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Gun Control

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The June, 2016 mass shooting in Orlando has thrown gasoline on the political fire of gun control. While people on the left and right both agree that mass shootings should be prevented, they disagree about what steps should be taken to reduce the chances that another one will occur.

As would be expected, people on the left (and broad center) favor efforts focused on guns. While this is normally called “gun control”, this is a phrase that should no longer be used. This is not as a matter of duplicity, to present proposals under a false guise. Rather, this is because “gun control” has become so emotionally charged that the use of the phrase interferes with a rational discussion of proposals. If a proposal is labeled as “gun control”, this will tend to trigger immediate opposition from people who might otherwise support a specific proposal, such as one aimed precisely at preventing criminals and potential terrorists from acquiring guns.

Coming up with a new phrase might be problematic. “Gun safety” is already taken and deals with the safe handling of weapons. “Gun regulation” is a possibility, but “regulation” has become an emotional trigger word as well. The phrase should certainly not be a euphemism or sugar coated—doing so would certainly open the usage up to a charge of duplicity. Since I do not have a good enough phrase, I will continue to use the loaded “gun control” and hope that the reader is not too influenced by the connotation of the phrase.

Positions on gun control are largely set by emotions rather than a logical analysis of the matter. In my case, I am emotionally pro-gun. This is because, as a boy in Maine, I grew up with guns. All my gun experiences are positive: hunting with my dad and target shooting with friends. I am well aware that guns are lethal, but I have no more fear of guns than I have of other lethal machines, such as automobiles and table saws. No close friend or relative has been a victim of gun violence. Fortunately, I have enough empathy that I can feel for people who loath guns because of some awful experience. But, as with all complicated problems, one cannot feel a way to a solution. This requires rational thought.

Being a professional philosopher, I have some skill at considering the matter of gun control in rational terms. While there are many possible approaches to gun control, there are currently to main proposals. As is always the case, these proposals are arising from the specifics of the latest incident rather than a broad consideration of the general problem of gun violence.

The first type of proposal involves banning people on the no fly list from purchasing guns. This has been proposed because of the belief that the Orlando shooter was on this list and if this proposal had been enacted, then the shooting would have not taken place. On the face of it, this seems to make sense: people who are evaluated as too much of a threat to fly would seem to also be too much of a threat to buy guns. There are, however, a few problems with this proposal. The first is that the no fly list has been a mess, with people ending up on the list who should not be there. This can be addressed by improving the quality of list management—though there will always be mistakes. The second problem is a matter of rights. While there is no constitutional right to fly, there is the Second Amendment and banning a person from buying guns because they have been put on such a list is certainly problematic. It could be countered that felons and mentally incompetent people are denied the right to buy guns, so it is no more problematic to ban potential terrorists. The problem is, however, that a person can end up on the no fly list without going through much in the way of due process. That is, a basic constitutional right can be denied far too easily. This can, of course, be addressed by making the process of being on the list more robust or developing an alternative list with stricter requirements and far better management. There would still be the legitimate concern about denying people a right on the basis of suspicion of what they might do rather than as a response to what they have actually done. There is also the fact that the overwhelming majority of gun violence in the United States is committed by people who are not on that list. So, this proposal would have rather limited impact.

The second type of proposal is a return to the ban on assault weapons and high capacity clips (what a friend of mine calls “the ‘scary gun’ ban”). This proposal is based on the belief that if only the Orlando shooter had not been able to acquire a semiautomatic assault rifle and high capacity clips, then the casualties would have been far less.

For those not familiar with weapons, a semiautomatic fires one round with each pull of the trigger and will do so until the magazine is exhausted. Each shot “cocks” the gun again, allowing rapid fire. This is in contrast with, for example, a bolt, pump or lever action weapon. These weapons require the operator to manually move a round from the magazine to the chamber for each shot. These weapons fire considerably slower than semiautomatics, although a skilled user can still fire quite rapidly. There are also weapons that fire in bursts (firing a certain number of rounds with each trigger pull) and those that are fully automatic (firing for as long as the trigger is held and ammunition remains).

While many people believe otherwise, it is often perfectly legal to buy an automatic weapon—a person just has to go through a fairly complicated process including a thorough background check. I know people who own such weapons—legally and above board. The strict process of acquisition and high cost of such weapons generally keeps them out of hands of most people. As such, this could serve as a model for placing stronger limitations on other weapons.

While many people fear what are called “assault rifles” because they look scary to them (merely firing one gave timid journalist Gersh Kuntzman PTSD), the appearance of a gun does not determine its lethality. The typical assault rifle fires a 5.56mm round (though some fire the 7.62mm round) and they are less powerful than the typical hunting rifle. This is not surprising: assault rifles were developed to kill medium sized mammals (humans) and many hunting rifles were designed to kill larger mammals (such as moose and bears). While assault rifles are generally not “high powered”, they do suffice to kill people.

Assault rifles are more of a threat than other rifles for two reasons. The first is that the assault rifle is semi-automatic, which allows a far more rapid rate of fire relative to lever, bolt and pump action weapons. The slower a person fires, the slower they kill—thus allowing a greater chance they can be stopped. However, there are also plenty of semiautomatic non-assault rifles, which leads to the second factor, magazine size. Assault rifles of the sort sold to civilians typically have 20 or 30 round magazines, while typical hunting rifle (non-assault) holds far less. Maine, for example, sets a legal magazine limit of 5 rounds (plus one in the chamber) for hunting rifles.

A ban on semiautomatic rifles sales could have an impact on mass shootings, provided that the shooter had to purchase the rifle after the ban and did not already have access to a semiautomatic weapon. While some hunters do prefer semiautomatic weapons, it is possible to hunt as effectively with pump, lever and bolt action weapons. When I went duck hunting, I used a pump shotgun (which I actually prefer, having seen semiautomatic shotguns jam from time to time) and for deer hunting I used a bolt action rifle.

The main impact of such a ban would be that shooters who have to acquire new weapons for their shooting would have weapons with a lower rate of fire. They could still kill many people, but the kill rate would be slower—thus the death toll should be lower in such cases.

A ban on high capacity clips would also have an impact on the kill rate of shooters who have to buy new clips for their mass shooting. If magazines were limited to 10 rounds, a shooter would need to reload more often and reloading time would afford a chance to stop the shooter.

