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Religious Freedom & Discrimination

Sexuality confusion

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As this is being written, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed in the Senate and is awaiting the consideration of the House. This bill would protect employees from being fired based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill exempts businesses that have less than 15 employees, religious non-profits, government owned businesses and businesses owned by Native American tribes.

Speaking against this bill, Republican Senator Dan Coats claimed that it violates the religious freedom of businesses owners. In making his case, he used the example of how faith-based daycare providers “could be forced to hire individuals with views contrary to the faith incorporated values of the daycare providers.” He also raised the concern that the bill also violated the right to free speech because it would “also would allow employers to be held liable to workplace environment complaints opening the door to the silencing of employees who express their deeply held beliefs.” There are two general issues here that I will address in turn.

The first issue is whether or not forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is a violation of the religious freedom of business owners.

Business owners do not lose their right to religious freedom just because they own a business. As such, they are free to hold to whatever religious belief (or disbelief) that they wish. However, the law can justly limit how they can act on those beliefs. For example, a person can freely worship a deity that they believe demands human sacrifice but they should not be granted an exemption in regards to the laws against murdering humans. In this case, the harms that would arise by allowing human sacrifice outweigh concerns about religious freedom. That is, the right of people not to be murdered trumps the right of people to freely exercise their faith.

In the case of the anti-discrimination law, the core question is whether or not the right of the owner to act on his religious belief trumps the right of employees not to be discriminated against. It is, of course, assumed that employees have such a right—but it could be argued that there is no such right and that employers should have the right to fire anyone, anytime for any reason. In this case, any laws that limited this alleged right would be wrong—thus making it morally acceptable for people to be fired for being Christian, straight, blue-eyed, ugly, smart, black, white, or anything at all. Presumably this would also allow employees to be fired for not having sex with the boss. This, however, seems absurd. As such, it seems reasonable to assume that employees have a right to be protected against discrimination.

It could be argued that firing someone solely on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification would not be discrimination. However, firing an employee solely because of her sexual orientation or gender identification would clearly seem to be discrimination by its very nature. After all, the person is being fired for a reason that is not relevant to the job in question. This would also apply to non-firing cases, such as underpaying an employee. Naturally, if a person’s behavior arising from her sexual orientation or gender identity did impact her job in relevant ways, then the employer could act against the employee without it being discrimination. But this would be acting based on the detrimental behavior, not the orientation or identity.

Thus, it comes down to whether or not an employer should have the right to fire, etc.  an employee solely for the reason that the employee has a sexual orientation or gender identity that the employer regards as being against his religious beliefs. Given that the employee is not providing any other justification for being fired, etc. the answer would seem to be “no.” After all, firing someone solely for his sexual orientation or gender identity would be on par with firing someone solely because he was a Christian or Latino. If the employer had a faith that involved regarding being a Christian as wicked or one that involved racism that would not provide an exemption. Crudely put, just because someone has a bigoted and prejudiced faith that does not thus warrant his acting on it.

As a final argument, there is the fact that the harm done to employees would exceed the harm being done to employers. The fact that a religious person might have to endure having gay, women, Christian or Asian employees creates far less harm than allowing employers to engage in discrimination. Thus, the right to religious freedom does not trump the right to not be discriminated against.

The second issue is whether or not the right to free speech protects employees expressing religious beliefs in the workplace when these expressions express discriminatory views against the sexual orientation or gender identity of employees.

This issue is, obviously, very similar to the previous one. In this case, the question is whether or not the right to free expression trumps the right to not be subject to discriminatory expressions in the workplace.

On the face of it, there generally seems to be no compelling reason why people would need to express their views about sexual orientation or gender identity while at work—even if someone had faith-based views of these matters that involved regarding, for example, being gay as wicked.  To use the obvious analogy, there seems to generally be no compelling reason why people would need to express their views about race while at work—even if they had faith based views on these matters that involved, for example, ideas of white supremacy. In contrast, expressing discriminatory views against the sexual orientation or gender identity of people in the workplace would create a hostile workplace and this would be a harm. As such, the right of freedom of expression does not seem to trump the right of people to not be subject to such expressions in the workplace.

Crudely put, requiring people to not engage in discriminatory expression (whether it is faith based or not) while in the workplace imposes less of a burden than requiring people to endure it in the workplace.

In regards to both issues, one could argue that certain sexual orientations or gender identities are such that they would warrant firing a person and also speaking out in the workplace against them. For example, firing a person from a daycare job because he is a pedophile or speaking out against pedophiles in the workplace would not seem to unjustly discriminate against pedophiles.

The question would then be whether or not the protected sexual orientations and gender identities are such that merely having one would warrant firing, etc. a person. In regards to the sexual orientations and gender identities covered by the bill, the answer would seem to clearly be “no.”

Thus, it would seem that religious freedom and free speech do not warrant workplace prejudice.

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Spying, Ethics & Prudence

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

All up in your biz. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was recently revealed that the NSA had been tapping the phones of world leaders, such as Germany’s Chancellor Merkel. Naturally enough, these leaders expressed shock and outrage at this practice. Equally naturally, experts on espionage have tended to note that this shock and outrage is mere theater—such leaders surely knew that they were being spied on. After all, they themselves head up countries with robust espionage systems that no doubt spy on everything they can spy on.

