Monthly Archives: January 2012

Language Games: An Appeal On Behalf of Dave

“I’m going out with my pal Rick for a beer tonight, he’s got himself into a spot of bother with the police again. Fighting.” said Dave.

I think for a minute: “Rick, I don’t think I know him do I?”.

“No” said Dave, “you’ve never met him. I know him from my anger management group.”

Dave is my running partner yet he and I are not alike. He has spent much of his adult life swirling around the British penal system and I, well, haven’t. But an interest in running can forgive a multitude of sins, and he has been gracious enough to forgive many of mine.

Dave’s back story makes for a cautionary tale of how the UK statutory services can infiltrate a life and subvert the identity of the person they purport to help. He has probation officers, social workers, outreach workers and counsellours, all vying for his time and all interfering with his attempt to construct a life, honest or otherwise. But he is fighting back, with the aid of his Penalty Box.

The idea is as follows. Whenever Dave has a meeting with a representative of any of the abovementioned agencies, he takes with him his Penalty Box, into which the relevant factotum must pay a forfeit if she uses any of the following expressions:

acceptable (or unacceptable); appropriate (or inappropriate); empower(ing); person centred (or person oriented); developmental; non-judgemental; rights-based; forward-looking ; in partnership.

If a project or service is ever said to be rolled out then Dave claims a double forfeit. And if any mention of the date is made in such a way as to imply it has a particular moral relevance then that is triple. Hence if a social worker were to say of his opinion that it is  “judgemental and not an appropriate comment to make in this, the 21st Century” then he’d hit paydirt.

But Dave has a Budweiser habit to feed and he wishes to go abroad for his Summer vacation so he is in need of funds. I therefore appeal, on his behalf, for any submissions which you the reader believe could plausibly be added to the above list.

Dave’s strategy has a pleasing consequence, one that is more than merely financial. He has discovered that in being denuded of the above expressions the social worker, probation officer and counsellour suffers a pleasing paralysis of expression and of thought.Meetings that used to take several hours are now over in minutes.  It has become obvious to him that the Wittgensteinians have a point: that there is no pre-linguistic “given”, that thought and experience are mediated by and logically consequent upon language. Strip these statutory representatives of their language game and they become like putty in his hands. He used to spend his time running from these people, now he knows that, with the help of his Penalty Box, he can philosophise them away.

Don’t blame me, I didn’t want anything to do with this book…

This is the second in my very occasional series about amusing Prefaces (the first is here). I came across this one while browsing John Walker’s 1847 translation of and commentary on Murray’s Compendium of Logic. It seems he wasn’t a happy bunny about his involvement in the project:

It is the misfortune of some Authors, that they are rather obliged to write what they can as they can; than allowed by circumstances to write what they might, and as they would.


[T]he manner in which I treat the subject, has been determined rather by necessity, than choice. Were I at liberty to pursue it according to the dictates of my own judgment, I certainly should not have taken for the basis of my work that piece, on which I offer a comment. I have briefly described, in the Appendix, the kind of treatise which I would gladly have attempted, if time and other circumstances had permitted me.


The Media, Gotcha Questions and Tacos

English: Sarah Palin speaking at a rally in El...

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It has long been a common practice on the right to accuse the media of having a liberal bias. Sarah Palin added a new spin on this approach by popularizing the notion of the “gotcha” question. As might be imagined, politicians continue to avail themselves of the notion that the media is out to get them.

In some cases the media does act in ways that seem to indicate that certain folks are out to get politicians. For example, CNN’s John King started off a presidential debate by asking Newt about what his second wife had said about his alleged request for an open marriage. While Newt handed King his rump on a platter, Newt also launched into an attack on the media.

On the one hand, Newt made some legitimate criticisms about how the media folks tend to bring up matters that are salacious yet lacking in actual merit as news stories. In the case of Newt, his character is relevant. However, as Newt points out, the story of his infidelity is old news and bringing it up at the start of the debate does seem to be rather uncalled for. This does, as one might imagine, raise some interesting questions about media ethics in regards to the timing of stories as well as the focus the media folks place on certain stories.

On the other hand, the media did not make up the story-Newt did, in fact, behave in ways contrary to his own currently espoused morality. Newt’s claim that the media makes it difficult for decent people to run for office seems to be questionable in that the professional media merely reports what people do and, as such, decent people would have no such sordid tales in their background. For politicians to complain that the media folks are reporting what they do and say is comparable to Meletus’ anger at Socrates for making evident his failings. The misdeed lies not with the person who reveals the misdeed but with the person who commits it.

