Tag Archives: barack obama

Torture

English: John McCain official photo portrait.

English: John McCain official photo portrait. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In December of 2014 the US Senate issued its report on torture. While there has been some criticism of the report, the majority of pundits and politicians have not come out in defense of torture. However, there have been attempts to justify the use of torture and this essay will address some of these arguments.

One criticism of the report is not a defense of torture as such. The talking point is a question, typically of the form “why bring this up now?” The argument lurking behind this point seems to be that since the torture covered in the report occurred years ago, it should not be discussed now. This is similar to another stock remark made to old wrongs, namely “get over it.”

This does raise a worthwhile concern, namely the expiration date of moral concern. Or, to use an analogy to law, the matter of the moral statute of limitations on misdeeds. On the face of it, it is reasonable to accept that the passage of time can render a wrong morally irrelevant to today. While an exact line can probably never be drawn, a good rule of thumb is that when the morally significant consequences of the event have attenuated to insignificance, then the moral concern can be justly laid aside. In the case of the torture employed in the war on terror, that seems to be “fresh” enough to still be unexpired.

Interestingly, many of the same folks who insist that torture should not be brought up now still bring up 9/11 to justify the current war on terror. On the face of it, if 9/11 is still morally relevant, then so is the torture it was used to justify. I agree that 9/11 is still morally relevant and also the torture.

One of the stock defenses of the use of torture is a semantic one: that the techniques used are not torture. One way to reply is to stick with the legal definitions, such as those in agreements the United States has signed and crimes it has prosecuted—especially the prosecution of German and Japanese soldiers after WWII. Many of the techniques used in the war on terror meet these definitions. As such, it seems clear that as a nation we accept that these acts are, in fact, torture. I will admit that there are gray areas—but we clearly crossed over into the darkness.

Perhaps the best moral defense of torture is a utilitarian one: while torture is harmful, if it produces good consequences that outweigh the harm, then it is morally acceptable. It has been claimed that the torture of prisoners produced critical information that could not have been acquired by other means.

However, the senate report includes considerable evidence that this is not true—including information from the CIA itself regarding the infectiveness of torture as a means of gathering reliable intelligence. As John McCain said, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.”

As such, the utilitarian justification for torture fails on the grounds that it does not work. As such, it produces harms with no benefits, thus making it evil.

Another stock defense of torture is that the enemy is so bad that we can do anything to them.  No doubt the terrorists tell themselves the same thing when they murder innocent people. This justification is often combined with the utilitarian argument, otherwise it is just a defense of torture on the grounds of retaliation.

This notion is founded on a legitimate moral principle, namely that the actions of one’s enemy can justify actions against that enemy.  To use the easy and obvious example, if someone tries to unjustly kill me, I have a moral right to use lethal force in order to save my life.

However, the badness of one’s enemy is not sufficient to morally justify everything that might be done to that enemy. After all, while self-defense can be morally justified, there are still moral boundaries in regards to what one can do. This is especially important if we wish to claim that we are better than the terrorists. As McCain says, “”the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.” He is right about this—if we claim that we are better, we must be better. If we claim that we are good, we must accept moral limits on what we will do. In short, we must not torture.

A final stock argument worth considering is the idea that America’s exceptionalism allows us to do anything, yet remain good. Or, as one pundit on Fox News put it, be “awesome.” The idea that such exceptionalism allows one to do terrible things while remaining righteous is a common one—terrorists typically also believe this about themselves.

This justification is, obviously enough, terrible. After all, being really good and exceptional means that one will not do awful things. That is what it is to be morally exceptional and awesome. The idea that one can be so good that one can be bad is obviously absurd.

I do agree that America is awesome. Part of what makes us awesome is that we (eventually) admit our sins and we take our moral struggles seriously. To the degree that we live up to our fine principles, we are awesome. As Churchill said, ”you can always count on Americans to do the right thing-after they’ve tried everything else.”

 

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The Slogan-Industrial Complex

University of South Florida Seal

University of South Florida Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Higher education in the United States has been pushed steadily towards the business model. One obvious example of this is the brand merchandizing of schools. In 2011, schools licensed their names and logos for a total of $4.6 billion. Inspired by this sort of brand-based profits, schools started trademarking their slogans. Impressively, there are over 10,000 trademarked slogans.