While not an expert on espionage, I have noted the various revelations over the years involving close allies spying on and stealing secrets from each other. As such, I was not shocked by the fact that the NSA had been spying on everyone they could spy on. In addition to having learned the lesson of history, I also accept the reality of the principle of Totally in Everyone’s Business. This is the principle that all states endeavor to get totally into everyone’s business to the degree that their capabilities allow. Or, put another way, states endeavor to spy as much as they possibly can. The main limiting factors on the totality include such factors as technology, competence, money, and human resources. Ethics and law are generally not limiting factors—as history clearly shows. Since I was aware that the NSA had the capacity to spy on American citizens and world leaders alike, I inferred that they were doing so.

There is also the fact that snooping, like cocaine, is addictive and it requires ever more to satisfy that desire. In general, people do like to snoop and once they get a taste of snooping, they often want more. As with any addiction, people can quickly become reckless and a bit irrational. This could be called the principle of addictive snooping. So, once the NSA snoops got to snooping, they really wanted to expand that snooping.

Another factor is the fact that folks in power tend to be a bit paranoid. Since they are usually up to something, they tend to believe that other people are also up to something. Hence, they tend to believe they need to keep an eye on these people—be they fellow citizens, foreign citizens or allied leaders.

As noted above, such espionage is generally not limited by ethics or law (although countries like the United States will go through the most insane legal gymnastics to give such things a coat of legal paint). Recently I was listening to bit on NPR about the spying and one of the commentators noted that in espionage it is a matter of prudence rather than morality. This stuck with me because I had recently been teaching Kant’s ethics and Kant makes a clear distinction between acting from prudence (what is “smart”) and acting from duty (what is right). In the case of espionage, the idea is the usual consequentialist calculation: is the potential for gain worth the risk? In the case of spying on allies, it is a matter of sorting out the likely damage from the revelation and the potential gains from such spying. In the case of established allies like Germany, it seems reasonable to take the harm to exceed the potential for gain. Then again, given the history of Germany perhaps keeping a close eye on everything might not be such a bad idea.

The notion that espionage is about prudence rather than ethics is part of a common notion that ethics is a luxury that cannot be afforded in the context of matters of great importance. This seems to rest on the assumption that ethics is for easy and safe matters. This is, of course, somewhat ironic given that it is in the hard and unsafe matters that ethics is most needed. It is rather like saying that safety gear is for the safe climbing situations and one should just go naked when the climbing gets really dangerous.

Of course, it can be countered that such matters as international espionage deal with things that are so serious and that the stakes are so high that one cannot be handcuffed by the restraints of ethics. By analogy, this would be like trying to fight with one hand tied behind your back. People also make the same argument when it comes to things like torture and assassination: we have to do these things to be safe and ethics must be set aside so we can preserve what is of value.

There are two obvious problems here. One is the usual concern that if we set aside our ethical values, then we have already destroyed what is of value. The second is the fact that judging what is of value and what should be done in its defense are matters of ethics. As such, this would be like saying that one must throw away his tape measure so that he might properly measure the board he is about to cut. However, his tape measure is just what he needs in order to make the proper cut. Likewise, to make decisions about such things as spying, torture and assassination we need our ethical values. To say they must be set aside is itself a moral judgment: it is the judgment that we should do wrong to achieve some end and pretend that we are not really doing what is wrong—just what is in our interest or expedient.

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The Day After

Official photographic portrait of US President...

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According to the Republicans, the initial motivation for the shutdown came from their desire to prevent the damage they alleged will be inflicted by Obamacare. It is thus rather ironic that their shutdown, as a matter of fact, cost the United States about $24 billion and slowed growth. It also harmed the government employees who were furloughed and the other Americans who were impacted directly by the shutdown. Naturally, it also impacted how we are perceived by the rest of the world. As such, the Republican strategy to protect America seems to have the exact opposite effect. Thus it is no wonder that while the majority of the public disapproves of the way the situation was handled, the Republicans are bearing the brunt of this disapproval.

One counter is to endeavor to lay the blame on the Democrats. Fox, for example, did its best to spin the story so that the Democrats were morally accountable for the shutdown. This does raise an interesting question about responsibility (and perceived responsibility).

In terms of the facts, the Republicans initially insisted that, on the pain of putting the government on the path to shutdown, Obamacare be delayed or defunded. Obama and the Democrats noted that Obamacare is a law and that it had been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. As such, they refused to negotiate the matter. Given that Obama had yielded in the past, the Republicans probably expected that he would yield once more. However, he did not and the shutdown went on until the brink of the default.

The facts would seem to show that the Republicans bear the moral blame for the shutdown. After all, the law was passed and upheld in accord with the constitutional process. That is, it was done by the proper rules. The Republicans partially shut down the government and threatened to take the country into default if they did not get what they wanted. Obviously enough, this sort of thing is not in accord with constitutional process. That is, the Republicans were not acting in accord with the proper rules and the Democrats refused to give in to them.

To use an analogy I have used before, this is like having the Red Sox beat the Yankees in a legitimate game and then having the Yankees threaten to burn down the stadium if the Red Sox refuse to negotiate the outcome of the game. If the Yankees then set the stadium on fire, it is not the fault of the Red Sox-they are under no obligation to yield to the unwarranted demands of the Yankees. The Yankees bear full blame for the burning of the stadium. As such, the Republicans bear the blame for the shutdown and the damage it caused. As a general rule, if someone threatens to do harm to others if he does not get what he wants, then the responsibility for the harm he inflicts rests on him and not on those who refuse to give him what he has no right to demand by means of a threat.

