishing every such offense, regardless of severity, the same way, this principle is violated. As such, justice would seem to require that distinct levels of such misdeeds should be punished differently.

One reasonable reply to this concern is to point out that unlike the judicial system, employers have a much narrower range of available punishments. The judicial system can, for example, distinguish between groping, sexual assault, and rape in applying a wide range of punishments. Employers, in contrast, are limited to financial punishments, demotions and firing.

If an employee engages in harassment or worse, the behavior can very easily warrant severe punishment. Because of the limited range of options available to employers, they cannot fully follow the principle of proportionality—since their punishment range caps at their ability to fire employees. As such, if an employee engages in improper behavior that crosses the firing line, regardless of how extensive the transgression, the upper limit of punishment would be firing. To use an obvious analogy, consider the situation of a university.

Like an employer, a university has a limited set of punishments available in relation to students, the most extreme of which is expulsion. Once a student hits the level at which they can be expelled, then any misdeed beyond that can only be punished by the university by expulsion. If one student persists in violating the academic code of conduct, they can be expelled. If another student burns down a fraternity house, killing dozens of people, then they can be expelled. If third student massacres a thousand fellow students, they can also be expelled. Naturally, the second and third students will also face criminal charges, but that is a matter for the legal system and not the university. Since expulsion is the maximum punishment, proportionality ceases once a student hits that level—no matter how far their misdeeds go.

Another reasonable concern is that transgressors might be punished too severely, even within the limited options available to employers. That is, the action of the employee might not warrant being fired, but they are fired anyway. In this case, the firing would clearly be unjust on the grounds of the proportionality principle. The problem is sorting out what misdeeds merit punishments less than firing. Some might argue that any sexual harassment or misconduct is grounds for firing—and a case could be made for that. Others might argue that an employee should be given a second chance for minor misdeeds and be subject to a punishment short of firing such as a financial cost or demotion. Since there are many possible offenses, the challenge would be sorting out a just system of punishment that meets the proportionality principle. But, as noted above, there are those who would argue that firing is just punishment for any misdeed that reaches the level of sexual harassment.

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Art & Assault I: Money

 

2017 saw many once powerful men brought down by accusations of sexual harassment or assault. Among these men are Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein was fired from his company and Netflix has announced that it will not continue the wildly successful Netflix series House of Cards with Spacey. While the misdeeds of these men raise many issues relevant to philosophy, one interesting subject is the impact of the misdeeds of those involved in the arts on their works. This is, of course, an old topic—philosophers have been discussing the relevance of the ethics of the artist to the aesthetics of their works. However, it is still worth discussing and is obviously relevant today. I will begin by getting some easy matters out of the way.

One area of concern that is more a matter of psychology than philosophy is the impact of the artist’s behavior on the audience. To be specific, the experience of the consumer of the art can be affected by what they believe about the ethics of the artist. It is certainly possible that an audience member will find that their aesthetic experience is diminished or even destroyed by what they believe about the artist. For example, someone watching a Kevin Spacey movie or show might find that they can only think of the allegations against Spacey and thus cannot enjoy the work. It is equally possible that the audience member will be unaffected by what they think of the ethics of the artist. For example, someone who enjoys The Usual Suspects might find their enjoyment undiminished by the allegations against Spacey.

While considerations of how people might react are relevant to discussing the aesthetic issues, they do not settle these issues. For example, how people might react to an artist’s misdeeds does not settle whether the ethics of an artist is relevant to the aesthetic merit of their work. To use an analogy, how fans feel about a professional athlete’s moral misdeeds does not settle the issue about whether they are a skilled player or not.

Another area of concern is the ethics of supporting an artist who has engaged in moral misdeeds. This is, of course, part of the broader issue of whether one should support any worker whose has engaged in moral misdeeds. As such, it is a moral issue rather than a specifically aesthetic issue. However, it is worth addressing.