More recently, East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. was asked by the press about the alleged harassment of Hispanics by members of the town’s police force. In reply to a very straightforward question about what he would do about the situation, he said he   “might have tacos.” As might be imagined, this did not go over very well.

While he did say he took responsibility for his actions, he also blamed the media and accused the reporter of asking a “gotcha” question. However, the question hardly appears to be anything that would legitimately count as a “gotcha” question in that it is not loaded, overly complicated, confusing, or otherwise trap-like in content. Also, the media folks presented his claim in full context. If they had, for example, asked him what he would have for dinner and then edited that in as his reply, then he could justly accuse the media of being unfair. However, he was asked a straightforward question and his reply was presented in context. As such, the only one he has to blame for his words is himself. Perhaps the biggest gripe that politicians have with the media folks is that they so often make public what politicians actually say and do (“how dare they report what I said!”). That, however, does not seem to be anything unfair or unjust on the part of the media. Rather, that seems to be their job.

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Education & Unions

Post-secondary educational organizations

While there are many excellent schools, there are also serious problems plaguing American and other education systems. People are, of course, eager to point fingers and these fingers are often pointed at teachers’ unions. Being a professor at a state school, it should hardly be a surprise that I am a member of the UFF, NEA and AFT. Because of this, my writing on this subject should be read with a critical eye so as to catch any bias in my claims or any trickery in my argumentation.

One stock argument against unions is based on the claim that the teachers’ unions are aimed at the good of the union members and this good is not always consistent with what is good for the students. There are, of course, harsher versions which involve claims that unions serve primarily to protect incompetent teachers and to do other wicked and damaging things.

This line of argument can have merit. After all, unions do (in theory) aim at benefiting their membership and the members of the teachers’ unions are teachers rather than students. There are also legitimate concerns that unions have enabled incompetent teachers to retain their jobs and that the lobbying power of teachers’ unions has been used in ways that might not lead to the best use of public money. That is, it could be argued that teachers’ unions function like pretty much all such organizations ranging from labor unions to corporations to political parties. This does not justify or excuse such behavior, but it does indicate that teachers’ unions are hardly unique in their sins. It also suggests that if organizations that serve the interest of their members but can be a detriment to the public good should be gotten rid of, then we should not just be rid of teachers’ unions but also corporations and political parties as well.

Of course, it would be absurd to rid society of all organisations that might act contrary to the public good-after all, this would undo much of society itself. Rather it would seem more sensible to address the alleged harms done by an organization so as to determine whether the organization should be changed (or perhaps destroyed). After all, to be rid of teachers’ unions because it is alleged that they have some role in the woes of education would seem to be on par with being rid of financial corporations because they happened to wreck the world economy (any only the most radical are suggesting that).

Turning back to teachers’ unions, there would seem to be two main avenues of legitimate criticism. One would be that  teachers’ unions are somehow intrinsically damaging to the education system. That is, it is simply the nature of these unions that they will, of necessity, cause trouble. Interestingly enough, some critics of capitalism make similar claims about corporations and other business: they must, by their very nature, be exploitative and harmful.

The idea that organizations such as unions and corporations are inherently harmful is certainly an interesting idea and one that would be well worth investigating in more detail. However, it seems unlikely that teachers organizing into unions must, of necessity, create harm to the education system. To support this, I offer two arguments.

First, there is the example of Finland. It has a unionized education system that is, in fact, excellent. As such, if unions were of necessity a bane to education, then Finland should be doing badly rather than well. Of course, it could be argued that Finland is an unusual exception. This takes me to my second argument.

Second, if  unions are a significant cause of educational woes (as some critics claim) in the United States and elsewhere, then one would expect to see correlation between the presence of unions and such woes. To use the obvious analogy, if a toxin causes disease, one would expect to see more cases of the disease in areas where to toxin concentration is higher. Interestingly enough, educational quality in the United States does not seem to correlate with the presence or absence of unions, but rather with other factors. In the case of K-12 public education, the quality and problems seem to match quite closely the poverty or wealth of the school and the community.  That is, “poor” schools tend to have far more problems than “rich” schools. As such, it would seem that it is not primarily a matter of unions (after all, rich and poor schools alike are unionized) but rather other factors.