It could be countered that Obamacare is so bad, “the worst thing in our country since slavery”, that the Republicans were in the right to inflict such harms in order to try to stop it. It could even be argued that by passing such a wicked and destructive law the Democrats are to blame-the Republicans had to take such extreme measures in order to try to save America.

This, obviously enough, rests on establishing that the law is so wicked and destructive that such extreme measures are warranted. It would also involve showing that the damage done by the Republican strategy is outweighed by the harms that the strategy was supposed to prevent. This would most likely involve a utilitarian assessment of the harms and benefits.

The damage done by the Republican strategy is known: $24 billion in 16 days. Obamacare would certainly have to deal some serious damage in order to match that, but perhaps it can be shown that this will be the case. As it stands, there are only guesses about what the impact of Obamacare will be. There is plenty of rhetoric and hyperbole, but little in the way of disinterested, rational analysis. However, it does seem reasonable to believe that Obamacare will not be the worst thing since slavery (let alone as bad as slavery) and that it will not destroy America. After all, its main impacts will be that people without insurance will need to get some (or pay a small fine) and that large employers will need to provide insurance (or pay a small fine) or evade the law by cutting employee hours. Even if the worst case scenario is considered, it will hardly match the hyperbole. As such, Obamacare does not seem bad enough to warrant the Republican strategy.

To be fair, the Republicans might honestly believe that Obamacare is as bad as they claim. That is, they believe their own hyperbole and rhetoric. If this is true, they could be morally excused to the degree that they followed their informed consciences. However, if they are operating from willful ignorance or do not really believe their own hyperbole, then they would have behaved wrongly—both in their hyperbole and their actions based on this.

In any case, most Americans do blame the Republicans and this is one of the political impacts of the shutdown. Whether this has an effect on the upcoming elections remains to be seen—as many pundits have noted, voters often have a short memory. As with the alleged damage of Obamacare, we will have to wait and see.

As a final point, one ironic effect of the shutdown is that it gave the Democrats an amazing distraction from the real problems with the implementation of Obamacare. One legitimate concern is the fact that employers get a one year delay in implementing Obamacare while individuals have been denied this same option. This, on the face of it, is unfair and the main “defense” of this has been the use of the red herring and smokescreen, as I noted in an earlier essay. While the Republicans did initially want to delay Obamacare for a year, they handled this poorly and instead decided to go with hyperbole and a shutdown. What could have been a potential win for them turned into what seems to be a major loss. A second legitimate concern is the problems plaguing the sign up and implementation of Obamacare. While there were some attempts to raise criticism about these serious problems, the shutdown dominated the center ring of the political circus. Thus, what could have been a reasonable criticism of Obamacare was drowned out by the Republicans themselves. In the Game of Obamacare, you win or you die. The Republicans did not win.

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Shutting it Down

English: President Barack Obama's signature on...

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Once again, the United States government has been shut down. As is to be expected, the politicians and pundits are engaging in the blame game. A key Republican talking point is that Obama and the Democrats are to blame because they would not compromise on the matter of Obamacare. If, say the Tea Party Republicans, Obama had been willing to defund or delay Obamacare, then they would not have been forced to do what they did.

The obvious counter to this is that Obamacare became a law via the proper constitutional process and hence this is no longer a compromise situation. It should also be noted that the proposed compromise is a rather odd one. It is as if the Republicans in question are saying: “here is our compromise: we get our way on Obamacare and, in return, we will not shut down the government.” That hardly seems like a reasonable compromise. To use an analogy, it would be like being in a bus heading to an event that was voted on by the people on the bus. Then some folks say that they do not like where the bus is going and one of them grabs the wheel. He then says “here is my compromise: we go where I want to go, or I’ll drive us into a tree.” That is hardly a compromise. Or even sane.

It could be argued that Obama and the Democrats should have done a better job in the past in terms of getting Republican buy-in on Obamacare. Or that the fact that the Republicans are a majority in the house shows that Americans want to be rid of Obamacare. These are not unreasonable points. However, they do not justify shutting down the government.

While I believe that Obamacare is chock full of problems and will have a variety of unpleasant consequences, I also believe in the importance of following the constitution. That is, I believe in the process of law. Obamacare went through that process and properly became a law. As such, there do not seem to be any grounds for claiming that it should be stopped because it is somehow an improperly passed law.

There have been claims that Obamacare is unconstitutional. There are some merits to these claims, but the matter was properly settled by the Supreme Court. Presumably the matter could be reconsidered at a later date, but the constitutional process has been properly followed. As such, the rhetorical points that Obamacare is unconstitutional lack merit. However, even if there was new and most excellent legal argument for this claim, this would not warrant shutting down the government to block the law. It would warrant having the Supreme Court consider the argument. That is proper procedure—that is how a system of government should operate. Using the threat of a shutdown against a law is certainly not how things should be done. That is essentially attempting to “govern” by threats, coercion and blackmail.

To use an analogy, imagine a night baseball game in which one side is losing. That side has argued every call repeatedly and used all the rules of the game to try to not lose. But it is still losing. So the coach of the losing team says that his team will turn out the lights, take all the balls, rip up the bases, and throw away the bats unless the other team “compromises” and gives them all the points they want. That would obviously be absurd. Likewise for the Tea Party Republican shut down.