While a customer has every right to patronize as they wish, what is under consideration is whether one should support an artist one regards as a bad person. On the one hand, a moral case can be made that by supporting such an artist by buying their work, purchasing tickets to their movies or subscribing to a service that streams their shows one is supporting their misdeeds. Naturally, as the degree of financial support diminishes, so too does the support of their misdeeds. To illustrate, if I think a painter is evil, but pay them $10,000 for a painting then I am obviously providing more support than a situation in which I think Kevin Spacey is evil, yet keep paying my subscription to Netflix.

It is also worth considering that unless the artist is operating alone (such as a lone painter) the decision to not support their art does not just impact the artist. So, for example, if someone decides to not buy any Kevin Spacey movies because of what Spacey is accused of doing, they might cost Spacey some microscopic bit of revenue, but they are also punishing everyone else who might get money from the sale of those movies, such as everyone else involved in making the movie as well as the retailer selling it. While people have every right to make their purchasing decisions on what they regard as ethical grounds, it is also important to consider that the target of their ire might not be the only one impacted.

On the other hand, it can be argued that supporting an artist one regards as morally bad is not supporting their misdeeds. After all, one is paying for the art (or experience of the art) and not paying them to commit misdeeds. The purchasing of the art is not an endorsement of the misdeeds but a financial transaction and what matters are the aspects that are relevant to the transaction. To use an analogy, one does not need to inquire whether a mechanic has engaged in misdeeds that have nothing to do with their job before deciding to use their services or not. One also does not feel obligated to investigate what the mechanic might use the money for. What matters is the quality and cost of the work. Naturally, a person might prefer a nice person as a mechanic or be upset if the mechanic used the money to pay prostitutes, but that is a matter of preference.

It can be argued that patronizing a bad person who is an artist does support their misdeeds. After all, it is the wealth and power of people like Spacey and Weinstein that enabled them to get away with their misdeeds for so long. On this view, once a person knows about the misdeeds they would be morally accountable for continuing to provide support for the artist. Naturally, they can plead ignorance regarding past support. This is analogous to patronizing a company that is accused of doing terrible things—on the one hand, one can claim to be just buying their product or service without endorsing their misdeeds. On the other hand, without customers they would be far less able to do their misdeeds.

 

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Whataboutism

While Whataboutism has long served as a tool for Soviet (and now Russian) propagandists, it has now become entrenched in American political discourse. It is, as noted by comedian John Oliver, a beloved tool of Fox News and President Trump.

Whataboutism is a variant of the classic ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. In the standard tu quoque fallacy it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:

 

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  3. Therefore X is false.

 

The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite, but this does not prove his claims are false. For those noting the similarity to the Wikipedia entry on this fallacy, you will note that the citation for the form and example is to my work.

As would be expected, while the Russians used this tactic against the West, Americans use it against each other along political lines. For example, a Republican might “defend” Roy Moore by saying “what about Harvey Weinstein?” A Democrat might do the reverse. I mention that Democrats can use this in anticipation of comments to the effect of “what about Democrats using whataboutism?” People are, of course, free to use Bill Clinton in the example, if they prefer.  To return to the subject, the “reasoning” in both cases would be fallacious as is evident when the “logic” is laid bare:

 

  1. Premise 1: Person A of affiliation 1 is accused of X by person B of Affiliation 2.
  2. Premise 2: Person C of affiliation 2 is accused of X by person D of affiliation 1.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, A did not do X.

 

Obviously enough, whether C did X is irrelevant to whether or not it is true that A did X.

 

Alternatively:

 

  1. Premise 1: Person A of affiliation 1 is accused of X by person B of Affiliation 2.
  2. Premise 2: Person C of affiliation 2 is accused of X by person D of affiliation 1.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, it is not wrong that A did X.

 

Clearly, even if C did X it does not follow that A doing X was not wrong. This sort of “reasoning” can also be seen as a variant on the classic appeal to common practice fallacy. This fallacy has the following structure:

 

Premise 1. X is a common action.

Conlcusion. Therefore X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

 

The basic idea behind the fallacy is that the fact that most people do X is used as “evidence” to support the action or practice. It is a fallacy because the mere fact that most people do something does not make it correct, moral, justified, or reasonable. In the case of whataboutism, the structure would be like this:

 

Premise 1. You said X is done by my side.