It might be replied that unions are still a problem but that the money enables the schools to counter the damage done by unions (just as a wealthy community might be able to counter a toxin by having more money to spend on treatment and prevention). This is a point worth considering, but what would be needed would be evidence that the unions are doing the damage rather than the other factors that seem to correlate with educational woes.

In regards to the claim that unions are inherently harmful because the serve the interests of teachers, one rather obvious reply is that students have no union and the organizations that are most likely to act in ways that are in the interest of students are teachers’ unions. After all, these unions generally aim at things like better schools, better funding for educational programs and so on. That is, the interests of teachers overlap the interests of students and teachers’ unions tend to provide students with the only organized voice in the realm of politics. As such, teachers’ unions do not seem to be intrinsically bad. There is also the obvious concern of how eliminating these unions would actually improve education-that is, what group would step in to see to it that the interests of the students and teachers were being taken into account.

Another avenue of criticism is to raise specific problems that particular actions by unions or union members cause. For example, if a union acts to prevent incompetent teachers from being fired at a specific school, then this act could be legitimately criticized and such problems should be addressed.

In general, it would be rather odd if unions did not cause some problems. If they did not, they would be truly unique. However, it seems more sensible to address these problems rather than simply condemning unions. Given the fervor with which these unions are being attacked, it might be suspected that some folks stand to make a profit by getting rid of these unions. But perhaps that is merely cynicism on my part. After all, I am sure that the people funding the attacks on unions and the politicians who will attack them are merely driven by a love of the public good and are doing it for the children.

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Disclosure. Deception. Duplicity. Defamation.

Here in Australia there is an interesting debate going on around the views of Melinda Tankard Reist (“MTR”), a high-profile anti-abortion and anti-pornography activist, and Jennifer Wilson, a relatively obscure (at least until now) blogger and occasional online op.ed writer. The dispute blew up in public when Wilson received some kind of letter of demand, with a threat of defamation action, from MTR’s lawyers over some highly critical comments on Wilson’s blog.

The comments included claims to the effect that MTR is driven by conservative theological views that merit our opposition, and that she is duplicitous and deceptive in not disclosing her religious motivation. Rather, Wilson alleged, she seeks to create a false impression that she is associated with the secular feminist movement. These claims were expressed somewhat more colourfully and the attack on conservative Christian views of women and sexuality was detailed. If you want to follow the brouhaha that was triggered by the action taken to date by MTR’s lawyers, a good place to start is over on Twitter, where you can search for the hashtag #MTRsues. This will lead you to many tweets, blog posts, and articles in the mainstream press – all commenting on aspects of the dispute.

My own disclosure: generally I am sympathetic to Wilson. I don’t think this was an appropriate occasion to invoke defamation law; I am concerned about the way defamation law can chill public debate on matters of policy; and I am especially worried about the opportunities for public figures, who usually have sources of funds for legal action available to them, to bully bloggers, who may be in no position to defend themselves in the civil courts – legal costs are enough to put most ordinary people’s life savings at risk and possibly ruin them financially. I’d like to see defamation law progressively tightened as far as possible, and to be restricted to rather egregious cases. If the matter ever goes as far as defamation proceedings being issued, I’ll be contributing some small sum towards Wilson’s costs and I’ll see if I can help in any other way. This is not because I know Wilson or have any particular bias towards her as an individual – before the dispute blew up a week or so back, I’d never even heard of her! It is squarely because of concerns about freedom of speech.

Other issues include the content of the word “feminist” and its cognates. In particular, can you be a feminist while opposing abortion rights? That raises a deeper issue of what feminism actually is, something that might be rather difficult to be sure about by now, with so many different feminisms having proliferated. There’s been much back-and-forth about this.

But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus briefly on another aspect – that of disclosure. Here, I’m not so sure that I agree with what Wilson has to say, or at least with all of it (though I defend to the death, or at least to a degree of personal inconvenience, her right to say it, etc., etc.).

