Monthly Archives: November 2017

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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Party Loyalty & Sexual Harassment

The toppling of Harvey Weinstein has set off what might turn out to be a revolution: women (and men) are coming forward to report acts of harassment or assault by powerful men. It, however, remains to be seen whether this is a storm that shall pass or an actual revolution resulting in enduring change.

The accusations have been bipartisan is nature; that is, powerful men on the left and the right have been accused of inappropriate and even evil behavior. On the right, the most infamous case involving a politician is that of Roy Moore. Moore has been accused of various sexual misdeeds including engaging in sexual activity with a 14 year old girl. On the left, the most famous case involving a politician is that of Al Franken. Franken has been accused of inappropriately touching a woman’s buttocks during a photograph in 2010 and Leeann Tweeden accused him of kissing and groping her. There is, of course, photographic evidence of Franken groping Tweeden through her body armor while she was asleep. I am focusing on cases that are current as of this writing; but I am sure that everyone has their favorite (or most despised) examples from the past and want to ask, for example, “what about Bill Clinton.” Since the discussion that follows deals with general principles, it can be applied to past (and future) cases. I am using Moore and Franken as the examples for the practical reasons that they are well known and are members of the two major parties. I am not suggesting that their cases are morally equivalent: if both men are guilty, Moore would clearly have committed far greater moral offenses (and crimes). This assumes that there have been no new revelations about Franken, of course.

Moore is, as of this writing, running for a senate seat in Alabama. He upset the Republican establishment by beating Luther Strange in the primary and has been running hard on an anti-establishment position. Until the allegations surfaced, victory for Moore over his Democratic opponent was certain. Now that the allegations have surfaced, his victory is merely almost certain. While many of his supporters have denied the allegations, some have said they would support him even if they were true (including a rather odd defense that brought in Mary and Joseph). Pragmatic supporters have argued that that even if the allegations are true, Moore is still preferable to having the Democrat elected. This would seem to entail that some Republicans regard being a Democrat as morally worse than being a pedophile.

Franken, as of this writing, is still in the senate. He has called for an ethics investigation of himself. Unlike Moore, he has not denied the allegations and has apologized. While some liberals support Franken, others have been calling for him to resign. There is, of course, the argument that Democrats should support him because he is a Democrat and not risk Franken being replaced by a Republican. These two cases nicely illustrate the moral issue: should voters stick with party over principle? This, of course, assumes that the actions of the accused violate the principles of the voters.

There are, of course, pragmatic reasons for backing one’s party even in the face of terrible offenses. Regarding Franken and Moore, the balance of power in the senate is razor thin and sticking with them or rejecting them would have a significant impact. However, this is not a moral reason to take this approach.

One obvious moral approach is that of utilitarianism—the moral view that actions are right or wrong based on their consequences for those who matter. One way to make a utilitarian moral argument in favor of party loyalty is to show that what your party would do is better for those that matter and that what the other party would do would be worse. For example, a Republican could argue that getting their tax plan through by having Moore in the senate would offset and moral concerns about the accusations against Moore. The Democrats could argue that keeping Franken in the senate and voting against the Republican tax plan would offset any moral concerns about his behavior. This would, of course, need to factor in the harm of supporting a person who has been accused of misdeeds, such as how doing so would send the message that such behavior need not have consequences and that it is acceptable if the person doing it has the right sort of position of power.

A utilitarian argument could also be made against choosing party over principles by showing that the harms of such support would outweigh the benefits. While the obvious approach would be to show that the harms of tolerating such behavior outweighs other factors, there is also a more pragmatic approach that supporting such people could do harm to the party in the longer term, despite there being the potential for a short-term advantage.

Another approach to the moral matter would be to focus on what factors are relevant to a person doing a job. If an elected office is looked at it terms of a job and what matters is competence, then the moral failings of the politician would only be relevant if they impacted this competence. For example, Clinton is widely regarded as a competent and successful president, yet his moral track record is problematic when it comes to sex.

To use an analogy, one should pick their dentist, roofer or plumber based on their competence, not based on whether they had an affair. Naturally, moral failing relevant to the job would matter—so if you knew that a plumber cheated their customers or that a dentist molested patients while they were unconscious, then these would be relevant to making your decision. Likewise for politicians—even if Moore and Franken did what they are accused of, it could be argued that it has no relevance to their competence as senators. Even if all that counts as competence is reliably voting along party lines. This could, of course, be countered by arguing that it would impact their job performance—if, for example, they were groping staff members or the public.

There is also the approach, often taken by conservatives in the past, that character matters. Value voters, at least in the past, often made the argument that a person with serious moral problems was thus unfit for office. Hillary Clinton, for example, was subject to this sort of criticism. As might be imagined, people tend to be less worried about the virtues and vices of their person—folks on the left and the right routinely make excuses for those on their side.

For virtue theorists like Aristotle and Confucius, such vices would be rather problematic—a good leader must be a person of virtue. Part of the reason is a matter of ethics—bad people are, well, bad. Part of it is also practical as well—a leader who is corrupted by too much vice would be a poor leader. The counter to this is obvious enough: the effectiveness of a leader, it can be argued, is like the effectiveness of a professional football player—it has nothing to do with virtue. Naturally, Aristotle, Plato and Confucius would disagree with this. My own view is that a person could be quite competent as a leader in terms of the relevant skills and still be a bad person; but being a bad person they would do bad things and this would tend to be bad for the people. There is, of course, the question about what level of vice should be tolerated—after all, none of us are angels and we all have moral flaws. That, however, is a subject for another essay.