Combining the two bans would mean that shooters who had to acquire new weapons for their mass shooting would be limited to low capacity, slower firing weapons. This could significantly reduce the death toll of future shootings.

As has been noted, these sorts of bans would only affect a shooter who had to acquire a new weapon or clips. Shooters who already have their weapons would not be impacted by the ban. As such, what would be needed would be to remove existing semiautomatic weapons and high capacity clips—something that seems politically impossible in the United States.


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Trump Rhetoric: naming Insulting & Mocking

Listening to one of Trump’s speeches, I tried to remember when I had heard this style of rhetoric before. While negative rhetoric is a stock part of modern American politics, he had created a brand that stands out in its negative magnificence. My first thought was it reminded me a great deal of the incoherent hate spewing I recall from gaming on Xbox Live. Then I realized it matched much earlier memories, that of the bullying and name calling of junior high school and earlier. I realized then that Trump’s main rhetorical style was a more polished version of that deployed by angry children.

One tactic that most people should recall from their youth is that of name calling. Kids would call each other things like “Stinky Susan” or “Fat Fred” in order to mock and insult each other. As people grew up, their name calling and mockery tended to become more sophisticated—at least in terms of the vocabulary.

Trump, however, seems to instinctively grasp the appeal of schoolyard level name calling, insults and mockery. He gives his foes (and almost everyone gets to be a foe of Trump) names such as “crooked Hillary”, “Lying Ted Cruz”, “Goofy Elizabeth”, and “Crazy Bernie.”

While name calling has no logical force (it proves nothing), it can have considerable rhetorical force. One obvious intended effect is to persuade the audience that the person given the insulting name is thus “bad” or “failed” as Trump loves to say. Perhaps the most important effect is how it impacts status: giving someone an insulting name is, at the core, a power play about relative status. The insulting name is intended to lower the targets status (from Senator Ted Cruz to “lying Ted) and thus raise the relative status of the attacker. Trump has used this with great effect against foes such as “low energy George Bush” and “Little lightweight Marco Rubio.” While these men were both professional politicians, they never seemed to hit on an effective counter to this attack. Trying to engage Trump in a battle of naming, insults and mockery is rather like trying to out squeeze a python—so it is no wonder this did not work. Trying to elevate the battle to the usual political style of negative rhetoric also proved ineffective—Trump’s schoolyard bullying seems to have won the hearts of many Americans who were not inclined to accept a change of rhetorical venue. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Trump swept aside his Republican foes like a bully swats aside the smaller and weaker children. Trump won the status battle by playing the schoolyard status game with his usual skill. His opponents were playing politics as usual, which was the wrong game to play with a population largely tired of that game.

From a logical standpoint, no one should be convinced by name calling. It has, obviously enough, no function as evidence or reasons for a claim. Calling Elizabeth Warren “goofy” does nothing to refute her claims. As such, the defense against being swayed by name calling is to be aware of this, to think “that is an insulting name…that proves nothing.”

If one is the target of an insulting or mocking name calling, then the defense is a bit more challenging. This is because what tends to matter is how other people are influenced by the name calling. While it is tempting to think about “sticks and stones”, Trump has established that name calling can hurt—at least in terms of a person’s status. Which means it hurts a lot. We are, after all, status obsessed monkeys in pants.

One way to reply is to respond with crude name calling, insults and mockery. From a logical standpoint, this proves nothing. From a practical standpoint, the main question is whether or not it will work. Part of the concern is whether or not one can engage and “beat” the name caller using this tactic. That is, whether one can out-insult the person and lower his status in the eyes of the other primates. Another part of the concern is whether or not this is the right tactic to use in terms of getting the desired result. A person might, for example, get in good shots at the name caller, yet end up losing in the long term. As might be imagined, people vary in their ability to name call as well as the impact name calling will have on how they are perceived. People expect Trump to be vulgar and insulting, so he loses nothing with this tactic. While people tend to think Hillary Clinton is corrupt, they also expect her to have a much higher degree of class and professionalism than Trump: playing his game would be a loss for her, even if she “won.”

Another way to reply is with more sophisticated name calling, insults and mockery. This, of course, is still logically empty—but can be combined with actual arguments. Hillary Clinton, for example, presented a speech aimed at mocking Trump. While she used the same basic tactic as Trump, trying to lower his status, her attacks were far more refined. To use an analogy, Trump is a barbarian hacking away with a great axe, while Hillary is fencing. The goal is the same (kill the other person) but one is crude and the other rather more elegant. The question is, of course, which will work. In the case of the rhetorical battle, the outcome is decided by the audience—do American voters prefer the axe of Trump or the rapier of Hillary? Or neither?

It is also possible to engage name calling with logic and counter with actual arguments. While this can work with some people, those who are subject to logic would tend to already reject such tactics and those who are not so amendable to logic will be unaffected. In fact, they would probably regard the use of such a method as confirming the bestowed name. Aristotle was among the first to point out the weakness of logic as a persuasive device and nothing has proven him wrong.

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Trump & Authenticity

Donald Trump has managed to relentlessly prove the political pundits wrong. While the idea of Trump in the White House was once an absurd joke, each passing day makes it ever more likely that America will fall under the Trumpocracy.

Given that Trump lacks the experience and skills that are usually expected in a presidential candidate, it might be wondered how he is doing so well. When his supporters are asked about their reasons, they typically assert that Trump “tells it like it is”, that he is not politically correct and that he is “authentic.”

Trump’s remarks do clearly establish that he is not politically correct—at least from the standpoint of the left. Trump does, however, go beyond merely not being politically correct and his rhetoric enters into the realms of xenophobia and misogyny. While I am fine with a person not being political correct, regarding his crude and vulgar xenophobia and misogyny as appealing seems to be a mark of character flaws. But, it cannot be denied that this is what some people really like. While it would be unfair to claim that supporting Trump is equivalent to endorsing xenophobia and misogyny, to support Trump is to support his professed values.