To what extent do participants in public debate about government policy come under a duty to disclose such things as their comprehensive worldviews? Prior to the #MTRsues dispute, I would probably have said, perhaps unthinkingly, “Not at all.” My reasoning is that all we can really demand of each other is that we each put aside religious (and perhaps some other) justifications of the policies we propose. We should offer secular reasons for them – e.g. we might argue that homosexual conduct ought to be banned because it causes some kind of secular harm (and there is then a question as to whether it must be a harm to non-consenting third parties); however, it should not cut any ice with public officials if we argue that homosexual conduct should be banned because it is disliked by God, or because it is an impediment to spiritual salvation, or because it “just is” morally wrong. These latter are, as it’s sometimes put, not publicly accessible reasons. I prefer to say that they are not worldly reasons, and that worldly reasons are the ones that should motivate officials in the secular government.

However, I would have said, you are entitled to be motivated privately by such reasons as “homosexual conduct is disliked by God”, as long as you don’t propose this as a reason for the legislators. If you are prepared to enter into public debate on the basis that your publicly accessible reasons will be scrutinised on their merits, and that you will not fall back on your private reasons if the publicly accessible ones prove to be weak, then you don’t even need to reveal the private ones. Indeed, it may be better in some ways if you don’t.

I still think this is about right in an ideal world, but I now wonder how practical it is in the messy world that we actually live in. Perhaps we do get to insist that our publicly expressed and accessible reasons be assessed and debated on their merits if we have been rather purist about putting only those reasons. However, activists such as MTR tend not to be purist in that way.

I don’t know a great deal about MTR herself, and the following is not about her in particular. But, as a generalisation, political activists use all sorts of rhetorical and other methods to win people over to their various causes. This can include associating themselves with others who may be well regarded by the public, or key sections of the public; cultivating a public image, including an image of being trustworthy to the public (or key sections); attacking opponents for having biases, impure motives, etc. The list goes on. My question now is, “At least once you start campaigning in this more robustly political way, as opposed to arguing positions in a more abstract and intellectual way, how far are you entitled to keep quiet about things that would change the public perception of you – things such as any unstated motivations that you might have, your comprehensive worldview, etc.?”

It looks to me as if we should demand at least some level of disclosure from the more “robust” types of high-profile political activists (though not, perhaps, from academics, for example, if they take a more “purist” approach such as described above). I don’t have a strong or dogmatic opinion on this, but I do suspect that my view before the #MTRsues dispute made me think about it was a bit naive. What d’ya reckon?


English: IED DETONATOR — A U.S. Marine Corps e...

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The United States and many other nations currently operate military remote operated vehicles (ROVs) that are more commonly known as drones. While the ROVs began as surveillance devices, the United States found that they make excellent weapon platforms. The use of such armed ROVs has raised various moral issues, mainly in regards to the way they are employed (such as the American campaign of targeted killing). In general, ROVs themselves do not seem to pose a special moral challenge-after all, they seem to be on par with missiles and bombers (although the crew of a manned bomber is at risk in ways that ROV operators are not).

The great success of ROVs has created a large ROV industry and has also spurred on the development of true robots for military and intelligence use. While existing ROVs often have some autonomous capabilities, they are primarily directed by an operator. An autonomous robot would be capable of carrying out entire missions without human intervention and it is most likely simply a matter of time before “warbots” (armed autonomous robots) are deployed. As might be imagined, setting robotic killing machines loose raises some moral concerns.

On the positive side, warbots are not people and hence the use of warbots would lower the death and injury rate for humans-at least for the side that is deploying the warbots. Obviously, if warbots are deployed to kill humans, then there will still be human casualties. They will, however, be less than in human-human battles, at least in most cases. Given this fact, it would seem that warbots would be morally acceptable on utilitarian grounds: their use would reduce (in general) human death and suffering.

It could even be argued that future wars might be purely robot versus robot battles and thus eliminating human casualties altogether (assuming humans are still around: see for, example, the classic game Rivets). This would, presumably, be a good thing. Assuming, of course, that the robots would not be turned against humans.

While the idea of wars being settled by robots has some appeal, there is the concern that robots would actually make wars more likely to occur and easier to sustain. The current armed ROVs enable the United States to engage in military operations and targeted killings with no risk to Americans and this lack of casualties makes the campaign relatively easy to maintain relative to operations that involve American casualties. As such, one obvious concern about warbots is that they would make it that much easier for violence to be used and to continue to be used.