Premise 2. Whatabout  X done by your side?

Premises 3. So, X is commonly done/we both do X.

Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

 

It is also common for the tactic of false equivalency to be used in whataboutism. In the form above, the X of premise 1 would not be the moral equivalent of the X of premise 2. In fact, the form should be modified to account for the use of false equivalency:

 

Premise 1. You said X is done by my side.

Premise 2. Whatabout  Y, which I say is just as bad as X, done by your side?

Premises 3. So, things just as bad as X are commonly done/we both do things as bad as X.

Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

 

This would be a not-uncommon double fallacy. In this case not only is the comparison between X and Y a false one, even if they were equivalent the fact that both sides do things that are equally bad would still not support the conclusion. Obviously enough, you should not accept this sort of reasoning—especially when it is being used to “support” a conclusion that is appealing.

Whataboutism can also be employed as a tool for creating a red herring. A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

 

  1. Topic A is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
  3. Topic A is abandoned.

 

In the case of a whataboutism, the structure would be as follows:

 

  1. Topic A, my side doing X, is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced: whatabout X done by the other side?
  3. Topic A is abandoned.

 

In closing, it should be noting that if two sides are being compared, then it is obviously relevant to consider the flaws of both sides. For example, if the issue is whether to vote for candidate A or B, then it is reasonable to consider the flaws of both A and B in comparison. However, the flaws of A do not show that B does not have flaws and vice versa. Also, if the issue being discussed is the bad action of A, then bringing up B’s bad action does nothing to mitigate the badness of A’s action. Unless, of course, A had to take a seemingly bad action to protect themselves from B’s unwarranted bad action. For example, if A is accused of punching a person and it is shown that this was because B tried to kill A, then that would obviously be relevant to assessing the ethics of A’s action. But, if A assaulted women and B assaulted women, then bringing up B in a whataboutism to defend A would be an error in logic. Both would be bad.

As far as why you should be worried about whataboutism, the obvious reason is that it is a corrosive that eats at the very structure of truth and morality. While it is a tempting tool to deploy against one’s hated enemies (such as fellow Americans), it is not a precise weapon—each public use splashes the body of society with vile acid.

 

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Social Media: The Capitalist & the Rope

Lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter testified before congress at the start of November, 2017. One of the main reasons these companies attracted the attention of congress was the cyberwarfare campaign launched by the Russians through these companies against the United States during the 2016 Presidential campaign.

One narrative is that companies like Facebook are naively focused on all the good things that are possible with social media and that they are blind to misuses of this sort. On this narrative, the creators of these companies are like the classic scientist of science fiction who just wanted to do good, but found their creation misused for terrible purposes. This narrative does have some appeal—it is easy for very focused people to be blind to what is outside of their defining vision, even extremely intelligent people. Perhaps especially in the case of intelligent people.

That said, it is difficult to imagine that companies so focused on metrics and data would be ignorant of what is occurring within their firewalls. It would also be odd that so many bright people would be blissfully unaware of what was really going on. Such ignorance is, of course, not impossible—but seems unlikely.

Another narrative is that these companies are not naïve. They are, like many other companies, focused on profits and not overly concerned with the broader social, political and moral implications of their actions. The cyberwarfare launched by the Russians was profitable for their companies—after all, the ads were paid for, the bots swelled Twitter’s user numbers, and so on.

It could be objected that it would be foolish of these companies to knowingly allow the Russians and others to engage in such destructive activity. After all, they are American companies whose leaders seem to endorse liberal political values.