The claim that Trump “tells it like it is” is both false and absurd. Trump tells it like it is not, as the Politifact evaluation of his claims attests. Those who support Trump might honestly believe his untruths (as Trump himself might) and they can sincerely claim they back him because he “tells it as they think it is.” However, voters should at least make some minimal effort to check on the truth of Trump’s claims. That said, truth seems to matter very little in political support—perhaps because the system generally provides voters with a choice between untruths.

In order to determine whether or not Trump is authentic, I need to work out a rough account of authenticity in politics. Part of being authentic is a matter of not having certain qualities: not being scripted, not presenting an act, and not saying what one thinks the audience wants to hear. In terms of the positive qualities, authenticity presenting one’s genuine self and saying what one really believes.

It might be thought that Trump’s unrelenting untruths would disqualify him from being authentic. However, authenticity is distinct from saying true things. Authenticity just requires that a person says what she believes, not that she say what is true. This is analogous to honesty: being honest does not entail that a person tells the truth. It entails that the person tells what they believe to be the truth. A dishonest person is not someone who says untrue things—it is someone who says things they believe to be untrue.

Interestingly, there could be a paradox of authenticity. Imagine, if you will, a person whose genuine self is a scripted self and whose views are those that the audience wants to hear at that moment. This would be a person whose authentic self is unauthentic. It could, of course, be argued that there is no paradox: the person would just be unauthentic because she would lack a genuine self and genuine views. It can also be argued that no such person exists, so there is no real paradox. In any case, it is time to return to discussing Trump.

With the rough account of authenticity in hand, the next step is considering the sort of empirical data that would confirm of disprove a person’s authenticity. Since authenticity is mainly a matter of the presented self matching the genuine self, this runs right into the classic philosophical problem of other minds: “how do I know what is going on in another person’s mind?” In the case of authenticity, the questions are “how do I know the presented persona is the real person?” and “how do I know that the person believes what they say?”

In the case of Trump, people point to the fact that he rambles and riffs when giving speeches as evidence that he is unscripted. They also point to the fact that his assertions are political incorrect and regarded by many as outrageous as evidence that he is saying what he really believes. The idea seems to be that if he was a scripted and inauthentic politician, he would be better organized and would be presenting the usual safe and pandering speeches of politicians.

While this does have a certain appeal, the riffing and rambling could be taken as evidence that he is just not well organized. His outrageous claims can also be taken as evidence of ignorance. It would be a mistake to accept disorganized ignorance as evidence of laudable authenticity. Then again, that might be his genuine self, thus making it authentic. A such, more is needed in the way of evidence.

One common way of looking for authenticity is to take consistency as evidence. The idea is that if a person sticks to a set of beliefs and acts in generally the same way in various circumstances, then this consistency reveals that those believes and actions are sincere. While this is certainly appealing, a smart inauthentic person (like a smart liar) could create a consistent false persona for the public.

In contrast, a person who shifts beliefs with alarming regularity and acts in very different ways depending on the audience is often regarded as being inauthentic because of this inconsistency. The inference is that the person is shifting because they are acting and pandering. While this is also appealing, a person could be sincerely inconsistent and an authentic panderer.

Trump has shifted his professed positions in his transformation to the Republican nominee and his former opponents and current critics have spent considerable time and energy making this point. As such, it is tempting to question Trump’s authenticity in regards to his professed positions. That said, a person can change and adopt new sincere beliefs.

Former presidential hopeful Ben Carson made the interesting claim that there are two Trumps: the on one stage and the one “who’s very cerebral, sits there and considers things carefully.” If Carson is right about this, the “authentic” Trump that appeals to the voters is, ironically, just an act. The Trump on stage is a persona and not his real self—which would hardly be surprising given that he is a master showman.

One reasonable reply to this is that professionals put on a persona when engaging in their professional activities and everyone changes how they behave depending on the audience. For example, I behave differently when I am teaching a class than when I am running with friends. As such, if such change means a person is unauthentic, most people are not authentic. Thus making the charge of authenticity less stinging.

However, there seems to be more to inauthenticity than merely changing behavior to match the social context. Rather, an inauthentic person is engaged in an intentional deception to get others to accept something the person is, in fact, not. This is something that actors do—and it is harmless and even laudable when it is done to amuse. However, when it is done with a different intent (such as deceiving voters so as to get elected), then it is neither harmless nor laudable. I suspect Trump is not authentic, but since I do not know the true Trump, I cannot say with certainty.


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Trump & the Third Party

Trump’s ongoing success has created quite a disturbance in the Republican establishment. While some have merely expressed opposition to him, there is a growing “never Trump” movement. While this movement is currently focused on preventing Trump from becoming the candidate by supporting his few remaining opponents, there has been some talk of putting forth a third party candidate.

Third party candidates are nothing new in the United States. Ralph Nader made a bid on the left for president and Ross Perot made an attempt on the libertarian side. The main impact of these attempts was to pull voters from one party and enable the other party to win. For example, Ralph Nader helped defeat Al Gore. As such, the most likely effect of a conservative third party candidate running against Trump and Hillary would be a victory for Hillary. Given that the main concern of most political partisans is the victory of their party, it might be wondered why a third party option would even be considered.

One reason is that of principle. In the case of Nader and Perot, their supporters believed in them and supported them—even though it should have been obvious that doing so would not result in a victory and would, in fact, help someone they ideologically opposed reach the White House. In the case of Trump, there are those who oppose him as a matter of principle. Some oppose his apparent racism and bigotry while others contend that he is not a true conservative in regards to fiscal and social matters. As such, people would most likely be voting for the third party candidate because he is not Trump and not Hillary rather than because of who he is.

While politics is seen mainly as a matter of pragmatic power seeking, a moral case can be made for a Republican to vote for a third party candidate on the basis of principle rather than for Trump or for Hillary. If Trump and Hillary are both regarded as roughly equal in evil and the person wishes to vote, then voting for either would be wrong from that person’s perspective. After all, voting for a person makes one responsible (albeit to a tiny degree) for the consequences of their being in power. Voting for a third party candidate the person either supports or regards as the least evil of the lot would thus be the best option in terms of principle. If the person regards one of the two main candidates as the greatest evil, then the person should vote for the lesser evil that is likely to win, as I argued in an earlier essay.