Imagine if a country could just send in robots to do the fighting. There would be no videos of dead soldiers being dragged through the streets (as occurred in Somalia) and no maimed veterans returning home. All the causalities would be on the side of the enemy, thus making such a conflict very easy on the side armed with warbots and this would tend to significantly reduce any concern about the conflict among the general population. Thus, while warbots would tend to reduce human causalities on the side that has robots, they might actually increase the amount of conflicts and this might prove to be a bad thing.

A second point in favor of warbots is that they, unlike human soldiers, have no feelings of anger or lust. As such, they would not engage in war crimes or other reprehensible behavior (such as rape or urinating on enemy corpses) on their own accord. They would simply conduct their assigned missions without feeling or deviation.

Of course, while warbots  lack the tendency of humans to act badly from emotional causes, they  also lack the quality of mercy. As such, robots sent to commit war crimes or atrocities (the creation of atrocitybots, such as torturebots and rapebots, is surely just a matter of time)will simply conduct such operations without question, protest or remorse.

That said, human leaders who wish to have wicked things done generally can find human forces who are quite willing to obey even the most terrible orders for such things as genocide and rape. As such, the impact of warbots in this area is a matter that is uncertain. Presumably the use of warbots by ethical commanders will result in a reduction in such incidents (after all, the warbots will not commit misdeeds unless ordered to do so). However, the use of warbots by the wicked would certainly increase such incidents dramatically (after all, the warbots will not disobey).

There has been some discussion about programming warbots with ethics (an idea that goes back to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics). Laying aside the obvious difficulty of creating a warbot that engages in moral reasoning (and the concern that a warbot that could do this would thus be a person), this programming is something that would be as easy to remove or change as it was to install. To use the obvious analogy, such restraints would be like the safety on a gun: it does provide a measure of safety, but can easily be switched off.

This is not to say that such safeguards would be useless-they could, for example, provide some protection from the misuse of warbots by people who lacked the technical expertise to change the programming. After all, the warbot is not the moral risk, rather those who give it orders are. This, of course, leads to the question of moral accountability.

WWII rather clearly established that human soldiers cannot simply appeal to “I was just following orders” to avoid responsibility for their actions.  Warbots, however, can use this defense (at least until they become people). After all, they simply do what they are programmed to do-be that engaging enemy troops or exterminating children with a flamethrower. As such, the accountability for what a warbot does lies elsewhere. The warbot is, after all, nothing more than an autonomous weapon.

In most cases the moral accountability will lie with the person who controls the robot and gives it is mission orders. So, if an officer sends it to kill children, then /she is just as accountable for those murders as s/he would be for using a gun or bomb to kill them in person.

Of course, things become more complicated when, for example,  a warbot is sent on a legitimate mission with legitimate orders but circumstances lead to a war crime being committed. For example, imagine a warbot is sent to engage enemy forces on the outskirts of a town. However, a manufacturing defect in its sensors leads it to blunder into a playground where its buggy target recognition software causes it to engage six children with its .50 caliber machine guns. It seems likely that such accidents will happen with the early warbots, but it seems unlikely that this will seriously impede their deployment-they are almost certainly the wave of the future in warfare. Unless, of course, something so horrible happens that puts the entire world off robots. However, we have a rather high tolerance level for horror-so expect to see warbots coming soon to a battlefield near you.

Sorting out the responsibility in such cases will be, as might be imagined, a complicated matter. However, there is considerable precedent in regards to accidental deaths caused by defective machinery and no doubt the same reasoning can be applied. Of course, there does seem to be some difference between being injured as the result of a defective brake system and being machine gunned by a defective warbot.

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Freedom of Religion and the Secular State now published

Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (by Russell Blackford, 2012)

If we use Amazon’s date for it, at least the date that is there this morning, today is the publication date for Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. In practice, the book will be available at slightly different times in different countries. I see that Amazon UK actually has a date of January 6 on its site.

I’m not sure when it will be in your local bookshop, but you should at least be able to get it now/soon from Amazon or Amazon UK … or direct from John Wiley and Sons if you have an account there.

Briefly, what the book is – Freedom of Religion and the Secular State deals with many of the hot-button issues that arise when religion and politics meet. It examines the nature of religion and secularism, and the classical idea of liberalism. It does so in historical and philosophical context, as I actually defend an updated version of Locke’s arguments in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), while applying these in ways that Locke would not necessarily find palatable.