A possible approach to warranting the shutdown is based on the idea of popular democracy. Some have argued that Obamacare is unpopular with most Americans. While this seems true, it also is true that most Americans do not seem to have enough of an understanding of Obamacare to have a rational opinion and much of the alleged dislike seems to stem from how the questions are asked. Interestingly, many people seem to really like things like the fact that people cannot be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions and that children can stay on their parents’ insurance until they are 26.

Since this is supposed to be something of a democracy, considering the will of the people (however confused and ill-informed the people might be) seems reasonable. However, this would need to be a consistent principle. That is, if the Tea Party Republicans say that they are warranted in shutting down the government because a majority of Americans are opposed to Obamacare, then they would need to accept that the same principle applies in the case of other laws as well. So, if most Americans believe that X should be a law or that X should not be a law, then that is what must be done—and if it is not done, the government must be shut down. Given the overwhelming support for certain gun control laws that congress refused to pass, if this principle is accepted then these laws must pass—or the government must be shut down.

However, the Tea Party Republicans are clearly not operating on a principle here, unless it is the principle of “we’ll shut down the government if we don’t get what we want”—but that is hardly a reasonable or democratic principle.

Another plausible approach to countering this is to argue that a shutdown can be justified on the grounds that a legitimately passed, Supreme Court tested law is so bad that action must be taken. While this could not be warranted on constitutional grounds, it could be justified on moral grounds, most likely utilitarian grounds. The idea would be that the consequences of allowing the law to go into effect would be so dire that the consequences of shutting down the government are offset by the achievement of a greater good. Or, rather, the prevention of a greater bad.

Interestingly, this could be seen as a variation on civil disobedience. But, rather than have citizens breaking an unjust law to get arrested, there are lawmakers breaking the government—or at least the parts that don’t pay their salary.

Since I find Thoreau’s arguments in favor of such civil disobedience appealing, I have considerable sympathy for lawmakers deciding to serve the state with their consciences. However, what needs to be shown is that the law is so unjust that it warrants such a serious act of civil disobedience.

Ted Cruz and other Tea Party Republicans have made various dire claims about Obamacare—it will result in people being fired, it will cause employers to cut hours so that workers become part-time workers, and so on. Cruz even brought out a comparison to the Nazis, which did not go over well with the Republican senator John McCain. Interestingly, Cruz and others have attributed backwards causation powers to Obamacare: the stock talking points well before Obamacare went into effect included claims that Americans were already suffering under Obamacare—despite the fact that it was not in effect.

When pressed on the damage that Obamacare will do, the Tea Party Republicans tend to be rather vague—they throw out claims about how it will come between a patient and her doctor and so on. However, they never got around to presenting an obective coherent, supported case regarding the likely harms of Obamacare. This is hardly surprising. As a general rule, if someone busts out a Nazi analogy, then this is a fairly reliable sign that they have nothing substantial to say. This is, I think, unfortunate and unnecessary: Obamacare no doubt has plenty of problems and if it is as bad as the Tea Party Republicans claim, they should have been able to present a clear list without having to resort to rhetoric, scare tactic, hyperbole and Nazi analogies. So, I ask for such a clear case for the harms of Obamacare.

As a final point, Obama has made the reasonable point that he has been asking the Republicans for their input and their alternative plan for health care for quite some time. Some Republicans have advocated the emergency room, which I wrote about earlier, but their main offering seems to be purely negative: get rid of Obamacare. In terms of a positive alternative, they seem to have nothing. But, I am a fair person and merely ask for at least an outline of their alternative plan.


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Chemical Weapons & Ethics

English: British Vickers machine gun crew wear...

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While the Syrian government has been condemned for killing people with conventional weapons, the “red line’ drawn by President Obama was the use of weapons of mass destruction, specifically chemical weapons. Those more cynical than I might suggest that this amounted to saying “we do not like that you are slaughtering people, but as long as you use conventional weapons…well, we will not do much beyond condemning you.”

While the Syrian government seemed content with conventional weapons, it has been claimed that government forces used chemical weapons. Fortunately, Secretary of State John Kerry did not use the phrase “slam dunk” when describing the matter.  As this is being written, President Obama has stated that he wants to launch an attack on Syria, but he has decided to let congress make the decision. While this raises some interesting issues, I will focus on the question of whether chemical weapons change the ethics of the situation. In more general terms, the issue is whether or not chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons.

In terms of general perception, chemical weapons are often regarded with more fear and disgust than conventional weapons. Part of this is historical in nature. World War I one saw the first large scale deployment of chemical weapons (primarily gas launched via artillery shells). While conventional artillery and machine guns did the bulk of the killing, gas attacks were regarded with a special horror. One reason was that the effects of gas tended to be rather awful, even compared to the wounds that could be inflicted by conventional weapons. This history of chemical weapons still seems to influence us today.

Another historically based reason, I suspect, is the ancient view that the use of poison is inherently evil or at least cowardly. In both history and literature, poisoners are rarely praised and are typically cast as villains. Even in games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, the use of poison is regarded as an inherently evil act. In contrast, killing someone with a sword or gun can be acceptable (and even heroic).

A third historically based reason is, of course, the use of poison gas by the Nazis in their attempt to implement their final solution. This would obviously provide the use of poison gas with a rather evil connection.

Of course, these historical explanations are just that—explanations. They provide reasons as to why people psychologically regard such weapons as worse than conventional weapons. What is needed is evidence for one side or the other.