One easy reply is courtesy of one of my political science professors: capitalists will happily sell the rope that will be used to hang them. While this seems silly, it does make sense: those who focus on profits can easily sacrifice long term well-being for short term profits. Companies generally strive to ensure that the harms and costs are offloaded to others. This practice is even defended and encouraged by lawmakers. For example, regulations that are intended to protect people and the environment from the harms of pollution are attacked as “job killing.” The Trump administration, in the name of profits, is busy trying to roll back many of the laws that protect consumers from harm and misdeeds. As such, the social media companies are analogous to more traditional companies, such as energy companies. While cyberwarfare and general social media misdeeds cause considerable harm, the damage is largely suffered by people other than social media management and shareholders. Because of this, I am somewhat surprised that the social media companies do not borrow the playbooks used by other companies when addressing offloading harms to make profits. For example, just as energy companies insist that they should not be restrained by “job-killing” environmental concerns, the social media companies should insist that they not be restrained by “job-killing” concerns about the harms they profit from enabling. After all, the basic principle is the same: it is okay to cause harm, provided that it is profitable to a legal business.

Of course, companies are also quite willing to take actions for short term profits that will cause their management and shareholders long term harms. There is also the fact that most people discount the future—that is, they will often take a short-term benefit even it means forgoing a greater gain in the long term or experiencing a greater harm later. As such, the idea that the social media companies are knowingly allowing such harmful activity because it is profitable in the short term is not without merit.

It is also worth considering the fact that social media companies span national boundaries. While they are nominally American companies, they make their profits globally and have offices and operations around the world. While the idea of megacorporations operating apart from nations and interested solely in their own profits is considered the stuff of science fiction, companies like Google and Facebook clearly have interests quite apart from those of the United States and its citizens. If being a vehicle for cyberwarfare against the United States and its citizens is profitable, these companies would have little reason to not sell, for example, the Russians the digital rope they will use to hang us. While a damaged United States might have some impact on the social media-companies bottom line, it might be offset by profits to be gained elsewhere. To expect patriotism and loyalty from social-media companies would be as foolish as expecting it from other companies. After all, the business of business is now shareholder and upper management profit and there is little profit in patriotism and national loyalty.

 

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Free Speech, White Supremacists & the Slippery Slope

While I accept the right to free speech, I also accept that it (like all rights) has moral limits. These moral limits can be used to justify legal limits, but such matters are settled by the courts rather than philosophers. While it is reasonable to believe that there are limits to free speech, it is equally reasonable to believe that these limits can be debated. Unfortunately, the debate is often distorted with emotions and bad reasoning.

As should be expected, many people dislike and even hate white supremacists, even more so as the supremacists become more Nazi like. Because of this strong emotional response, people often think that white supremacists should be silenced. However, how one feels about a speaker is not a good guide to whether the speaker should be allowed to speak. This is because, obviously enough, feelings are not reasons and the strength of a feeling is no measure of its correctness. That is, just because I really hate something does not mean it is bad. People do, of course, “reason” in this manner and “infer” that what they like is good because they like it and what they dislike is bad because they dislike it. As such, when considering white supremacists and free speech, it is important to approach the matter with reasons rather than feelings. This is not to say that feelings cannot be appropriate (one should dislike white supremacy), but to say that one cannot infer the correctness of a view from how one feels about it. A moral position should shape our emotions rather than our emotions determining our moral positions.

As with many debates over rights, the debate over free speech is often distorted by the slippery slope fallacy. The slippery slope is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in question and no reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument” has the following form:

 

  1. Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
  2. Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.

 

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there are a considerable number of steps or gradations between one event and another.

In the case of free speech, the usual slippery slope argument is to claim that if the free speech of some person or group is restricted, then everyone’s free speech will be in danger. For example, someone might claim that if white supremacists are not allowed to speak, uninvited, on a college campus then soon everyone with unpopular views will be silenced. If a case can be made showing how this will plausibly play out, then there would be no fallacy—but that is rarely done.

The slippery slope fallacy gets most of its power from psychological factors, typically involving fear. The idea is that the person targeted by the slippery slope is supposed to be afraid of the bad consequence that is alleged to follow and this is intended to blight their reason and get them to accept the fallacy as reasonable. The slippery slope fallacy also gets some of its power from the fact that there can be good reasoning that resembles the fallacy. Specifically, a causal argument that shows that the slope is slippery by making the causal link between one event and the consequences.