What the book is not – it is not an anti-religious book, even though I am openly an atheist and have argued forthrightly in favour of atheism elsewhere. The main arguments of the book should appeal to many religious people as well as to secular humanists and other non-believers. Indeed, Locke was himself a religious believer. The arguments and views should be acceptable to moderate and liberal Protestants and many of the arguments should even be acceptable to relatively conservative Protestants. They will not be acceptable to someone who strictly follows the Vatican line on freedom of religion, but many Catholics will be able to accept them anyway (since many Catholics don’t strictly follow the Vatican line on anything!). Likewise, many moderate religious people from other traditions will be able to accept their premises and adopt their conclusions. Conversely, some hard-line anti-theists will probably think that I am “soft” on certain issues.

It all comes down to how you regard the role of the state, taking into account its history and various philosophical arguments about state power. In particular, what role should the state have in relation to teachings about an otherwordly realm, spiritual transformations, and the like?

The other thing that the book is not is a proof all the way down that the state should be essentially secular – i.e., guided by this-worldly considerations. I don’t claim that the arguments will be intellectually compelling to all comers, irrespective of their initial premises (which may be theological ones). Some people would not be able to accept the arguments in the book without first abandoning their current theological positions (not necessarily becoming non-believers, but at least adopting theological views more congenial to a functional separation of spiritual teachings and state power). In my opinion, that is inevitable. I don’t think that we are ever likely to find arguments that work all the way down in this sense, at least not arguments relating to issues of this sort.

We can, however, find arguments that ought to be persuasive to many people with a variety of worldviews. Or so it seems to me, and I hope to you.

Remote Controled Assassination

Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

Image via Wikipedia

Assassination was, obviously enough, not invented by Americans. While we were rather late to the game in this regard (being a young country, we deserve to be cut some slack) we have added our own American touch to the practice. While old school assassinations required that the assassin go in person to do the killing, American assassins can terminate targets across the planet and do so while sitting in a comfy chair. They can do this because we have a variety of Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs ) or, as they are popularly known, drones. Our standard flying angel of death is the Predator, which was upgraded from a mere surveillance vehicle to a Hellfire missile carrying killing machine.

As might be imagined, the idea that American intelligence services are shooting Hellfire missiles at people (including American citizens) raises various moral and legal questions. Naturally, I will focus on the moral aspect of the matter.

One stock defense of these targeted killings (or, if you prefer, assassinations) is that they are legitimate military operations in a time of war. While this might seem like a rather convenient sort of justification, it is worth considering. After all, if killing in war is morally tolerable, and these attacks are legitimate acts of war, then they could be morally tolerable.

While this oversimplifies things, what morally justifies killing in war tends to be the fact that the actions are conducted within the rules of war and are conducted by legitimate combatants. To use the obvious analogy, if I am boxing someone in a legitimate boxing match, then our beating each other in the face and torso is morally acceptable because we are legitimate combatants operating within the constraints of a rule governed activity. In contrast, if I just start attacking people on the street, then that is quite another matter. It would also be quite another matter if I used a knife in the boxing match or started attacking spectators.

One point of moral concern about the drone attacks conducted by the CIA and other such agencies is that they are not military entities. That is, they would not seem to be legitimate military combatants. This is supported by the intuitive view that when intelligence agents kill people, they are seen as engaged in assassination rather than in combat operations.

An obvious reply is that intelligence agencies could simply be regarded as military entities, although they do not undergo military training, they do not  fall under the military chain of command, and they are not subject to the same sort of moral and legal restrictions as the professional military. However, even if they are considered military entities, there is still the question of whether or not such targeted killings are morally acceptable.

One stock argument for these targeted killings is that they are killing terrorists with lower civilians and military casualties than a more conventional approach would create. After all, shooting a Hellfire missile into a house is far less risky (for Americans) than sending in an American special operations team and less damaging than simply bombing the area.  As such, this tactic can be justified on utilitarianian grounds: drone killings kill more “bad guys” at the cost of less “good guys” and “innocent folks.”  This is a rather appealing line of reasoning, but there are still some concerns.

One concern is that for every intended target killed, drone strikes kill an average of ten civilians. If it is assumed that killing civilians is wrong (which seems reasonable), there is the question of whether or not the killing of the intended targets is worth the deaths of the civilians. To be cynical about it, we do tolerate a certain number of deaths in most aspects of life and regard this as acceptable. For example, tens of thousands of people die in automobile accidents each year, yet we consider driving to be morally acceptable. As another, perhaps more relevant example, we accept civilians casualties as part of war. As such, perhaps this ratio of targets to unintended kills is acceptable under the ethics that governs warfare.