These slogans include “project safety” (University of Texas), “ready to be heard” (Chatham University), “power” (University of North Dakota), “rise above” (University of the Rockies), “students with diabetes” (University of South Florida), “student life” (Washington University in St. Louis) and “resolve” (Lehigh University). Those not familiar with trademark law might be surprised by some of these examples. After all, “student life” seems to be such a common phrase on campuses that it would be insane for a school to be allowed to trademark it. But, one should never let sanity be one’s guide when considering how the law works.

While the rabid trademarking undertaken by schools might be seen as odd but harmless, the main purpose of a trademark is so that the owner enjoys an exclusive right to what is trademarked and can sue others for using it. This is, of course, limited to certain contexts. So, for example, if I write about student life at Florida A&M University in a blog, Washington University would (I hope) not be able to sue me. However, in circumstances in which the trademark protection applies, then lawsuits are possible (and likely). For example, Eastern Carolina University sued Cisco Systems because of Cisco’s use of the phrase “tomorrow begins here.”

One practical and moral concern about universities’ enthusiasm for trademarking is that it further pushes higher education into the realm of business. One foundation for this concern is that universities should be focused on education rather than being focused on business—after all, an institution that does not focus on its core mission tends to do worse at that mission. This would also be morally problematic, assuming that schools should (morally) focus on education.

An easy and obvious reply is that a university can wear many hats: educator, business, “professional in all but name” sport franchise and so on provided that each function is run properly and not operated at the expense of the core mission. Naturally, it could be added that the core mission of the modern university is not education, but business—branding, marketing and making money.

Another reply is that the trademarks protect the university brand and also allow them to make money by merchandizing their slogans and suing people for trademark violations. This money could then be used to support the core mission of the school.

There is, naturally enough, the worry that universities should not be focusing on branding and suing. While this can make them money, it is not what a university should be doing—which takes the conversation back to the questions of the core mission of universities as well as the question about whether schools can wear many hats without becoming jacks of all trades.

A second legal and moral concern is the impact such trademarks have on free speech. On the one hand, United States law is fairly clear about trademarks and the 1st Amendment. The gist is that noncommercial usage is protected by the 1st Amendment and this allows such things as using trademarked material in protests or criticism. So, for example, the 1st Amendment allows me to include the above slogans in this essay. Not surprisingly, commercial usage is subject to the trademark law. So, for example, I could not use the phrase “the power of independent thinking” as a slogan for my blog since that belongs to Wilkes University. In general, this seems reasonable. After all, if I created and trademarked a branding slogan for my blog, then I would certainly not want other people making use of my trademarked slogan. But, of course, I would be fine with people using the slogan when criticizing my blog—that would be acceptable use under freedom of expression.

On the other hand, trademark holders do endeavor to exploit their trademarks and people’s ignorance of the law to their advantage. For example, threats made involving claims of alleged trademark violations are sometimes used as a means of censorship and silencing critics.

The obvious reply is that this is not a problem with trademarks as such. It is, rather, a problem with people misusing the law. There is, of course, the legitimate concern that the interpretation of the law will change and that trademark protection will be allowed to encroach into the freedom of expression.

What might be a somewhat abstract point of concern is the idea that what seem to be stock phrases such as “the first year experience” (owned by University of South Carolina) can be trademarked and thus owned. This diminishes the public property that is language and privatizes it in favor of those with the resources to take over tracts of linguistic space. While the law currently still allows non-commercial use, this also limits the language other schools and businesses can legally use. It also requires that they research all the trademarks before using common phrases if they wish to avoid a lawsuit from a trademark holder.

The obvious counter, which I mentioned above, is that trademarks have a legitimate function. The obvious response is that there is still a reasonable concern about essentially allowing private ownership over language and thus restricting freedom of expression. There is a need to balance the legitimate need to own branding slogans with the legitimate need to allow the use of stock and common phrases in commercial situations. The challenge is to determine the boundary between the two and where a specific phrase or slogan falls.

 

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Protests, Peaceful & Otherwise

http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/459550624

In response to the nighttime announcement of the Ferguson verdict in which officer Wilson was not indicted, some people attacked the police and damaged property. Some experts have been critical of the decision to make the announcement at night, since the time of day does actually influence how people behave. In general, making such an announcement at night is a bad idea—unless one intends to increase the chances that people will respond badly.

Obviously enough, peacefully protesting is a basic right and in a democratic state the police should not interfere with that right. However, protests do escalate and violence can occur. In the United States it is all too common for peaceful protests to be marred by violence—most commonly damage to businesses and looting.

