Tag Archives: New York

Protests & Riots

While Trump’s election has been greeted by some with joy, others have responded by protesting. In Portland, Oregon a protest took a destructive turn and was classified as a riot by the police. This resulted in property damage, the use of less-than-lethal force by the police and arrests. Protests and riots are certainly philosophically interesting and I will begin by considering some basic definitions.

Put simply, a protest is an expression of disapproval. A political protest, of the sort that have been occurring, are obviously aimed at expression an objection to some political matter, in this case the election of Donald Trump. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right of the people to peaceful assembly, although this is not an absolute right. Almost by definition, peaceful assembly seems morally acceptable. As with other rights, there are certainly cases in which peaceful assembly can be justly restricted, but this would need to be warranted because the assembly would result in meaningful and unwarranted harms. For example, if people wanted to assemble on the runways of the Atlanta airport to protest the low wages for fast food workers, then it would be reasonable to prevent that. The protest does not require the use of a runway to make its point and it would create both danger and considerable inconvenience to travelers and cargo shipments. As might be imagined, whether a particular peaceful protest should be allowed can be a matter of great debate, but that is an issue for another time.

While a riot can be a protest, not all protests are riots and not all riots are protests. For example, the 1992 riot that did $10 million in damage arose from a game between the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers does not seem to qualify as a protest.  A riot is characterized by violent civil disorder involving a group. While the violence is most commonly directed against property, it can involve violence against people. Since attacks on people or property are both generally illegal, riots are generally regarded as criminal by their very nature.

For a protest to be a riot (and vice versa), there must be a group of people engaging in a violent civil disorder with the intent of expressing their disapproval. Since riots are generally illegal, a protest riot would probably also be illegal. However, there is an important distinction between law and morality, so a riot that is illegal could be morally justified.

In general terms, a riot could be morally justified in various ways. One obvious justification would be that the riot was in response to a terrible wrong that warrants such violence. For example, Americans often like to point to certain riots that took place in the run up to our revolutionary war as morally warranted because of British tyranny. The violence of such riots would presumably be directed at those who deserve such violence. As such, wrongs that do not warrant a violent response and violence against those not responsible would be unwarranted.

To use an analogy, if Sally did a terrible wrong to Jane and Jane could get no redress any other way, then she could be morally justified in using violence against Sally or her property. But, if Jane went after Bob, who has no connection to Sally, then this would be unjustified. Assuming those engaged in the “riot” in Portland were protesting (and not just opportunists) against Trump, their attacks on property in Portland would obviously be wrong. For example, wrecking cars in a Portland dealership does not strike a blow against Trump—even if Trump did something warranting a riot against him.

It could be argued that since so many voted for Trump, there is a chance that a Trump supporter will be impacted by a riot, thus “paying them back” for their misdeed. The easy and obvious reply is that this sort of riot roulette is morally unacceptable because it is more likely to harm someone who did not support Trump than someone who did. There is also the fact that it is morally unacceptable to regard voting for Trump as grounds for being the target of violence.

Another approach is to justify a riot on utilitarian grounds—if the riot results in more good than harm (and more good than not rioting), then it would be morally acceptable. Once again, Americans often regard their revolutionary riots as falling into this category.

While some people, assuming they are actually protesting Trump, might feel better venting their rage in a riot, it seems unlikely that this “good” will outweigh the harm done to those whose property they destroy or damage. Even if it assumed that Trump is evil and will be doing more evil as president, breaking other peoples’ stuff is not going to counter that evil. It could, of course, be countered that the destruction will show Trump that people are very serious and this will influence him. This, however, seems rather unlikely. One feature of utilitarian justifications is that the action must have actual results; ineffectual expressions of protest do not count in the calculation.

It might be countered that the destruction is morally acceptable because the (alleged) protestors are striking out against an unjust social order that enabled Trump to become president. The obvious reply is that while this might have some abstract appeal, the real damage is being done to the innocent rather than the guilty. Thus, such violence and destruction seem to be immoral.

The protests against Trump might decline as people work out their disappointment and anger; but they might surge again when Trump takes office and starts doing presidential things. One analogy worth considering is the Tea Party that was spawned in response to Obama. Trump might inspire a similar response by dedicated opponents on the left. If so, protests against President Trump could be routine and there will be something of a role reversal among the people, pundits, politicians and news media. For example, while Fox News was typically favorably inclined towards the Tea Party and almost all attacks on Obama, one would expect them to take a rather different approach to analogous behavior by Trump’s opponents.


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Ladies & Swearing

swearing in cartoon Suomi: Kiroileva sarjakuva...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once and future presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently expressed his concern about the profanity flowing from the mouths of New York Fox News ladies: “In Iowa, you would not have people who would just throw the f-bomb and use gratuitous profanity in a professional setting. In New York, not only do the men do it, but the women do it! This would be considered totally inappropriate to say these things in front of a woman. For a woman to say them in a professional setting that’s just trashy!”