In the case of free speech, a case can be made that argues from the restriction of the free speech of white supremacists to restrictions on all unpopular groups and then on to everyone. While this would avoid the slippery slope fallacy, there would still be the question of whether the argument’s premises are true and how strong the argument is. To use an analogy, someone could argue that sex with minors (statutory rape) should not be banned because this is the first step towards banning all sex. While the steps could be laid out, it is rather evident that the slide can be stopped: adults can be banned from having sex with minors without banning all sex. Likewise, white supremacists can be restricted without this sliding to other groups.

In many cases, people also make use of another fallacy, the line drawing fallacy, in trying to argue that one thing will follow from another. The line drawing fallacy occurs when it is claimed that unless a precise line can be drawn between X and Y, then no distinction can be made between them. In the case of white supremacists, the argument would go that there is no clear line between white supremacists and other unpopular groups, so there would be no way to distinguish them. As such, if white supremacists were restricted, then these other groups would be restricted. While it can be challenging to make such distinctions and there will be problems, it is clearly possible to make such distinctions. Going back to the sex example, the transition between a child and an adult is imprecise. However, it is clearly possible to make such distinctions and make then part of law. As such, white supremacist groups can be distinguished from other groups, though there would be considerable debate about where the lines would be drawn.

While the focus has been on white supremacist groups, the same principles would apply to analogous groups. So, for example, black supremacist groups who advocated ethnic cleansing and such should also be subject to the same restriction as white supremacist groups.

In closing, it must be noted that I do not favor restricting people who advance unpopular, false or morally wrong views about “races” when they do so in the context of an actual discussion and are not engaged in presenting a threat to others. This, of course, goes back to the principle of harm discussed in a previous essay.

 

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Free Speech & White Supremacists: The Principle of Harm

In October, 2017 white supremacist Richard Spencer gave an uninvited speech in my adopted state of Florida on the campus of the University of Florida. As happened at the Charlottesville, Virginia event where Spencer spoke, white supremacists engaged in violence. While this time shots were fired at those protesting the white supremacists, no one was hurt. Three suspects were arrested and charged with attempted murder. As might be suspected, there have been efforts to keep Spencer from speaking. Spencer and his lawyers, however, have been able to successfully appeal to the First Amendment in their lawsuits. While the lawyers and courts will settle the legal aspects of this matter, there is also the moral aspect of free speech.

As a matter of principled consistency, I always apply Mill’s principle of harm when it comes to rights and liberty. The basic idea is that the collective has no right to restrict the liberty of an individual expect when the actions of the individual would cause harm to others. Sorting out all the details of any specific application can be challenging, but the basic idea is simple enough and is justified by Mill’s moral theory of utilitarianism. This is, of course, the view that the morality of an action depends on the value it creates for the morally relevant beings. Roughly put, an action is good when it creates more positive value for negative value (for those that matter morally).

As recent white supremacist rallies have shown, allowing white supremacists to express their views in public tends to create considerable harm. In the case of Charlottesville, a person was killed and others badly injured when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd. As noted above, Spencer speaking in Florida lead to three white supremacists being arrested for attempted murder. While I normally disagree with Florida Governor Rick Scott, he was right to declare a state of emergency in Florida and prepare for violence. The University of Florida also decided to step up its security, spending $600,000 of public money. Because allowing such events to take place has resulted in death, injury and attempted murder, the principle of harm would seem to justify denying white supremacists the right to engage in public speaking. The fact that dealing with likely violence costs large sums of public money also supports this conclusion: while speech should be free, those whose speech costs the public such large sums should not be permitted to engage in the sort of events that require such security expenditures.

It can be objected that restricting white supremacists would be unfair. After all, other controversial speakers have drawn violent elements. To be consistent, the principle would need to be applied consistently: if a speaker is likely to draw followers/supporters that engage in violence, then the speaker would need to provide funding for adequate security to protect the community. If they cannot ensure the safety of others, then the right to not be hurt or killed (the right to life) of the people likely to be affected trumps the speaker’s right to free speech. The use of public money also brings in property rights, which can also trump free speech rights.