Another part of this is that chemical weapons (as mentioned above) often have awful effects. That is, they do not merely kill—they inflict terrible suffering. This, then, does provide an actual reason as to why chemical weapons might be morally worse than conventional weapons. The gist of the reasoning is that while killing is generally bad, the method of killing does matter. As such, the greater suffering inflicted by chemical weapons makes them morally worse than conventional weapons.

There are three obvious replies to this. The first is that conventional weapons, such as bombs and artillery, can inflict horrific wounds that can rival the suffering inflicted by chemical weapons. The second is that chemical weapons can be designed so that they kill quickly and with minimal suffering. If the moral distinction is based on the suffering of the targets, then such chemical weapons would be morally superior to conventional weapons. However, it is worth noting that horrific chemical weapons would thus be worse than less horrific conventional (or chemical) weapons.

The third is that wrongfully killing and wounding people with conventional weapons would still be evil. Even if it is assumed that chemical weapons are somewhat worse in the suffering they inflict, it would seem that the moral red line should be the killing of people rather than killing them with chemical weapons. After all, the distinction between not killing people and killing them seems far greater than the distinction between killing people with conventional weapons and killing them with chemical weapons. For example, having soldiers machine gun everyone in a village seems to be morally as bad as having soldiers fire gas shells onto the village until everyone is dead. After all, the results are the same.

Another aspect of chemical weapons that supposedly makes them worse than conventional weapons is that they are claimed to be indiscriminate. For example, a chemical weapon is typically deployed as a gas and the gas can drift and spread into areas outside of the desired target. As another example, some chemical agents are persistent—they remain dangerous for some time after the initial attack and thus can harm and kill those who were not the intended targets. This factor certainly seems morally relevant.

The obvious reply is that conventional weapons can also be indiscriminate in this way. Bombs and shells can fall outside of the intended target area to kill and maim people. Unexploded ordinance can lie about until triggered by someone. As such, chemical weapons do not seem to necessarily worse than conventional weapons—rather it is the discrimination and persistence of the weapon that seem more important than the composition. For example, landmines certainly give chemical weapons strong competition in regards to being indiscriminate and persistent.

Thus, while a specific chemical weapon could be morally worse than a specific conventional weapon, chemical weapons are not inherently morally worse than conventional weapons.

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Should Everyone Go to College?


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While most Americans do not have college degrees, the percentage of Americans holding a Bachelors degree (or greater) has been steadily increasing (reaching 30% in 2012). One reason is degree inflation: people now need college degrees to qualify for jobs that once only required a high school diploma. Another reason is the fact that a college degree is supposed to increase a person’s earning potential. To a lesser degree, there has been a push for people to get at least some college education. In fact, President Obama has repeatedly pushed for this. In general, the assumption held by many people is that people should go to college if they can.

While I am a university professor, I do think that it is worthwhile to address the question of whether or not everyone should go to college. Not surprisingly, I think people should become as educated as possible. However, this is rather different from attending college and this distinction is sometimes lost.

There are, of course, the somewhat cynical answers to this question. It might be claimed that everyone should not go to college because some people are simply not intelligent enough to go to college. While honesty compels me to admit that there is some truth to this, honesty also compels me to admit that people generally overestimate the amount of intelligence required to get through college. While a certain level of intelligence is required, getting through college is often more a matter of persistence and showing up than of intellectual might.

It might also be claimed that everyone should not go to college because not everyone can afford the cost of college. On the one hand, this is a reasonable answer. After all, people who cannot afford to go to college should not go to college, just as someone who cannot afford an expensive sports car should not buy one. On the other hand, the question could be looked at another way. To use an analogy, consider the question of whether a person should seek treatment for a disease. Even if the person cannot afford it (and thus, in one sense, should not seek treatment), it still makes sense to say that they should seek treatment for the disease. Likewise, even people who cannot afford college might be people who should be going to college.  That said, the cost of college is clearly something that a person should consider when deciding whether or not she should go to college.

Continuing with the matter of cost, a rather obvious answer is that not everyone should go to college because, as a practical matter, it would not be possible for society to provide the educational resources needed for everyone to attend college. The obvious reply to this is that countries like the United States do provide universal public K-12 education and hence it would presumably not be impossible to extend the education system to cover an additional four years, especially if people are expected to pay at least some of the cost themselves. However, even if society committed to making it so everyone could go to college, this does not entail that everyone should go to college.

In terms of arguing why everyone should go to college, one option is to make use of the arguments as to why everyone should complete high school. These include the usual arguments involving being educated for employment and being educated to be citizens of a democratic state. There is, of course, an easy way to counter these sorts of arguments. As a counter, it can be argued that for most (or at least some) people a high school education would suffice for these purposes and hence not everyone should go to college.

However, even if high school would suffice for some people, it can be contended that this does not prove that not everyone should go to college. After all, the fact that basic food, water and shelter would keep a person alive does not entail that everyone should not have more than the very basics of survival. Likewise  the fact that a high school education provides the basics  does not disprove the claim that everyone should go to college. By analogy, just as everyone (or almost everyone) would benefit from having more than the basics, the same would hold true for college as well.