Another concern is that the drone strikes are not aimed at conventional military goals, such as taking a strategic objective or destroying the enemy’s military assets. The objective is to kill (assassinate) a specific person or persons. In some cases these targets have been American citizens, which raises another set of legal and moral concerns. Intuitively, there seems to be an important distinction between, for example, trying to capture a city and trying to kill a specific person.

One obvious counter to this is to cite the example of Operation Vengeance. In WWII, American P-38 fighters  were sent to intercept and kill Japanese Admiral Yamamoto. The Americans succeeded in downing Yamamoto’s “Betty” bomber and his body was subsequently found by the Japanese. This, as might be imagined, had a significant impact on the war in terms of morale and as in terms of the elimination of one of the top Japanese leaders.

However, there are some obvious distinctions between the killing of Yamamoto and drone attacks. In Operation Vengeance, the pilots were Army pilots and they engaged armed enemy aircraft in battle (the Japanese escort fighters and armed bombers were shooting back). That is, the operation was clearly a military operation.

It might be replied that these difference are not relevant and that what matters is that a specific individual was targeted for killing. If it was morally acceptable to kill Yamamoto  by shooting his plane down, then it would seem equally acceptable to blow up a terrorist with a Hellfire missile.

On one hand, this seems like a reasonable reply. After all, the means do not seem as critical as the results when assessing the ethics of the matter. On the other hand, the process does seem to matter. After all, there does seem to be a moral distinction between a combat mission against armed opponents and a drone shooting a Hellfire missile through an alleged terrorist’s window. To use an obvious analogy, the police can morally down a suspect who is shooting at them, but it would not be acceptable for them to put a bomb in a suspect’s car simply because they found it hard to arrest him.

But, some might say, the fact that the target is a terrorist changes things. While the Japanese did attack Pearl Harbor in a sneak attack, that was a military operation and the war was fought as a war. The modern terrorists do not wear uniforms, they do not fly fighter planes with clear markings, they hide among civilians, and they try to avoid directly engaging with enemy forces in battle. As such, they cannot be engaged using the conventional means or rules of war and perhaps this morally justifies the use of targeted drone attacks. It can also be argued that the targeted drone attacks are morally superior to the terrorists’ tactics. After all, the drones are sent to kill  suspected terrorists and the idea is to avoid killing civilians. In contrast, terrorists tend to make no such distinction and their attacks are generally aimed at killing anyone in the area regardless of who they are. Of course, merely being better than a terrorist might not be quite good enough to make the practice morally acceptable.

One final point of concern is one that has been raised by others as well, namely that by engaging in targeted killings we are changing the game by setting a legal and moral precedent. By engaging in the targeted killings of our foes, we present a most eloquent argument for our acceptance of the practice. As such, when Americans become the targets of foreign drones, we will see our robotic chickens come home to roost (and to lay explosive eggs).

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Educating for Profit


Official photo of General David Howell Petraeu...

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In the face of the economic mess, American states and the federal government have been cutting education spending. In some cases, this is no doubt a matter of legitimate necessity. In other cases the economic woes have been used as a cover to “justify” certain policy changes. Regardless of the cause, American public schools are experiencing serious budget woes. Interestingly, college enrollment is up and this makes things even worse since schools must do ever more with ever less money for the actual process of education. As might be suspected, the administrative side of most schools is generally doing great in terms of numbers employed and salaries.

In contrast to the woeful state of public funded schools, the new for-profit schools have been doing quite well. For example, 20 for-profit schools saw their income from military benefits alone (acquired by taking military personnel as students) increase 683% over four years (from $66 million to $521 million). These for-profit schools also get a significant percentage of their income from public money, namely federal student aid.

Given that for-profit schools are making profits off public funding, one might wonder why public schools are suffering budget cuts and are thus less able to serve the public good by providing high quality education to students. After all, it does not seem to make any sense to funnel public money away from public institutions so that for-profit schools can make a profit at the expense of taxpayers.

Of course, one can try to counter this sort of concern by the stock mantra of the private sector proponents: the private sector is better than the public sector. That is, the for-profit schools are doing a better job and hence it makes more sense to turn public dollars into private profits rather than turning public dollars into public education.