A second reason to run a third party candidate is a matter of damage control. The predictions are that while Trump is winning the largest fraction of the minority of Republican voters who vote in primaries he will have a negative impact on voter turnout. While the third party strategy concedes that Trump will lose the general election, the hope is that a third party alternative who is popular enough will get people to vote. This, it is hoped, will help the Republicans do well on other parts of the ticket, such as elections for senators and representatives. As such, there is an excellent pragmatic reason to run a third party option to Trump—to reduce the chance that the never Trump voters will simply stay home to Netflix and chill on election day.

While this strategy might have some short term benefits to Republicans, running a third party candidate against the official Republican candidate would make the chasm in the party official—it would presumably be the potential beginning of the end of the party, splitting the establishment from a very active part of the base. This could, of course, be a good thing—the Republican Party seems to have been fragmenting for quite some time and the establishment has drifted away from much of the common folk.

A third reason to run a third party candidate is to hope for a Hail Mary. There is some talk that a third party candidate could cash in on the never Trump and Hillary Haters to create a situation in which there is no winner of the election. In such a situation, the House would pick the president and the Senate would select the vice-president. Since the Republicans control the House and Senate, the result would mostly likely be that the third party Republican would be president.

While this is a longshot, it is not impossible. The likely result of such a power play would be to break apart the Republican party—those who support Trump already loath the establishment and this would probably distill that into hatred. But, looked at pragmatically, the game is about holding power for as long as one can—so the power players would probably be content to take the win on the grounds that the party was probably going to split anyway.

This election could see a truly historic event—the end of the Republican party as it currently exists and perhaps the rise of a new party or parties.


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Trumping Along

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, many people laughed. He even managed to create some bipartisan agreement among my liberal and my conservative friends: they generally believed that while Trump would be good theatre, he would either fade away or implode in a magnificent and huge manner. As Trump kept Trumping along, many of my conservative friends began to sweat just a little—while they are often dedicated conservatives, the idea of a Trump presidency was not very appealing. My liberal friends tried to reassure themselves that if Trump was picked to run against Hillary, a Democratic victory was assured. However, I could tell they were sweating a little. Now that it is the second week of December and Trump is Trumping along, I am sure that at least some people are waking up in the middle of the night, visions of President Trump trumpeting in their heads.

Since expert pundits and establishment politicians predicted that Trump would not go the distance, it is certainly worth considering why he is doing so well. While primarily a matter of politics and psychology, there are also matters of philosophical interest here.

One major factor in regards to Trumps success is that the Republican party and conservative strategists created an ecosystem that is nearly perfect for Trump. First, there has been a sustained attack on reason and intellectuals. For example, Obama is derisively described as professorial and thinking too much. Trump does not create the impression that he is thinking too much and is regarded more as the school bully rather than the professor. This seems to be a factor that is hurting Bush—he is a man who thinks and grasps the complications of politics.

Second, there has been a narrative of weakness leveled against Democrats and there have been unfavorable comparisons made between Obama and “strongmen” like Putin. Trump nicely fits the “strongman” model—he is brash, full of bravado, bullying and loud. While this stick was mainly used to beat Democrats, Trump has gleefully employed it to bash his weaker Republican opponents, such as the “low energy” Jeb Bush.

Third, there have been subtle and not so subtle uses of race in political scare tactics and manipulation. While people do have race issues and fears that do not come from the politicians, the use of race has helped forge a space for Trump. He also has a very effective narrative in that he is engaged in the culture war against the politically correct culture. Trump is willing to take this fight beyond lines that most institutional Republicans, such as Paul Ryan and Dick Cheney, are unwilling to cross. It is worth noting that some blame the political correctness machinations of some Democrats for helping Trump out here.

Fourth, there has been a repeated narrative of attacking the establishment. For the most part, this has been mere rhetoric—establishment figures say they are going to go (back) to Washington to fight the establishment. But they usually just settle in. Trump is a genuine outsider to politics and he is clearly willing to go hard against the establishment. This is not to diminish the fact that people also have their own reasons to be angry at the establishment—mainly because of what it has (and has not) done. If America had been better governed, Trump would probably not have made it past the first few months. While this is a dagger that the Republicans like to use to stab the Democrats, it works great against fellow Republicans.

Fifth, there has been an ongoing war against the “liberal media” which has trained many people to reject the mainstream media as biased and lacking in credibility. Since one role of the media is to vet candidates and to call candidates out for lies, this means that Trump has an easy reply to any criticism from the media—even from the conservative media (such as Trumps bouts with Fox).

Sixth, while the use of scare tactics (the fallacy of offering as “evidence” for a claim something that is intended to cause fear and thus motivate acceptance) is as old as politics, the conservatives have beaten the drum of fearing foreigners for quite some time (Democrats also take turns at the drums of fear and panic). Trump is just devouring this fear and growing huge.

Another major factor in Trump’s success is the very real dissatisfaction of Americans. While the economic recovery has returned most of the wealth that the richest people lost, the majority of Americans are still suffering from the enduring economic scars. There is also the fact that wages have stagnated and the lower economic classes (that is, most of us) are worse off than our predecessors. As Bernie Sanders has pointed out for decades, there is grotesque economic inequality in America.

While Americans have been conditioned to dislike socialism and love capitalism, people cannot help but feel the impact of this inequality. As such, they need to reconcile their economic worries with their ideology—they need someone to blame other than the rich. While Americans are mostly reluctant to blame those who are clearly responsible (those who benefit from the inequality and those who serve them so well), they feel that someone must be to blame. Trump has been able to tap into this dissatisfaction, as many a skilled demagogue has tapped into economic dissatisfaction before him.  In fact, what is somewhat surprising is that it took so long for a demagogue to arise.

A third factor in Trump’s success, as noted above, is the fear many Americans feel in regards to safety. After the Cold War ended, a narrative of terrorism was lovingly crafted to scare Americans—helped by real terrorism, of course. The United States also faces the fear caused by repeated mass shootings and high levels of violence. This creates a deep well of fear that Trump can draw from repeatedly.

When people are afraid, they tend to reason poorly and act stupidly in very predictable ways. One part of this stupidity is that people often seek a leader who is loud, confident and promises that he will solve the problems, usually using means that most others initially regard as morally unacceptable. This willingness to act in such ways is often seen as strength and, in many cases, can actually match the views of those who start following the leader. Trump knows how to deal and how to put on a show and a second aspect of stupidity in this area is that people are drawn to the safety theatre rather than to the rather dull and complicated things that actually enable people to be safe.