In response, Erin Gloria Ryan posted a piece on Jezebel.com. As might be suspected, the piece utilized the sort of language that Mike dislikes and she started off with “listen up, cunts: folksy as balls probable 2016 Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has some goddamn opinions about what sort of language women should use. And guess the fuck what? You bitches need to stop with this swearing shit.” While the short article did not set a record for OD (Obscenity Density), the author did make a good go at it.

I am not much for swearing. In fact, I used to say “swearing is for people who don’t how to use words.” That said, I do recognize that there are proper uses of swearing.

While I generally do not favor swearing, there are exceptions in which swearing was not only permissible, but necessary. For example, when I was running cross country, one of the other runners was looking super rough. The coach asked him how he felt and he said “I feel like shit coach.” The coach corrected him by saying “no, you feel like crap.” He replied, “No, coach, I feel like shit.” And he was completely right. Inspired by the memory of this exchange, I will endeavor to discuss proper swearing. I am, of course, not developing a full theory of swearing—just a brief exploration of the matter.

I do agree with some of what Huckabee said, namely the criticism of swearing in a professional context. However, my professional context is academics and I am doing my professional thing in front of students and other faculty—not exactly a place where gratuitous f-bombing would be appropriate or even useful. It would also make me appear sloppy and stupid—as if I could not express ideas or keep the attention of the class or colleagues without the cheap shock theatrics of swearing.

I am certainly open to the idea that such swearing could be appropriate in certain professional contexts. That is, that the vocabulary of swearing would be necessary to describe professional matters accurately and doing so would not make a person seem sloppy, disrespectful or stupid. Perhaps Fox News and Jezebel.com are such places.

While I was raised with certain patriarchal views, I have shed all but their psychological residue. Hearing a woman swear “feels” worse than hearing a man swear, but I know this is just the dregs of the past. If it is appropriate for a man to swear, the same right of swearing applies to a woman equally. I’m gender neutral, at least in principle.

Outside of the professional setting, I still have a general opposition to casual and repetitive swearing. The main reason is that I look at words and phrases as tools. As with any tool, they have the suitable and proper uses. While a screwdriver could be used to pound in nails, that is a poor use.  While a shotgun could be used to kill a fly, that is excessive and will cause needless collateral damage. Likewise, swear words have specific functions and using them poorly can show not only a lack of manners and respect, but a lack of artistry.

In general, the function of swear words is to serve as dramatic tools—that is, they are intended to shock and to convey something rather strong, such as great anger. To use them casually and constantly is rather like using a scalpel for every casual cutting task—while it will work, the blade will grow dull from repeated use and will no longer function well when it is needed for its proper task. So, I reserve my swear words not because I am prudish, but because if I wear them out, they will not serve me when I really need them most. For example, if I say “we are fucked” all the time for any minor problem, then when a situation in which we are well and truly fucked arrives, I will not be able to use that phrase effectively. But, if I save it for when the fuck hits the fan, then people who know me will know that it has gotten truly serious—I have broken out the “it is serious” words.

As another example, swear words should be saved for when a powerful insult or judgment is needed. If I were to constantly call normal people “fuckers” or describe not-so-bad things as being “shit”, then I would have little means of describing truly bad people and truly bad things. While I generally avoid swearing, I do need those words from time to time, such as when someone really is a fucker or something truly is shit.

Of course, swear words can also be used for humorous purposes. This is not really my sort of thing, but their shock value can serve well here—to make a strong point or to shock. However, if the words are too worn by constant use, then they can no longer serve this purpose. And, of course, it can be all too easy and inartistic to get a laugh simply by being crude—true artistry involves being able to get laughs using the same language one would use in front of grandpa in church. Of course, there is also an artistry to swearing—but that is more than just doing it all the time.

I would not dream of imposing on others—folks who wish to communicate normally using swear words have every right to do so, just as someone is free to pound nails with a screwdriver or whittle with a scalpel. However, it does bother me a bit that these words are being dulled and weakened by excessive use. If this keeps up, we will need to make new words and phrases to replace them—and then, no doubt, new words to replace those.


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Thoughts on the Death of Eric Garner


Eric Garner, of New York, died on July 17, 2014. He had been confronted by police about selling loose cigarettes (sold that way to avoid the city tax) and during this encounter Officer Pantaleo put him in an apparent chokehold. Garner died from “neck compression” and “the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Not surprisingly, the use of chokeholds is banned by the New York City Police Department. On December 3, 2014 a grand jury decided not to indict the officer, although the coroner had ruled Garner’s death a homicide.