 

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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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Mass Shootings & Domestic Violence

On November 5th, 2017 at least 26 people in a Texas church were murdered in a mass shooting. The alleged shooter also died, apparently shooting himself. Presumably, this mass shooting will follow the usual pattern. Many on the right will say that it should not be politicized and that the real issue is not guns but mental health. Apparently only violence by minorities should be politicized. Many on the left will say, once more, that something needs to be done about gun violence.

While they get the spotlight, mass shootings make up a very small percentage of gun deaths in the United States. As such, it is true that focusing on mass shootings might not have a significant impact on gun deaths. However, their infamy does serve to focus public attention and thus provide a potential motivation to address broader problems relating to violence.

One rather unsurprising factor in mass shootings is that in at least 54% of them, the perpetrator also shot an intimate partner or relative. Mass shooters tend to have a history of domestic violence and the latest alleged shooter fits this pattern. The alleged shooter was court-martialed and imprisoned for assaulting his wife and child. Apparently, the alleged shooter’s mother-in-law attended the church. She was not, however, present when the shooting took place. This is not to say that engaging in domestic violence causes a person to engage in mass murder. To assume this because they correlate would be to fall into a causal fallacy (X correlates with Y, so X must cause Y). It would also be a causal error (ignoring a possible common cause) to infer that one must cause the other. What seems quite likely is that the factors that play a role in a person engaging in domestic violence also serve as casual factors in a person engaging in a mass shooting.  While the above facts are worrisome, there are some that are even more disturbing.

Domestic violence is common in the United States and a woman has about a one in three chance of being the victim of violence inflicted by a male partner. While mass shootings get the headlines, of the 1,615 women murdered by men in 2013 in single victim incidents, 94% of the women were killed by someone they knew. 62% were the wife or intimate acquaintance of the killer. While some political rhetoric claims that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, when a gun is present in a domestic violence incident, the chance of a homicide occurring increases 500%. Since many lawmakers are very worried about the alleged threat of transgender bathroom use to women, one would think they would have long ago rushed to address the problem of domestic violence. After all, no woman seems to have ever been harmed by allowing transgender people to use the bathroom they wish. Unfortunately, in their transgender terror, legislators seem to have largely forgotten about this very real danger.

While federal law does forbid people convicted of domestic violence offenses from buying guns, most states allow such people to buy guns anyway. The federal law also has an infamous “boyfriend loophole” so that a person convicted of assaulting a woman he is not married to is not prevented from buying guns. There are also various other weak points in the system, such as the possibility that information about domestic violence convictions will not be in the database for background checks and the fact that a protective order does not forbid a person from buying and keeping firearms in most of the states. While some might suggest that a woman in danger get a gun of her own, this increases the chances (five times) that the woman will be murdered by an abuser.

While there have been some efforts to address domestic violence, such as those taken by former Governor Nikki Haley, there is obviously much that needs to be done. As the above data indicates, guns are a key factor in the problem and are certainly not the solution. One modest proposal, that has been pushed for years, is the closing of the “boyfriend loophole” mentioned above. Other proposals have imposing more restrictions on those convicted of domestic violence offenses regarding gun ownership and purchasing. Such restrictions could certainly help to reduce the murder rate regarding domestic violence and, given the link between domestic violence and mass shootings, also the rate of mass shootings.

One obvious objection is that while most mass shooters have some history of domestic violence, not all of them do. As such, restrictions aimed at domestic violence perpetrators would not address all future cases of mass shootings.

While this is a reasonable point, addressing mass shootings need not be limited to this one factor. Also, even if it were, it would still address the majority of those who engage in mass shootings—namely domestic abusers.

It could be argued that trying to address mass shootings by addressing domestic violence would be using the spotlight on mass shootings to take gun rights away from domestic abusers. The easy and obvious reply is that being convicted of domestic abuse and being an ongoing threat would be grounds for such restrictions, even without considering mass shootings. That is, domestic abusers would seem to show that they cannot properly exercise their right to keep and bear arms. This is not to say that they should be stripped of the right forever, any more than a convicted felon should lose their voting rights forever. There is, of course, the practical problem of sorting out when a person is such a potential threat that they need to have their rights curtailed and when they are no longer a danger and are once again capable of exercising their rights without being a danger to others.

It might also be objected that while no one wants women to be murdered, laws aimed at protecting women by restricting the gun rights of men would encourage women to lie (perhaps out of fear) to get guns taken away from men.

The concern that people will misuse laws by lying is obviously not unique to such gun-focused laws; it is a potential problem for almost any law. Because of this, there should be adequate safeguards to ensure that people are not falsely and unjustly deprived of their rights (which is something that should occur with all laws). There is also the pragmatic point that such cases of conniving women lying to take the guns of men would presumably be exceedingly rare. However, should it turn out that this is a real problem, then it can be addressed and guarded against.

One point that will certainly be brought up is that many regard the constitution as ensuring the right of the individual to keep and bear arms. As such, imposing restrictions on gun ownership simply because a person has engaged in domestic violence would not be justified.

While rights should be protected, they are not absolute. One reason for this is the obvious facts that rights can come into conflict. Another obvious reason is that just punishment and just safety concerns warrant restricting rights. A person who has done wrong can justly have their property rights and liberty imposed upon—such as being compelled to pay a fine or serve time. Gun rights are not magically exempt from this—someone who presents a clear and present danger can justly have their gun rights imposed upon, just as they can have their liberty imposed upon (such as in a restraining order).

 

 

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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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