This, of course, leads to an obvious concern: speakers can draw “followers/supporters” that they do not want nor endorse. For example, a conservative speaker might attract white supremacists who support him, but he does not want their support or presence. On the left, a speaker might attract violent anarchist “supporters” who engage in violence and vandalism. It would be unfair to restrict freedom of speech because a person happens to have bad “supporters.” The challenge is to sort out cases in which a person is drawing “supporters” they do not want and cases in which they are pulling true supporters. In some cases, this will be rather difficult, while in others it will be easy. For example, Spencer’s remarks indicate the sort of people he wants as supporters and these are the sort of people who have engaged in violence.

It must be noted that restricting speakers because they might offend members of the audience or make them uncomfortable would be unjustified. While people do not like being offended or upset, these are not strong enough harms to a person to warrant restricting a basic right such as free expression. That said, a speaker who engages in threats can cross over into real harm by making people legitimately fear that they are in danger. While people like Spencer speak of “peaceful ethnic cleansing”, white supremacy is, by its very nature, a threat to everyone who is not perceived by the supremacists as white. As such, it is reasonable to assume, until proven otherwise, that any white supremacist speaker’s speech on the matter is a threat and thus a harm that warrants restriction. To use an analogy, if a person wants to speak in favor of molesting children or committing murder, it is reasonable to regard them as a threat and to not allow them to express such views.

While the burden of proof rests on the white supremacist, they could make the case that their views are not a threat of harm against others. If this case can be made, then they should be free to express their views. Naturally, the same principle should apply consistently. For example, if a speaker wanted to speak for black supremacy and urge the “peaceful” cleansing of whites, then the same principle would apply. But, supremacy of any stripe seems to be a threat of violence against everyone else.

 

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The High Cost of Being Shot

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In the naivety of my youth, I believed that people would not be charged for medical treatment resulting from being wounded by criminals. After all, my younger self reasoned, their injuries were the fault of someone else and it would be unjust to expect them to pay for the misdeeds of another. Learning that this was not the case was just one of the many disappointments when it came to the matter of justice and ethics. As such, I was not surprised when I learned that shooting victims were presented with the bills for their treatment. However, I was somewhat surprised by the high cost of being shot.

Dr. Joseph Sakran, who had been shot in his youth, co-authored a study of what shooting victims are charged for their treatment. Since gunshot wounds range from relatively minor grazing wounds to massive internal damage, the costs vary considerably. While the average is $5,000 the cost can go up to $100,000. These costs are generally covered by insurance, but victims who lack proper coverage become victims once again: they must either pay for the treatment or pass on the cost as part of the uncompensated care. When the cost is passed on, the patient can suffer from severely damaged credit and, of course, the cost is passed on others in the form of premium increases. There can be costs beyond the initial medical bills, such as ongoing medical bills, the loss of income, and the psychological harm.

In addition to medical expenses of those who are shot, there are also the costs of the police response, the impact on employers, and the dollar value of those who are killed rather than wounded (and do not forget that dying in the hospital obviously does not automatically clear the bill). While estimating the exact cost is difficult, a mass shooting like the Pulse Nightclub shooting will probably end up costing almost $400 million. While mass shootings, such as the recent one in Las Vegas, get the attention of the media, gunshot wounds are a regular occurrence in the United States with an estimated cost of $600 million per day. While some will dispute the exact numbers, what is indisputable is that getting shot is expensive for the victim and society. As such, it would be rational to try to reduce the number of shootings and to address the high cost of being shot.

While the rational approach to such a massive health crisis would be to undertake a scientific study to find solutions, the 1996 Dickey Amendment bans the use of federal funding for gun research. There is also very little good data about gun injuries and deaths—and this is quite intentional. Efforts to improve the collection of data are dealt with by such things as the Dickey Amendment. Efforts to impose more gun control, even when there is overwhelming public support for such things as universal background checks, are routinely blocked. While this serves as a beautiful object lesson in how much say the people have in this democracy, it also shows that trying to address the high cost of getting shot by reducing shootings is a noble fool’s errand. As such, the only practical options involve finding ways to offset the medical costs of victims. Naturally, victims can bring civil suits—but this is not a reliable and effective way to ensure that the medical expenses are covered. After all, mass shooters are rarely wealthy enough to pay all the bills and often perish in their attack.