If the for-profit schools were doing a better job, this would make at least some sense. After all, if the goal is to get the most education bang for the public buck and private schools delivered a bigger bang, then perhaps they should get the bucks. However, this is not the case. The average graduation rate for the for-profits is around 28% and this is about half that of the national average. The big state schools often have excellent graduation rates.

Also of concern are the fact that those who graduate from the for-profit schools seem to have a much harder time securing employment. They also graduate with far more debt than students at traditional schools (half of all student loan defaults are from students who attended for-profit schools). As such, the for-profit schools cannot claim that they are providing a better return on public dollars than public schools. In fact, they are doing far worse.

The United States congress recently focused its attention on the severe problems with the for-profit schools. However, intense lobbying on the part of the for-profits succeeded in watering down legislation intended to make such schools more accountable for their effectiveness in order to continue to siphon public money into their coffers. This has apparently been a bi-partisan effort with Republicans and Democrats answering the call of the lobbyists. Interestingly, the usually pro-education Democrats proved to be excellent allies of the for-profit schools, or at least allies of their lobbying money.

One particular egregious practice of the for-profits has been targeting  military veterans. Holly Petraeus, wife of General David Petraeus, has written that veterans are “under siege” by the for-profit colleges. These colleges have even been accused of targeting veterans who have brain injuries, which is particularly reprehensible.

Veterans are a very desirable commodity for the for-profits. As noted above, there is a lot of money available from military benefits and these can spell major profits for schools. More importantly, there is a “90/10” rule for these schools: at least 10% of the revenue for a for-profit must not come from federal financial aid funds. Coincidentally, military benefits do not count as federal financial aid funds, so this money can count as the 10%. This entails that for every military student enrolled by a for-profit, they can have 9 other students who are paying 100% using federal funds. In short, with the right number of military students, a for-profit can get 100% of its revenue from federal funds.

This, as might be imagined, bodes ill for higher education in America. First, federal funds will continue to be diverted from public education to the for-profits. This means that the public schools will continue to suffer. To give a concrete example, enrollment at my university has increased significantly while our budget has dropped significantly. Faculty salaries have stagnated, class sizes have increased dramatically, financial aid has been significantly reduced, and so on. In short, public schools such as my own will see underpaid faculty teaching oversize classes packed with students who often must struggle to pay for their education. Meanwhile, the politically connected for-profits will be making profits on public dollars. Second, while a for-profit education need not be inferior to a traditional public or private college education, it (as a matter of actual fact) has been markedly inferior in terms of graduation rates, job placement and the debt students graduate with. As such, it seems reasonable to conclude that federal funding is being misdirected in ways that are not conducive to providing students with the best education, the best chance of graduating, the best chance of getting a job, and the lowest debt upon graduation.

Unfortunately, the for-profit schools for profit model means that they have plenty of money for lobbying and hence they seem to have been able to get their way in Washington. As such, it seems likely that education will continue to decline in the United States. But, at least some folks (including lobbyists and politicians) will be making some sweet profits. That is what really matters, right?


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Guardians of the Future

I went to the launch last night of a report by fellow tpm blogger, philosopher and green campaigner Rupert Read, under the auspices of the new think tank Green House.  The report is called ‘Guardians of the Future:  a constitutional case for representing and protecting future people’.  You can read it here.  The general idea is that democracy means government by the people, and since society exists over time, the people in question aren’t just those alive now.  So future people ought somehow to have a say in the political decisions we make, particularly because our choices sometimes affect them in negative ways.  So Rupert proposes a jury of guardians with the power to veto legislation that seems likely to harm future people.  Such a body might do something about the short termism we seem mired in — moreover, it’s a leap towards actual intergenerational justice.

Pie in the sky stuff?  Maybe not.  The launch happened right in the middle of the UK government, in the Houses of Parliment, and was attended by three MPs who all spoke in response to the report.  What’s more, a number of governments already have or are exploring similar things — I discovered last night that Hungary has a Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations.  The report is getting attention in the broadsheets, too.

Perhaps the most interesting point was made last night by Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP.  She said maybe a super jury with veto power might not be the right mechanism, but if not that, then what?  When she put it in this way, I had the feeling that Rupert and Green House have, in a way, already done something substantial.  A very large question is now on a number of new tables:  what are we going to do about the harm we cause to future people?  Good quesiton.  What’s your answer?