The obvious reply is that the fact that everyone would benefit from having more than the basics does not entail that everyone should have more than the basics. Likewise, even if everyone would benefit from college, it does not follow that everyone should go to college.  After all, this would require that people should do what would be beneficial for them and perhaps this is not the case.  There is also the concern that college might not benefit everyone. If this is the case, then it would seem reasonable to claim that everyone should not go to college. On the face of it, this would seem to be the most fruitful avenue of consideration.

In general, it could be argued that people should go to college if doing so would be beneficial to them. As noted above, it could still be countered that even if something is beneficial, it does not follow that people should do it (the usual “you cannot get an ought from an is”  line of attack can be used here). However, it seems sensible to lay aside this somewhat esoteric problem and focus on practical matters. In a practical sense, it seems reasonable to hold that people should make a decision about whether to go to college or not based on the benefits relative to the costs.

In practical terms, the main question for most people would be whether or not a college degree would result in a better job, which is often defined in terms of better pay. In general, a college degree results in better pay than a high school degree. However, there are well paying jobs that do not require a college degree and thus the money motivation does not yield the result that everyone should go to college (especially when the cost of college is factored in).  There is also the matter of job satisfaction: there are people who rather enjoy jobs that do not require a college degree. Some of these jobs do require a great deal of skill, education and intelligence and they should not be looked down on as inferior to the jobs that require a college degree.

There is also the matter of the role of college in preparing a person to be a citizen of a democratic state. However, as was noted above, perhaps a high school education suffices for this. After all, people with college degrees do not seem to thus be automatically better citizens than people with high school degrees.

As a final point, there is the value of college in terms of developing as a person and other intangibles such as knowledge for the sake of knowledge. There are two obvious counters to this. The first is that people do go to college without college contributing very much to their personal development. The second is that people obviously can undergo personal development and learn a great deal without a college degree. That is, as noted above, a person can be well educated without having a formal college degree. Although most of my friends are college educated, I also have many friends who did not complete or even attend college. However, they are generally well-educated.

Thus, it would seem that it is not the case that everyone should go to college. This is not to say that college is without value, but it is to say that not everyone needs to walk the same path to their life goals and their education.

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Dropping the Ball?

FBI Badge & gun.

FBI Badge & gun. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it was learned that the FBI had checked up on  Tamerlan Tsarnaev and failed to predict that he would become radicalized, some politicians implied that the agency might have “dropped the ball.”

Given that Tamerlan Tsarnaev did apparently turn out to a threat, it is tempting to infer that the FBI did drop the ball. Now that it is known that he was a threat, people are going back and reconstructing the evidence that he had become radicalized, such as his YouTube links and his outburst at a Mosque.  However, this temptation should be resisted (unless evidence emerges to the contrary).

In regards to tracking people and predicting whether they will become a threat, the FBI faces two main philosophical challenges. The first is epistemic: that is, how do they know that a person will become a threat? This, as might be imagined, can be rather problematic. After all, as some commentators have noted, the FBI checks on many people every year and the vast majority of them do not turn out to be threats.

To use the obvious analogy, some people have mental health issues that might lead to serious violence, but the vast majority of such people never actually engage in such violence. When someone with such issues does engage in violence, people endeavor to backtrack and look for what was missed-and it always seems that the definitive evidence is never found. This might be because people have free will, because behavior is ultimately random, or because we lack the epistemic abilities to find the key evidence. Or something else entirely.

In the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, it might be found that there is no decisive evidence that would have revealed him to be on the (alleged) path to the bombing. That is, given the reasonably available evidence, perhaps the FBI lacked an adequate reason to expend its limited resources in tracking Tamerlan Tsarnaev in detail.

This possibility seems likely. As is often the case, the only definitive evidence that a person will engage in violence is when the person actually does so. Naturally, it would be rather useful to be able to definitively sort out the pre-criminals/terrorists before they act-but this is a rather difficult challenge given our capacity to know.

The second challenge is ethical and deals with such matters as the right to privacy and concerns about having a police state. While the state could keep closer checks on people who are even suspected of being potential wrong doers, there are obviously moral concerns with such an invasive state. The recent battle over expanding background checks for gun purchases showed the extent to which some people are concerned about matters of privacy and rights even in the context of public safety. After all, if there are significant concerns with expanding background checks for buying guns, then one can only imagine to concerns with having the FBI keeping close tabs on people on the basis of a foreign state making an inquiry about them and other such reasons.

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Gun Rights & Tyranny

Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common approach to arguing in favor of civilian gun rights is to claim that such rights prevent, deter or at least provide a defense against tyranny. In general, the idea seems to be that the people in power will be less inclined and less able to impose tyranny if the civilian population possesses the right to keep and bear arms. In the United States, this is presented in terms of the members of the government deciding to impose tyrannical rule over the people.

On the face of it, this justification does have some appeal. After all, if the government has to overcome armed civilians, then it would obviously be harder than using force against unarmed civilians. Also it could be argued that politicians might fear that they would be assassinated by armed patriots if they started acting in tyrannical ways.

People also point to the American Revolution and claim that the fact that the civilian population was armed was an important factor in the American victory over the British tyranny. Those with some science-fiction leanings also present counter-factual scenarios in which one is asked to imagine what would have happened in Germany if the Jews and anti-Nazi Germans had possessed the right to keep and bear arms (or were at least armed). Stalin and other dictators are also often brought up in this context. The idea is, of course, to appeal to the intuitions of the audience and persuade them that if only the Germans had had their own Second Amendment, then Hitler might have never been able to come to power and the Holocaust might not have happened.