Trump could very well ride the wave of fear and dissatisfaction through the primaries and emerge as the Republican candidate. While the professional pundits claim that Trump would be trounced in the general election, his numbers are not that bad. Also, the hallmark of the professional pundit seems to be being consistently wrong. So, get ready for Trump 2016.


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Refugees & Terrorists

In response to the recent terrorist attack in Paris (but presumably not those outside the West, such as in Beirut) many governors have stated they will try to prevent the relocation of Syrian refugees into their states. These states include my home state of Maine, my university state of Ohio and my adopted state of Florida. Recognizing a chance to score political points, some Republican presidential candidates have expressed their opposition to allowing more Syrian refugees into the country. Some, such as Ted Cruz, have proposed a religious test for entry into the country: Christian refugees would be allowed, while Muslim refugees would be turned away.

On the one hand, it is tempting to dismiss this as mere political posturing and pandering to fear, racism and religious intolerance. On the other hand, it is worth considering the legitimate worries that lie under the posturing and the pandering. One worry is, of course, the possibility that terrorists could masquerade as refugees to enter the country. Another worry is that refugees who are not already terrorists might be radicalized and become terrorists.

In matters of politics, it is rather unusual for people to operate on the basis of consistently held principles. Instead, views tend to be held on the basis of how a person feels about a specific matter or what the person thinks about the political value of taking a specific position. However, a proper moral assessment requires considering the matter in terms of general principles and consistency.

In the case of the refugees, the general principle justifying excluding them would be something like this: it is morally acceptable to exclude from a state groups who include people who might pose a threat. This principle seems, in general, quite reasonable. After all, excluding people who might present a threat serves to protect people from harm.

Of course, this principle is incredibly broad and would justify excluding almost anyone and everyone. After all, nearly every group of people (tourists, refugees, out-of-staters, men, Christians, atheists, cat fanciers, football players, and so on) include people who might pose a threat.  While excluding everyone would increase safety, it would certainly make for a rather empty state. As such, this general principle should be subject to some additional refinement in terms of such factors as the odds that a dangerous person will be in the group in question, the harm such a person is likely to do, and the likely harms from excluding such people.

As noted above, the concern about refugees from Syria (and the Middle East) is that they might include terrorists or terrorists to be. One factor to consider is the odds that this will occur. The United States has a fairly extensive (and slow) vetting process for refugees and, as such, it is not surprising that of “745,000 refugees resettled since September 11th, only two Iraqis in Kentucky have been arrested on terrorist charges, for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq.”  This indicates that although the chance of a terrorist arriving masquerading as a refugee is not zero, it is exceptionally unlikely.

It might be countered, using the usual hyperbolic rhetoric of such things, that if even one terrorist gets into the United States, that would be an intolerable disaster. While I do agree that this would be a bad thing, there is the matter of general principles. In this case, would it be reasonable to operate on a principle that the possibility of even one bad outcome is sufficient to warrant a broad ban on something? That, I would contend, would generally seem to be unreasonable. This principle would justify banning guns, nuts, cars and almost all other things. It would also justify banning tourists and visitors from other states. After all, tourists and people from other states do bad things in states from time to time. As such, this principle seems unreasonable.

There is, of course, the matter of the political risk. A politician who supports allowing refugees to come into her state will be vilified by certain pundits and a certain news outlet if even a single incident happens. This, of course, would be no more reasonable than vilifying a politician who supports the second amendment just because a person is wrongly shot in her state.  But, reason is usually absent in the realm of political punditry.

Another factor to consider is the harm that would be done by excluding such refugees. If they cannot be settled someplace, they will be condemned to live as involuntary nomads and suffer all that entails. There is also the ironic possibility that such excluded refugees will become, as pundits like to say, radicalized. After all, people who are deprived of hope and who are treated as pariahs tend to become a bit resentful and some might decide to actually become terrorists. There is also the fact that banning refugees provides a nice bit of propaganda for the terrorist groups.

Given that the risk is very small and the harm to the refugees would be significant, the moral thing to do is to allow the refugees into the United States. Yes, one of them could be a terrorist. But so could a tourist. Or some American coming from another state. Or already in the state.

In addition to the sort of utilitarian calculation just made, an argument can also be advanced on the basis of moral duties to others, even when acting on such a duty involves risk. In terms of religious-based ethics, a standard principle is to love thy neighbor as thyself, which would seem to require that the refugees be aided, even at a slight risk. There is also the golden rule: if the United States fell into chaos and war, Americans fleeing the carnage would want other people to help them. Even though we Americans have a reputation for violence. As such, we need to accept refugees.

As a closing point, we Americans love to make claims about the moral superiority and exceptionalism of our country. Talk is cheap, so if we want to prove our alleged superiority and exceptionalism, we have to act in an exceptional way. Refusing to help people out of fear is to show a lack of charity, compassion and courage. This is not what an exceptional nation would do.


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A Shooting in South Carolina

While the police are supposed to protect and serve, recent incidents have raised grave concerns about policing in America. I am, of course, referring to the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers. In the most recent incident Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager shot Walter Lamer Scott to death after what should have been a routine traffic stop. What makes this case unusual is that there is video of the shooting. While the video does not show what happened before Scott started to flee, it clearly shows that Scott is no threat to Slager: he is unarmed and running away. Police are not allowed to shoot a suspect merely for fleeing. The video also show Slager dropping an object by Scott’s body—it appears to be Slager’s Taser. When Slager called in the incident, he described it as a justifiable shooting: Scott grabbed his Taser and he had to use his service weapon. Obviously Slager was unaware that he was being recorded as he shot the fleeing Scott.

Since I am friends with people who are ex-law enforcement (retired or moved on to other careers) I have reason to believe that the majority of officers would not engage in such behavior. As such, I will not engage in a sweeping condemnation of police—this would be both unjust and unfounded. However, this incident does raise many concerns about policing in the United States.