When considering reports of damage and looting during protests it is reasonable to consider whether or not the damage and looting is being done by actual protestors or by people who are opportunists using the protest as cover or an excuse. An actual protestor is someone whose primary motivation is a moral one—she is there to express her moral condemnation of something she perceives as wrong. Not all people who go to protests are actual protestors—some are there for other reasons, some of which are not morally commendable. Some people, not surprisingly, know that a protest can provide an excellent opportunity to engage in criminal activity—to commit violence, to damage property and to loot. Protests do, sadly, attract such people and often these are people who are not from the area.

Of course, actual protesters can engage in violence and damage property. Perhaps they can even engage in looting (though that almost certainly crosses a moral line). Anger and rage are powerful things, especially righteous anger. A protestor who is motivated by her moral condemnation of a perceived wrong can give in to her anger and do damage to others or their property. When people damage the businesses in their own community, this sort of behavior seems irrational—probably because it is. After all, setting a local gas station on fire is hardly morally justified by the alleged injustice of the grand jury’s verdict in regards to not indicting Officer Wilson for the shooting of Brown. However, anger tends to impede rationality. I, and I assume most people, have seen people angry enough to break their own property.

While I am not a psychologist, I do suspect that people do such damage when they are angry because they cannot actually reach the target of their anger. Alternatively, they might be damaging property to vent their rage in place of harming people. I have seen people do just that. For example, I saw a person hit a metal door frame (and break his hand) rather than hit the person he was mad at. Anger does summon up a need to express itself and this can easily take the form of property damage.

When a protest becomes destructive (or those using it for cover start destroying things), the police do have a legitimate role to play at protests. While protests are intended to draw attention and often aim to do so by creating a disruption of the normal course of events, a state of protest does not grant protestors a carte blanche right to interfere with the legitimate rights of others. As such, the police have a legitimate right to prevent protestors from violating the rights of others and this can correctly involve the use of force.

That said, the role of rage needs to be considered. When property is destroyed during protests, some people immediately condemn the destruction and wonder why people are destroying their own neighborhoods. In some cases, as noted above, the people doing the damage might not be from the neighborhood at all and might be there to destroy rather than to protest. If such people can be identified, they should be dealt with as the criminals they are. What becomes somewhat more morally problematic are people who are driven to such destruction by moral rage—that is, they have been pushed to a point at which they believe they must use violence and destruction to express their moral condemnation.

When looked at from the cool and calm perspective of distance, such behavior seems irrational and unwarranted.  And, I think, it usually is. However, it is well worth it to think of something that has caused the fire of righteous anger to ignite your soul. Think of that and consider how you might respond if you believed that you have been systematically denied justice. Over. And over. Again.

 

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Leadership & Responsibility

English: Official image of Secretary of Vetera...

English: Official image of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The recent resignation of Eric Shinseki from his former position as the head of the Department of Veteran Affairs raised, once again, the issue of the responsibilities of a leader. While I will not address the specific case of Shinseki, I will use this opportunity discuss leadership and responsibility in general terms.

Not surprisingly, people often assign responsibility based on ideology. For example, Democrats would be more inclined to regard a Republican leader as being fully responsible for his subordinates while being more forgiving of fellow Democrats. However, judging responsibility based on political ideology is obviously a poor method of assessment. What is needed is, obviously enough, some general principles that can be used to assess the responsibility of leaders in a consistent manner.

Interestingly (or boringly) enough, I usually approach the matter of leadership and responsibility using an analogy to the problem of evil. Oversimplified quite a bit, the problem of evil is the problem of reconciling God being all good, all knowing and all powerful with the existence of evil in the world. If God is all good, then he would tolerate no evil. If God was all powerful, He could prevent all evil. And if God was all knowing, then He would not be ignorant of any evil. Given God’s absolute perfection, He thus has absolute responsibility as a leader: He knows what every subordinate is doing, knows whether it is good or evil and has the power to prevent or cause any behavior. As such, when a subordinate does evil, God has absolute accountability. After all, the responsibility of a leader is a function of what he can know and the extent of his power.

In stark contrast, a human leader (no matter how awesome) falls rather short of God. Such leaders are clearly not perfectly good and they are obviously not all knowing or all powerful. These imperfections thus lower the responsibility of the leader.

In the case of goodness, no human can be expected to be morally perfect. As such, failures of leadership due to moral imperfection can be excusable—within limits. The challenge is, of course, sorting out the extent to which imperfect humans can legitimately be held morally accountable and to what extent our unavoidable moral imperfections provide a legitimate excuse. These standards should be applied consistently to leaders so as to allow for the highest possible degree of objectivity.