Some victims have attempted to address their medical bills in the same way others who lack insurance have tried—by setting up GoFundMe pages to get donations. While this option is problematic in many ways, the main problem is that it is not very reliable. This, of course, lays aside the moral problem of having people begging so they can pay for being victims of a shooting. To address this problem, I will make two modest proposals.

My first proposal is that gun owners be required to purchase a modestly priced insurance policy that is analogous to vehicle insurance. In the United States, people are generally required to have insurance to cover the damage they might inflict while operating a dangerous piece of machinery. This helps pool the risk (as insurance is supposed to do) and puts the cost on the operators of the machines rather than on those who they might harm. The same should apply to guns—they are dangerous machines that can do considerable harm and it makes sense that the owners should bear the cost of the insurance. Naturally, as with vehicles, owners can also be victims.

It could be objected that owning a firearm is a right and hence the state has no right to impose such a requirement. The easy and obvious reply is that the right to keep and bear arms is a negative right rather than a positive right. A positive right is one in which a person is entitled to be provided with the means to use that right (such as how people are provided with free ballots when they go to vote). A negative right means the person must provide the means of exercising their right, but it is (generally) wrong to prevent them from exercising that right. So, just as the state is not required to ensure that people get free guns and ammunition, it is not required to allow gun ownership without insurance—provided that the requirement does not impose an unreasonable infringement on the right.

Another easy and obvious reply is that rights do not free a person from responsibility. In the case of speech, people cannot simply say anything without consequence. In the case of the gun insurance, people would be acting in a responsible manner—they would be balancing their right with a rational amount of responsibility. To refuse to have such insurance is to insist on rights without responsibility—something conservatives normally rail against. As such, both liberals and conservatives should approve of this idea.

My second proposal, which is consistent with the first, is that there be a modest state fee added to the cost of each firearm, accessory and ammunition box. This money would go into a state pool to help pay the medical expenses of the uninsured who are injured in shootings. Yes, I know that this money would probably be misused by most states, probably to bankroll the re-election of incumbents. The justification is, of course, that the people who buy the guns that could hurt people should bear the cost for the medical expenses of those who are hurt. People already pay sales taxes on such items, this would merely earmark some money to help offset the cost of people exercising their second amendment rights. To go back to the vehicle analogy, it makes perfect sense to add a fee onto the cost of gas to pay for roads and other infrastructure—that way the people who are using it are helping to pay for it. Likewise for guns.

An obvious objection is that this fee would be paid by people who will never engage in gun crime. This is a reasonable concern, analogous to other concerns about paying into anything that one is not directly responsible for. There are two reasonable replies. One is that the funds generated could cover medical expenses involving any firearm crime or accident and anyone can have an accident with a gun. Another is the responsibility argument: while I, as a gun owner, will probably never engage in a gun crime, being able to exercise my right to own guns allows people who will engage in gun crimes to engage in those crimes. For example, the Las Vegas shooter was operating under the protection of the same gun rights that protect me up until the moment he started firing. This fee would be my share of the responsibility for allowing the threat of gun violence to endanger everyone in the United States. Such a modest fee would be a very small price to pay for having such a dangerous right. Otherwise, I would be selfishly expecting everyone else to bear the cost of my right, which would not be right. So, to appeal to principled conservatives, this would be a way for taking responsibility for one’s rights. As people love to say, freedom isn’t free.

 

 

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Patriotism & Football

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After President Trump tweeted his way into the matter, the question of patriotism and protest became a hot issue in the public eye once again. A reasonable way to begin the discussion is to consider the nature of patriotism, which has been said to be the “last refuge of the scoundrel.”