As noted above, what makes this incident unusual is not that a situation involving a black man and white officer escalated. It is also not very unusual that a black man was shot by a police officer. What is unusual is that the incident was videotaped and this allowed the public to see what really happened—as opposed to what was claimed by the officer. If the incident had not been recorded, this most likely would have gone down as the all-too-common scenario of a suspect attacking a police officer and being shot in self-defense. The tape, however, has transformed it from the usual to the unusual: a police officer being charged with murder for shooting a suspect.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware that the story of one incident, however vivid, is but an anecdote. I am also well aware that to generalize broadly from one such incident is to commit the fallacy of hasty generalization. That said, the videotape does provide legitimate grounds for being suspicious of other incidents in which suspects have been shot while (allegedly) trying to attack an officer. Since we know that it has happened, we clearly know that it can happen. The obvious and rather important concern is the extent to which this sort of thing has happened. That is, what needs to be determined is the extent to which officers have engaged in legitimate self-defense and to what extent have officers engaged in murder.

This videotape shows, rather dramatically, that requiring police to use body cameras is a good idea—at least from the standpoint of those who believe in justice. People are, obviously enough somewhat less likely to act badly if they know they are being recorded. There is also the fact that there would be clear evidence of any misdeeds. The cameras would also benefit officers: such video evidence would also show when the use of force was legitimate, thus helping to reduce suspicions. As it stands, we know that at least one police officer shot down a fleeing suspect who presented no threat. This, naturally enough, motivates suspicion about all shootings (and rightly so). The regular use of body cameras could be one small contribution to addressing legitimate questions about use of force incidents.

What is also usual about this incident is that there has been a focus on the fact that Scott had a criminal record and legal troubles involving child support. This is presumably intended to show that Scott was no angel and perhaps to suggest that the shooting was, in some manner, justified. Or, at the very least, not as bad as one might think. After all, the person killed was a criminal, right? However, Scott’s background has no relevance in this incident: his having legal troubles in the past in no manner justifies the shooting.

What was also usual was the reaction of Bill O’Reilly and some of the other fine folks at Fox, which I learned about from Professor Don Hubin’s reaction and criticism. Rather than focusing on the awfulness of the killing and what it suggests about other similar incidents, O’Reilly’s main worry seems to be that some people might use the killing to “further inflame racial tensions” and he adds that “there doesn’t seem to be, as some would have you believe, that police are trying to hunt down black men and take their lives.” While this is not a claim that has been seriously put forth, O’Reilly endeavors to “prove” his claim by engaging in a clever misleading comparison. He notes that “In 2012, last stats available, 123 blacks were killed by police 326 whites were killed.” While this shows that police kill more whites than blacks, the comparison is misleading because O’Reilly leaves out a critical piece of information: the population is about 77% white and about 13% black. This, obviously enough, sheds a rather different light on O’Reilly’s statistics: they are accurate, yet misleading.

Naturally, it might be countered that blacks commit more crimes than whites and thus it is no surprise that they get shot more often (when adjusting for inflation) than whites. After all, one might point out, Scott did have a criminal record. This reply has a certain irony to it. After all, people who claim that blacks are arrested (and shot) at a disproportionate level claim that the police are more likely to arrest blacks than whites and focus more on policing blacks. As evidence that blacks commit more crimes, people point to the fact that blacks are more likely (adjusting for proportions) than whites to be arrested. While one would obviously expect more blacks to be arrested in they committed more crimes (proportionally), to assume what is in doubt (that policing is fair) as evidence that it should not be doubted seems to involve reasoning in a circle.

O’Reilly also raised a stock defense for when bad thing are done: “You can’t … you can’t be a perfect system. There are going to be bad police officers; they’re going to make mistakes; um .. and then the mistakes are going to be on national television.” O’Reilly engages in what seems to be a perfectionist fallacy: the system cannot be perfect (which is true), therefore (it seems) we should not overly concerned that this could be evidence of systematic problems. Or perhaps he just means that in an imperfect system one must expect mistakes such as an officer shooting a fleeing suspect to death. O’Reilly also seems rather concerned that the mistakes will be on television—perhaps his concern is, as I myself noted, that people will fall victim to a hasty generalization from the misleading vividness of the incident. That would be a fair point. However, the message O’Reilly seems to be conveying is that this incident is (as per the usual Fox line) an isolated one that does not indicate a systemic problem. Despite the fact that these “isolated” incidents happen with terrible regularity.

I will close by noting that my objective is not to attack the police. Rather, my concern is that the justice system is just—that is rather important to me. It should also be important to all Americans—after all, most of us pledged allegiance to a nation that offers liberty and justice to all.

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Better than the Truth

: Fountain of Youth Park.

: Fountain of Youth Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While my adopted state of Florida has many interesting tales, perhaps the most famous is the story of Juan Ponce de León’s quest to find the fountain of youth. As the name suggests, this enchanted fountain was supposed to grant eternal life to those who drank of (or bathed in) its waters.

While the fountain of youth is regarded as a mere myth, it turns out that the story about Juan Ponce de León’s quest is also a fiction. And not just a fiction—a slander.

In 1511, or so the new history goes, Ponce was forced to resign his post as governor of Puerto Rico. King Ferdinand offered Ponce an opportunity: if he could find Bimini, it would be his. That, and not the fountain of youth, was the object of his quest. In support of this, J. Michael Francis of the University of South Florida, claims that the documents of the time make no mention of a fountain of youth. According to Francis, a fellow named Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés disliked Ponce, most likely because of the political struggle in Puerto Rico.  Oviedo wrote a tale in his Historia general y natural de las Indias claiming that Ponce was tricked by the natives into searching for the fountain of youth.

This fictional “history” stuck (rather like the arrow that killed Ponce) and has become a world-wide legend. Not surprisingly, my adopted state is happy to cash in on this tale—there is even a well at St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park that is rather popular with tourists. There is considerable irony in the fact that a tale intended to slander Ponce as a fool has given him a form of ongoing life—his fame is due mostly to this fiction. Given the success of the story, it might be suspected that this is a case where the fiction is better than the truth. While this is but one example, it does raise a general philosophical matter regarding truth and fiction.