The idea that the cowardly politicians who dream of tyranny are kept in check by red-blooded Americans exercising their constitutional right to keep and bear arms does have a certain emotional appeal. So too does the thought of armed plucky rebels defending America from tyranny. In fact, such scenarios would no doubt make for successful Hollywood films. But what is appealing and what might make a blockbuster film are not the same as what is, in fact, true.

Naturally enough, the general idea of the role of civilian armaments in deterring tyrants can be debated extensively. This is, of course, a worthwhile debate and would be a rather interesting project for historians to sort out. However, what is under discussion here is the rather specific matter of whether or not the right to keep and bear arms is warranted by the deterrent value of this right against tyranny. This, obviously enough, involves some key matters of fact.

One obvious matter of fact is the issue of whether or not gun rights frightens politicians with tyrannical intentions—that is, whether worries about assassination keep them in check.

As argued above, it makes sense to think that a politician would be less inclined to do something if she believed doing so would result in people attempting to kill her. Naturally, if the population has easy access to firearms, then an assassin could easily acquire a gun. If there were strict controls on guns, then politicians would have less to worry about in terms of assassins drawn from the ranks of the general population. They would just have to worry about the military and police forces (and anyone who could make a bomb or wield a knife). Obviously, even in a state with strict civilian gun control, the politicians would need to win over the majority of the military and police forces to their tyrannical agenda—or their attempts at tyranny would end rather quickly. In the United States, this would require winning over the national forces (the military, FBI, and so on) as well as the state (National Guard and state police) and local forces (police and sheriffs).

Interestingly, democratic states with stricter gun control than the United States, such as the United Kingdom, do not seem to have fallen into tyranny. This suggests that it is not fear of assassination by citizens exercising their guns rights that keeps a democratic state from tyranny, but rather other factors. But perhaps they are just biding their time and the United Kingdom will soon be back under an absolute monarchy.

A second obvious matter of fact is the issue of whether or not civilian gun ownership would deter the military and police forces from imposing tyranny on the people at the behest of the tyrant(s). This, of course, assumes that the tyrant(s) has won over the majority of the military and police forces to her plot of tyranny and that there is no significant opposition from the military and police forces that are not in on the tyrannical take over. That is, the tyrant has won over the American citizens in the military and police forces to the degree that they would be willing to throw aside the Constitution and turn their weapons against the general population—including their friends, family, spouses, and children.

In such a scenario, it would seem that civilian weapons would be of little use. After all, the military and police forces of the tyrant would have military weapons (tanks, attack helicopters, bombers, artillery, ships, nukes and so on). Handguns, rifles and shotguns would be of rather limited use against such forces. Back in the time when civilian weapons and military weapons were essentially on par (muskets) and the most destructive military weapons were very limited (muzzle loading cannons) an armed civilian population would reasonably be regarded as a deterrent. However, it is hard to imagine suburban Americans battling successfully against tanks, Predator drones, and Hellfire missiles using AR-15s and .38 specials. That said, there is something to be said for an honorable death fighting against impossible odds.

Of course, the civilians could turn to the sort of tactics used by insurgents and terrorists to resist the military and police of the tyrant—but this would not be a case of the right to keep and bear arms deterring tyranny. However, the main thing that seems to defeat tyrants is a lack of support-without that a tyrant is a just a single man.

Naturally, it can be pointed out that civilian arms could be used to resist a small scale tyrannical incursion (perhaps a takeover in a small town). However, in such a scenario the tyrant would soon be dealt with by the police or military of the state. Also, the main deterrents against American tyrants grabbing American towns would seem to involve not guns but other factors—like an unwillingness to go along with a tyrant.

It would thus seem that civilian gun ownership would be little, if any, deterrence or defenses against a serious tyrant. It is also interesting to note that if such armaments provided considerable power against the state, there would be the fear that they would be used by a segment of the population to impose their own tyrant on others.

In light of the above, the defense against tyranny argument would seem to provide little in the way of justification for civilian gun rights. This should not be terribly shocking—after all, the second amendment does not justify the right to keep and bear arms in terms of having an armed population ready to shoot it out with other armed citizens.

There are, however, good reasons for gun rights, but these are beyond the intended scope of this essay.

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The NRA & Obama’s Children


National_Rifle_Association (Photo credit: ChrisWaldeck)

The NRA recently released a video in response to Obama’s skepticism about its proposal to put an armed guard in every school. The gist of the matter is that Obama is accused of being an ”elitist hypocrite”  because his two daughters have constant Secret Service protection.

The ad asks “Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?” It then, perhaps somewhat oddly,  drags in the matter of taxes on the wealthy: “Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he is just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”

Obama’s view on the matter of armed guards in schools was presented on n NBC’s “Meet the Press”  in December of 2012: ”I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools, and I think the vast majority of the American people are skeptical that that somehow is going to solve our problem,” Obama said. “And, look, here’s the bottom line. We’re not going to get this done unless the American people decide it’s important.”

On the face of it, the ad could be seen as a well-crafted  ad hominem tu quoque.  This fallacy is committed when 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:

  •  Person A makes claim X.
  • Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  • 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.

In this case, pointing out that Obama seems to say one thing (that he is skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools) while practicing another (having his two girls protected by the Secret Service even when they are in school) and then inferring Obama is in error would seem to be a clear example of this fallacy.