In the case of knowledge, no human can be expected to be omniscient—we have extreme limits on our knowledge. The practical challenge is sorting out what a leader can reasonably be expected to know and the responsibility of the leader should be proportional to that extent of knowledge. This is complicated a bit by the fact that there are at least two factors here, namely the capacity to know and what the leader is obligated to know. Obligations to know should not exceed the human capacity to know, but the capacity to know can often exceed the obligation to know. For example, the President could presumably have everyone spied upon (which is apparently what he did do) and thus could, in theory, know a great deal about his subordinates. However, this would seem to exceed what the President is obligated to know (as President) and probably exceeds what he should know.

Obviously enough, what a leader can know and what she is obligated to know will vary greatly based on the leader’s position and responsibilities. For example, as the facilitator of the philosophy & religion unit at my university, my obligation to know about my colleagues is very limited as is my right to know about them. While I have an obligation to know what courses they are teaching, I do not have an obligation or a right to know about their personal lives or whether they are doing their work properly on outside committees. So, if a faculty member skipped out on committee meetings, I would not be responsible for this—it is not something I am obligated to know about.

As another example, the chair of the department has greater obligations and rights in this regard. He has the right and obligation to know if they are teaching their classes, doing their assigned work and so on. Thus, when assessing the responsibility of a leader, sorting out what the leader could know and what she was obligated to know are rather important matters.

In regards to power (taken in a general sense), even the most despotic dictator’s powers are still finite. As such, it is reasonable to consider the extent to which a leader can utilize her authority or use up her power to compel subordinates to obey. As with knowledge, responsibility is proportional to power. After all, if a leader lacks to power (or authority) to compel obedience in regards to certain matters, then the leader cannot be accountable for not making the subordinates do or not do certain actions. Using myself as an example, my facilitator position has no power: I cannot demote, fire, reprimand or even put a mean letter into a person’s permanent record. The extent of my influence is limited to my ability to persuade—with no rewards or punishments to offer. As such, my responsibility for the actions of my colleagues is extremely limited.

There are, however, legitimate concerns about the ability of a leader to make people behave correctly and this raises the question of the degree to which a leader is responsible for not being persuasive enough or using enough power to make people behave. That is, the concern is when bad behavior based on resisting applied authority or power is the fault of the leader or the fault of the resistor. This is similar to the concern about the extent to which responsibility for failing to learn falls upon the teacher and to which it falls on the student. Obviously, even the best teacher cannot reach all students and it would seem reasonable to believe that even the best leader cannot make everyone do what they should be doing.

Thus, when assessing alleged failures of leadership it is important to determine where the failures lie (morality, knowledge or power) and the extent to which the leader has failed. Obviously, principled standards should be applied consistently—though it can be sorely tempting to damn the other guy while forgiving the offenses of one’s own guy.

 

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Talking Points & Climate Change

English: Animated global map of monthly long t...

English: Animated global map of monthly long term mean surface air temperature (Mollweide projection). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While science and philosophy are supposed to be about determining the nature of reality, politics is often aimed at creating perceptions that are alleged to be reality. This is why it is generally wiser to accept claims supported by science and reason over claims “supported” by ideology and interest.

The matter of climate change is a matter of both science (since the climate is an objective feature of reality) and politics (since perception of reality can be shaped by rhetoric and ideology). Ideally, the facts of climate change would be left to science and sorting out how to address it via policy would fall, in part, to the politicians. Unfortunately, politicians and other non-scientists have taken it on themselves to make claims about the science, usually in the form of unsupported talking points.

On the conservative side, there has been a general shifting in the talking points. Originally, there was one main talking point: there is no climate change and the scientists are wrong. This point was often supported by alleging that the scientists were motivated by ideology to lie about the climate. In contrast, those whose profits could be impacted if climate change was real were taken as objective sources.

In the face of mounting evidence and shifting public opinion, this talking point became the claim that while climate change is occurring, it is not caused by humans. This then shifted to the claim that climate change is caused by humans, but there is nothing we can (or should) do now.

In response to the latest study, certain Republicans have embraced three talking points. These points do seem to concede that climate change is occurring and that humans are responsible. These points do have a foundation that can be regarded as rational and each will be considered in turn.

One talking point is that the scientists are exaggerating the impact of climate change and that it will not be as bad as they claim. This does rest on a reasonable concern about any prediction: how accurate is the prediction? In the case of a scientific prediction based on data and models, the reasonable inquiry would focus on the accuracy of the data and how well the models serve as models of the actual world. To use an analogy, the reliability of predictions about the impact of a crash on a vehicle based on a computer model would hinge on the accuracy of the data and the model and both could be reasonable points of inquiry.