One caricature of patriotism consists of shallow flag waving, the uncritical obedience to the dictates of the ruling class and the exaltation of popular prejudices.  Unfortunately, this caricature is often the reality and is, unsurprisingly, what is often pushed by the ruling classes upon the masses. This is, of course, not the only viable account of patriotism.

One alternative approach is to go with the easy and obvious definition—patriotism is the love of one’s country. This simple definition leads to the philosophically complicated question of the nature of love. One way to look at love, at least a positive form of love, is that it involves a devotion to the higher principles, a commitment to what is truly and properly best for the loved one, and an exaltation of the best ideals. This sort of love has a strong moral component and is dedicated to what is truly best—something that might run contrary to what the loved one thinks they want. In the case of patriotism, the love would be for what is best about the country and would commit the patriot to doing what is truly best for the country. This is likely to make such a patriot unpopular for it often requires the patriot to oppose the dictates of the ruling class and to fight against the popular prejudices. While the definition of “patriotism” is a matter of semantics, the idea that it is a love for one’s country that commits one to trying to do what is best for that country (in the moral sense) seems rather appealing and should be adopted. I will now turn to the matter of the NFL players protesting (or showing solidarity with protestors) during the national anthem.

One standard criticism advanced by Trump and others against the protesting players is that these wealthy players are ungrateful. As others have suggested, “ungrateful” seems to be the new “uppity” although most critics are reluctant to utilize the n word. Ironically, some are quite willing to call black players by the n-word while also asserting that they have nothing to protest.

While the players should certainly appreciate their good fortune, to reject what the players say because they are wealthy would be a mere ad hominem fallacy. This would be the same error that would be made if the tax plans of rich, white Republicans were dismissed out of hand simply because they were made by rich, white Republicans.

A more substantial version of this attack is to argue that the players have no grounds for protest about how blacks are treated in America because they are proof that their criticisms are invalid. While this is better than a mere ad hominem, it is easy to counter. First, wealthy black athletes have still been subject to the sort of unwarranted police violence they are protesting. Second, the unusual success of these athletes does not invalidate the truth of their claims about what happens to other people. To use an analogy, if famous athletes urged people to take action against a serious disease, it would be a foolish objection to say that they are wrong because they are healthy athletes and do not suffer from that disease. It does, in fact, make the most sense that the famous should protest—they are the one who will get the most attention.

Another criticism against such protests is that people watch sports to be amused and to have a break from serious issues. While this does have some appeal (people do deserve leisure time), one reply is that people who are oppressed do not get a break from oppression. If the fans want their break, they should certainly recognize that the oppressed want their oppression to end. There is also the fact that the protests, as conducted now, do not actually disrupt the game—the players still play and the game goes on.

As might be suspected, some people try to counter the protests by contending that they should not have to deal with the protests because “they did not own slaves.” One reply is that while they did not own slaves, they most likely benefit from the system that arose out of slavery and that now serves to systematically oppress some while conveying unearned advantages to others. Oddly, this position does seem to acknowledge the existence of a problem, since the person is claiming they are not part of that problem. However, there are those who deny there is a problem.

One approach is to assert that the protests are pointless because there is nothing to protest—everything is just fine. This is obviously not true and can be rejected in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Somewhat ironically, when people engage in racism while denying racism, they merely prove the existence of racism.

One interesting criticism is that the protests are just empty theatre, perhaps even some sort of marketing ploy aimed at improving viewership (albeit at the risk of alienating some fans). This criticism does have some appeal. However, there is the interesting fact that the playing of the national anthem at games was originally itself a marketing ploy that somehow became something more. It would be quite appropriate if the protests were marketing and even more so if they became more than mere marketing. In any case, even if the protests are marketing, this would not show that they are thus unpatriotic or unwarranted. At worst it would call into question the motives of those involved.

As far as whether the protestors are patriots, this question can only be answered by knowing their motives and goals. If they are protesting what they regard as injustice and are doing so to make America better, then they are engaged in true patriotism: they are trying to make the country they love be the best it can be. And that is a far truer patriotism than someone who just wants to wave a flag and uncritically praise their country be she wrong or right.

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