From a moral and historical standpoint, the easy and obvious answer to the general question of whether a good fiction is better than a truth is “no.”  After all, a fiction of this sort is a lie and there are the usual stock moral arguments as to why lying is generally wrong. In this specific case, there is also the fact (if the story is true) that Oviedo slandered Ponce from malice—which certainly seems morally wrong.

In the case of history, the proper end is the truth—as Aristotle said, it is the function of the historian to relate what happened. In contrast, it is the function of the poet to relate what may happen. As such, for the moral philosopher and the honest historian, no fiction is better than the truth. But, of course, these are not the only legitimate perspectives on the matter.

Since the story of Ponce and the fountain of youth is a fiction, it is not unreasonable to also consider it in the context of aesthetics—that is, its value as a story. While Oviedo intended for his story to be taken as true, he can be considered an artist (in this case, a writer of fiction and the father of the myth). Looked at as a work of fiction, the story does relate what may happen—after all, it certainly seems possible for a person to quest for something that does not exist. To use an example from the same time, Orellana and Pizarro went searching for the legendary city of El Dorado (unless, of course, this is just another fiction).

While it might seem a bit odd to take a lie as art, the connection between the untrue and art is well-established. In the Poetics, Aristotle notes how “Homer has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully” and he regards such skillful lies as a legitimate part of art. Oscar Wilde, in his “New Aesthetics” presents as his fourth doctrine that “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of Art.” A little reflection does show that they are correct—at least in the case of fiction. After all, fiction is untrue by definition, yet is clearly a form of art. When an actor plays Hamlet and says the lines, he pours forth lie after lie. The Chronicles of Narnia are also untrue—there is no Narnia, there is no Aslan and the characters are made up. Likewise for even mundane fiction, such as Moby Dick. As such, being untrue—or even a lie in the strict sense of the term, does not disqualify a work from being art.

Looked at as a work of art, the story of the fountain of youth certainly seems better than the truth. While the true story of Ponce is certainly not a bad tale (a journey of exploration ending in death from a wound suffered in battle), the story of a quest for the fountain of youth has certainly proven to be the better tale. This is not to say that the truth of the matter should be ignored, just that the fiction would seem to be quite acceptable as a beautiful, untrue thing.


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Who Decides Who is Muslim?

English: Faithful praying towards Makkah; Umay...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When discussing ISIS, President Obama refuses to label its members as “Islamic extremists” and has stressed that the United States is not at war with Islam. Not surprisingly, some of his critics and political opponents have taken issue with this and often insist on labeling the members of ISIS as Islamic extremists or Islamic terrorists.  Graeme Wood has, rather famously, argued that ISIS is an Islamic group and is, in fact, adhering very closely to its interpretations of the sacred text.

Laying aside the political machinations, there is a rather interesting philosophical and theological question here: who decides who is a Muslim? Since I am not a Muslim or a scholar of Islam, I will not be examining this question from a theological or religious perspective. I will certainly not be making any assertions about which specific religious authorities have the right to say who is and who is not a true Muslim. Rather, I am looking at the philosophical matter of the foundation of legitimate group identity. This is, of course, a variation on one aspect of the classic problem of universals: in virtue of what (if anything) is a particular (such as a person) of a type (such as being a Muslim)?

Since I am a metaphysician, I will begin with the rather obvious metaphysical starting point. As Pascal noted in his famous wager, God exists or God does not.

If God does not exist, then Islam (like all religions that are based on a belief in God) would have an incorrect metaphysics. In this case, being or not being a Muslim would be a social matter. It would be comparable to being or not being a member of Rotary, being a Republican, a member of Gulf Winds Track Club or a citizen of Canada. That is, it would be a matter of the conventions, traditions, rules and such that are made up by people. People do, of course, often take this made up stuff very seriously and sometimes are quite willing to kill over these social fictions.

If God does exist, then there is yet another dilemma: God is either the God claimed (in general) in Islamic metaphysics or God is not. One interesting problem with sorting out this dilemma is that in order to know if God is as Islam claims, one would need to know the true definition of Islam—and thus what it would be to be a true Muslim. Fortunately, the challenge here is metaphysical rather than epistemic. If God does exist and is not the God of Islam (whatever it is), then there would be no “true” Muslims, since Islam would have things wrong. In this case, being a Muslim would be a matter of social convention—belonging to a religion that was right about God existing, but wrong about the rest. There is, obviously, the epistemic challenge of knowing this—and everyone thinks he is right about his religion (or lack of religion).

Now, if God exists and is the God of Islam (whatever it is), then being a “true” member of a faith that accepts God, but has God wrong (that is, all the non-Islam monotheistic faiths), would be a matter of social convention. For example, being a Christian would thus be a matter of the social traditions, rules and such. There would, of course, be the consolation prize of getting something right (that God exists).

In this scenario, Islam (whatever it is) would be the true religion (that is, the one that got it right). From this it would follow that the Muslim who has it right (believes in the true Islam) is a true Muslim. There is, however, the obvious epistemic challenge: which version and interpretation of Islam is the right one? After all, there are many versions and even more interpretations—and even assuming that Islam is the one true religion, only the one true version can be right. Unless, of course, God is very flexible about this sort of thing. In this case, there could be many varieties of true Muslims, much like there can be many versions of “true” runners.

If God is not flexible, then most Muslims would be wrong—they are not true Muslims. This then leads to the obvious epistemic problem: even if it is assumed that Islam is the true religion, then how does one know which version has it right? Naturally, each person thinks he (or she) has it right. Obviously enough, intensity of belief and sincerity will not do. After all, the ancients had intense belief and sincerity in regard to what are now believed to be made up gods (like Thor and Athena). Going through books and writings will also not help—after all, the ancient pagans had plenty of books and writings about what we regard as their make-believe deities.

What is needed, then, is some sort of sure sign—clear and indisputable proof of the one true view. Naturally, each person thinks he has that—and everyone cannot be right. God, sadly, has not provided any means of sorting this out—no glowing divine auras around those who have it right. Because of this, it seems best to leave this to God. Would it not be truly awful to go around murdering people for being “wrong” when it turns out that one is also wrong?


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Guns on Campus

As I write this, the Florida state legislature is considering a law that will allow concealed carry permit holders to bring their guns to college campuses. As is to be expected, some opponents and some proponents are engaging in poor reasoning, hyperbole and other such unhelpful means of addressing the issue. As a professor and a generally pro-gun person, I have more than academic interest in this matter. My goal is, as always, is to consider this issue rationally, although I do recognize the role of emotions in this matter.