Since the climate scientists have the data and models used to make the predications, to properly dispute the predictions would require showing problems with either the data or the models (or both). Simply saying they are wrong would not suffice—what is needed is clear evidence that the data or models (or both) are defective in ways that would show the predictions are excessive in terms of the predicted impact.

One indirect way to do this would be to find clear evidence that the scientists are intentionally exaggerating. However, if the scientists are exaggerating, then this would be provable by examining the data and plugging it into an accurate model. That is, the scientific method should be able to be employed to show the scientists are wrong.

In some cases people attempt to argue that the scientists are exaggerating because of some nefarious motivation—a liberal agenda, a hatred of oil companies, a desire for fame or some other wickedness. However, even if it could be shown that the scientists have a nefarious motivation, it does not follow that the predictions are wrong. After all, to dismiss a claim because of an alleged defect in the person making the claim is a fallacy. Being suspicious because of a possible nefarious motive can be reasonable, though. So, for example, the fact that the fossil fuel companies have a great deal at stake here does not prove that their claims about climate change are wrong. But the fact that they have considerable incentive to deny certain claims does provide grounds for suspicion regarding their objectivity (and hence credibility).  Naturally, if one is willing to suspect that there is a global conspiracy of scientists, then one should surely be willing to consider that fossil fuel companies and their fellows might be influenced by their financial interests.

One could, of course, hold that the scientists are exaggerating for noble reasons—that is, they are claiming it is worse than it will be in order to get people to take action. To use an analogy, parents sometimes exaggerate the possible harms of something to try to persuade their children not to try it. While this is nicer than ascribing nefarious motives to scientists, it is still not evidence against their claims. Also, even if the scientists are exaggerating, there is still the question about how bad things really would be—they might still be quite bad.

Naturally, if an objective and properly conducted study can be presented that shows the predictions are in error, then that is the study that I would accept. However, I am still waiting for such a study.

The second talking point is that the laws being proposed will not solve the problems. Interestingly, this certainly seems to concede that climate change will cause problems. This point does have a reasonable foundation in that it would be unreasonable to pass laws aimed at climate change that are ineffective in addressing the problems.

While crafting the laws is a matter of politics, sorting out whether such proposals would be effective does seem to fall in the domain of science. For example, if a law proposes to cut carbon emissions, there is a legitimate question as to whether or not that would have a meaningful impact on the problem of climate change. Showing this would require having data, models and so on—merely saying that the laws will not work is obviously not enough.

Now, if the laws will not work, then the people who confidently make that claim should be equally confident in providing evidence for their claim. It seems reasonable to expect that such evidence be provided and that it be suitable in nature (that is, based in properly gathered data, examined by impartial scientists and so on).

The third talking point is that the proposals to address climate change will wreck the American economy. As with the other points, this does have a rational basis—after all, it is sensible to consider the impact on the economy.

One way to approach this is on utilitarian grounds: that we can accept X environmental harms (such as coastal flooding) in return for Y (jobs and profits generated by fossil fuels). Assuming that one is a utilitarian of the proper sort and that one accepts this value calculation, then one can accept that enduring such harms could be worth the advantages. However, it is well worth noting that as usual, the costs will seem to fall heavily on those who are not profiting. For example, the flooding of Miami and New York will not have a huge impact on fossil fuel company profits (although they will lose some customers).

Making the decisions about this should involve openly considering the nature of the costs and benefits as well as who will be hurt and who will benefit. Vague claims about damaging the economy do not allow us to make a proper moral and practical assessment of whether the approach will be correct or not. It might turn out that staying the course is the better option—but this needs to be determined with an open and honest assessment. However, there is a long history of this not occurring—so I am not optimistic about this occurring.

It is also worth considering that addressing climate change could be good for the economy. After all, preparing coastal towns and cities for the (allegedly) rising waters could be a huge and profitable industry creating many jobs. Developing alternative energy sources could also be profitable as could developing new crops able to handle the new conditions. There could be a whole new economy created, perhaps one that might rival more traditional economic sectors and newer ones, such as the internet economy. If companies with well-funded armies of lobbyists got into the climate change countering business, I suspect that a different tune would be playing.

To close, the three talking points do raise questions that need to be answered:

  • Is climate change going to be as bad as it is claimed?
  • What laws (if any) could effectively and properly address climate change?
  • What would be the cost of addressing climate change and who would bear the cost?

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Religious Freedom & Discrimination

Sexuality confusion

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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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

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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

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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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