It is also well worth pointing out that Obama’s claim does not seem to be inconsistent with his daughters having secret service protection. After all, what he claims is that he is “skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools.” That is, he is skeptical that putting more guns in school and doing nothing else will solve the problem.

Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, expanded on the content of the video and seems to be making an appeal for a consistent application of a principle/practice: “The president and his family enjoy 24-hour-security from law enforcement at taxpayer expense, and this ad asks very real questions: If it’s good enough for the president, why shouldn’t it be good enough for the rest for us?”

A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. To fail to do this is to apply a principle inconsistently, which is what Arulanadam seems to be accusing Obama of doing.   Inconsistent application of a principle is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that people are initially morally equal and hence must be treated as such. This requires that moral principles be applied consistently.  Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.  Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences.

Arulanandam does seem to make a reasonable point. After all, if such armed security for Obama’s children is acceptable, then consistency would seem to demand that the same protection be afforded to other children (or even everybody).  Or, at the very least, that providing such protection for others would be reasonable.

Naturally, similar claims could be made regarding all the special treatment the President receives. For example, the president’s plane is maintained to a degree that vastly exceeds what is required for commercial airliners. Given Arulanandam’s view, it would follow that commercial airlines should be required to follow the same practices. Interestingly, Arulanandam’s view could also be applied to almost any special perks anyone receives. If this view were not being put forth by the NRA this view would certainly be seen as rather leftist.

The obvious reply to Arulanandam is to point out relevant differences between Obama’s situation and that of other Americans. Obviously, Obama is the president and this means his family is more likely to be targeted for harm than other families. As such, the difference in protection can be justified based on this relevant difference. Not surprisingly, other powerful individuals tend to secure more protection for their families on similar grounds, namely that they are more likely to need that protection than the average person. Thus, the difference in protection could be justified on the grounds of relevant differences.

One obvious counter to this is, as the NRA noted, that this sort of disparity seems elitist. After all, he and his family are protected around the clock by trained professionals, while the rest of us are mostly on our own (although we can call the police). He also gets to fly in his own wonderfully maintained plane in luxury while the rest of us generally have to fly coach in planes that are most likely maintained at the legally minimum levels (if that). Given the NRA remarks about taxing the wealthy, it is somewhat ironic that this would apply to all the elites who enjoy all those elite benefits that the rest of us do not receive. It, as the NRA contends, seems unfair that Obama and the other elites get so much while the rest of us get so little.  Who would ever have suspected that the NRA would make what seems to be a leftist attack on the privileged elites in favor of what seems to be equality? Then again, maybe they are only concerned about equal armaments and not equality in general.

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Race in America

Official photographic portrait of US President...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the United States professes that all men are created equal and there has been talk of a post-racial America, race is still a significant factor. To use but one example, the 2012 Presidential election involved considerable focus on race. Some, like Bill O’Reilly, lamented what they seem to have taken as the end of the dominance of the white establishment. Others merely focus on the demographic lines drawn in accord with race and hope to appeal to those groups when election time comes.

Despite this unfortunate obsession with race, the concept is incredibly vague. There have been various attempts to sort out clear definitions of the races. For example, the “one drop rule” was an attempt to distinguish whites from blacks, primarily for the purposes of slavery. More recently, there have been attempts to sort out race based on genetics. This has had some interesting results, including some people finding out that the race they identified with is not the same as their genetic “race.”

In many ways, of course, these sorts of findings illustrate that the concept of race is also a matter of perception. That is, being white (or black or whatever) is often a matter of being perceived (or perceiving oneself) as being white (or black or whatever). In many ways, race is clearly a social construct with little correlation to genetics.

Getting back to genetics, many Americans are mixed rather than “pure.” This, of course, creates the problem of sorting people into those allegedly important racial demographics. After all, if a person has a mixed ancestry, they would not seem to fall clearly into a category (other than mixed). To “solve” this “problem” the tendency is to go with how the person is perceived. To use one example, consider President Obama. While his mother was white and his father black, he is considered black (after all, his place in history is as America’s first black president). The fact that he is considered black is thus a matter of perception. After all, he is just as white as he is black—although, of course, he looks black. As might be imagined, appearance is often taken as the major determining factor in regards to race. So, Obama looks more black than white, so he is black. Or so it might be claimed.

There is, of course, a problem in regards to people who are “mixed” but look “pure.” Interestingly enough, in the United States it is typically the case that a “mixed” person who looks “pure” means that they look white enough. After all, people who are “mixed” but do not look clearly white are typically classified as belonging to the “other” race. Like, for example, President Obama.  People who look white enough are typically classified as white, despite their actual ancestry.

I can use myself as an example in this case. While my mother’s side is documented “white” all the way back to the Mayflower, my father’s side is mixed. While my grandfather’s ancestry is French and some Native American, we really have no idea about the specific mix. My grandmother, however, was at least 50% “pure” Mohawk. As such, I am mixed. However, I look rather white and I have consistently been treated as white. Since many official forms and job applications require that a person identify by race, I always pause and look through the categories—especially when there is supposed to be consequences for not being honest. When a form allows multiple selections, I go with “white” and “Native American” since that is true. If I can only pick one, I usually go with “other” and if that is not an option, “white.” After all, no one would doubt that I am white simply by looking at me. As such, I might “really” be white—at least in the way that matters most in society (namely appearance). However, the race categories continue to annoy me and I always worry a tiny bit that I will be busted someday for putting down the wrong race.


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