From an emotional standpoint, I am divided in my heart. On the pro-gun feeling side, all of my gun experiences have been positive. I learned to shoot as a young man and have many fond memories of shooting and hunting with my father. Though I now live in Florida, we still talk about guns from time to time. As graduate student, I had little time outside of school, but once I was a professor I was able to get in the occasional trip to the range. I have, perhaps, been very lucky: the people I have been shooting with and hunting with have all been competent and responsible people. No one ever got hurt. I have never been a victim of gun crime.

On the anti-gun side, like any sane human I am deeply saddened when I hear of people being shot down. While I have not seen gun violence in person, Florida State University (which is just across the tracks from my university) recently had a shooter on campus. I have spoken with people who have experienced gun violence and, not being callous, I can understand their pain. Roughly put, I can feel the two main sides in the debate. But, feeling is not a rational way to settle a legal and moral issue.

Those opposed to guns on campus are concerned that the presence of guns carried by permit holders would result in increase in injuries and deaths. Some of these injuries and deaths would be intentional, such as suicide, fights escalating to the use of guns, and so on. Some of these injuries and deaths, it is claimed, would be the result of an accidental discharge. From a moral standpoint, this is obviously a legitimate concern. However, it is also a matter for empirical investigation: would allowing concealed carry on campus increase the likelihood of death or injury to a degree that would justify banning guns?

Some states already allow licensed concealed carry on campus and there is, of course, considerable data available about concealed carry in general. The statistically data would seem to indicate that allowing concealed carry on campus would not result in an increase in injuries and death on campus. This is hardly surprising: getting a permit requires providing proof of competence with a firearm as well as a thorough background check—considerably more thorough than the background check to purchase a firearm. Such permits are also issued at the discretion of the state. As such, people who have such licenses are not likely engage in random violence on campus.

This is, of course, an empirical matter. If it could be shown that allowing licensed conceal carry on campus would result in an increase in deaths and injuries, then this would certainly impact the ethics of allowing concealed carry.

Those who are opposed to guns on campus are also rightfully concerned that someone other than the license holder will get the gun and use it. After all, theft is not uncommon on college campuses and someone could grab a gun from a licensed holder.

While these concerns are not unreasonable, someone interested in engaging in gun violence can easily acquire a gun without stealing it from a permit holder on campus. She could buy one or steal one from somewhere else. As far as grabbing a gun from a person carrying it legally, attacking an armed person is generally not a good idea—and, of course, someone who is prone to gun grabbing would presumably also try to grab a gun from a police officer. In general, these do not seem to be compelling reasons to ban concealed carry on campus.

Opponents of allowing guns on campus also point to psychological concerns: people will feel unsafe knowing that people around them might be legally carry guns. This might, it is sometimes claimed, result in a suppression of discussion in classes and cause professors to hand out better grades—all from fear that a student is legally carrying a gun.

I do know people who are actually very afraid of this—they are staunchly anti-gun and are very worried that students and other faculty will be “armed to the teeth” on campus and “ready to shoot at the least provocation.” The obvious reply is that someone who is dangerously unstable enough to shoot students and faculty over such disagreements would certainly not balk at illegally bringing a gun to campus. Allowing legal concealed carry by permit holders would, I suspect, not increase the odds of such incidents. But, of course, this is a matter of emotions and fear is rarely, if ever, held at bay by reason.

Opponents of legal carry on campus also advance a reasonable argument: there is really no reason for people to be carrying guns on campus. After all, campuses are generally safe, typically have their own police forces and are places of learning and not shooting ranges.

This does have considerable appeal. When I lived in Maine, I had a concealed weapon permit but generally did not go around armed. My main reason for having it was convenience—I could wear my gun under my jacket when going someplace to shoot. I must admit, of course, that as a young man there was an appeal in being able to go around armed like James Bond—but that wore off quickly and I never succumbed to gun machismo. I did not wear a gun while running (too cumbersome) or while socializing (too…weird). I have never felt the need to be armed with a gun on campus, though all the years I have been a student and professor. So, I certainly get this view.

The obvious weak point for this argument is that the lack of a reason to have a gun on campus (granting this for the sake of argument) is not a reason to ban people with permits from legally carrying on campus. After all, the permit grants the person the right to carry the weapon legally and more is needed to deny the exercise of that right than just the lack of need.

Another obvious weak point is that a person might need a gun on campus for legitimate self-defense. While this is not likely, that is true in most places. After all, a person going to work or out for a walk in the woods is not likely to need her gun. I have, for example, never needed one for self-defense. As such, there would seem to be as much need to have a gun on campus as many other places where it is legal to carry. Of course, this argument could be turned around to argue that there is no reason to allow concealed carry at all.

Proponents of legal concealed carry on campus often argue that “criminals and terrorists” go to college campuses in order to commit their crimes, since they know no one will be armed. There are two main problems with this. The first is that college campuses are, relative to most areas, very safe. So, criminals and terrorists do not seem to be going to them that often. As opponents of legal carry on campus note, while campus shootings make the news, they are actually very rare.

The second is that large campuses have their own police forces—in the shooting incident at FSU, the police arrived rapidly and shot the shooter. As such, I do not think that allowing concealed carry will scare away criminals and terrorists. Especially since they do not visit campuses that often already.

Proponents of concealed carry also sometimes claim that the people carrying legally on campus will serve as the “good guy with guns” to shoot the “bad guys with guns.” While there is a chance that a good guy will be able to shoot a bad guy, there is the obvious concern that the police will not be able to tell the good guy from the bad guy and the good guy will be shot. In general, the claims that concealed carry permit holders will be righteous and effective vigilantes on campus are more ideology and hyperbole than fact. Not surprisingly, most reasonable pro-gun people do not use that line of argumentation. Rather, they focus on more plausible scenarios of self-defense and not wild-west vigilante style shoot-outs.

My conclusion is that there is not a sufficiently compelling reason to ban permit holders from carrying their guns on campus. But, there does not seem to be a very compelling reason to carry a gun on campus.


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