This failure to indict follows a familiar pattern: though grand juries almost always indict non-police, they almost never indict police. As I have said before, perhaps this is because there is almost always probable cause to indict the non-police and almost never enough to indict police. Some might, however, contend that this disparity is grounded in injustice.

In general, the media pundits have been critical of the way the police handled the situation and the verdict of the grand jury. Bill O’Reilly and many people at Fox News fall into this camp and this has dismayed some Fox viewers. There are, however, media pundits that have blamed Garner for his own death. The justifications they advance are fairly stock ones and were also deployed in response to the death of Michael Brown, who was shot to death by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Because these approaches are often commonly used in such situations, they are worth considering.

One advanced by Representative Peter King is that Garner died because he was obese. On the one hand, King might be right: Garner’s health issues most likely played a causal role in his death. If he had been in good health, then he might not have been killed by what seems to have been a chokehold.

There are two obvious responses to this. The first is that the officer should not have been using a chokehold—there is a good reason that the police department forbids officers to use this technique. This reason is that it is easy to badly injure or kill someone using this attack. While the police can legitimately use force, there are many other techniques that are effective and far less likely to severely injure or kill a person.

The second is that police have a moral obligation to consider the condition of the person when engaging a suspect. This includes both the initial condition of the person (such as being in poor health) as well as what is happening to a person. While the police have the right to restrain a suspect, this comes with the obligation not to needlessly injure or kill the person.

To be fair to the police, it is not always easy to tell whether or not someone has a condition that might make him more likely to be injured or killed. In the heat of a struggle it can also be difficult to tell when a person is being injured. However, in some cases it is quite clear that a person is being subject to needless injury—which seems to be the case with Garner.

Rudi Giuliani and others advanced two justifications. The first is that Garner was a criminal and the second is that Garner resisted arrest. These were also advanced in the case of Michael Brown, although the officer who shot Brown apparently did not know Brown had robbed a store earlier.

In general, being a criminal does change a person’s status and does justify the police taking action against the person. So, if Garner was breaking the law, then the police would be right in arresting him. Likewise, if Brown robbed the store, then the police would have been justified in arresting him. Naturally, there are moral exceptions in the case of unjust laws and evil states. Interestingly, some of those speaking out in this case have focused on the cigarette tax law that Garner is alleged to have violated rather than on Garner’s death.

While the police do, in general, have the right to arrest criminals, this is rather different from making it acceptable for the police to kill alleged criminals. After all, criminals have the right to a trial and justice should not be meted out by the barrel of a gun or by a chokehold.

Naturally, the police can be justified in using force and even lethal force against criminals—but the mere fact that a person is (or is alleged to be) a criminal is not sufficient to justify killing him. Not surprisingly, this is where the second justification comes into play, namely that Garner was resisting arrest.

If it is assumed that the arrest is morally legitimate, then the person being arrested does not have the right to resist that arrest. Since what is legal is not the same as what is moral, there can be unjust laws and there clearly can be evil governments. However, for the sake of the discussion, let it be assumed that the police were acting in the right when trying to arrest Garner and that as such he did not have the moral right to resist. This can, of course, be debated.

Even if it is granted that Garner did not have the right to resist, there is still the question of whether or not his resistance justifies his death. I do agree that there can be cases in which resistance does morally justify the use of lethal force. For example, there was a tragic shooting in my own city of Tallahassee. A former Florida State University student shot people at the FSU library and fired at the police when they arrived. They returned fire, killing him. While it would have been preferable for the police to have not killed him, that was their only viable option to protect the civilians in the area and themselves.

From a moral standpoint, the police are justified in using the force needed to subdue the person (assuming they are otherwise acting morally) but not excessive force. While an officer does have the right of self-preservation, the officer is also morally obligated to accept some risks so as to avoid inflicting unnecessary harm or death. This is not just true of the police—it is true of everyone. For example, a drunken person once tried to punch me while I was running. I easily blocked the swing (black belt and all that). I could have punched or kicked him in return, but did not do so—I could have seriously hurt him. He decided to run away into the crowd, so I continued with my run. I did what I needed to do to defend myself—any more force would have been unwarranted. I did take a chance—the person could have attacked again or pulled a knife. But, a disproportionate response made from fear would be unwarranted.

In the case of Garner, it is clear that he does resist arrest, but in a fairly minimal way—he is not actively attacking but merely trying to avoid being grabbed. Then he is put into what appears to be a chokehold and brought to the ground, which results in his death. Given the situation, it seems clear that far less force (or even more conversation) would have sufficed and Garner would most likely still be alive.

One could argue that his size was such that he presented a clear threat that required such force and his death was a surprise to the police resulting from him being more vulnerable to choking than he appeared. That is, they honestly believed they were using the proper amount force and the proper techniques and the death was just a terrible accident. Having been in the martial arts, I do know it is easy for a person to get badly hurt even when there is no intention of such harm—that is well worth considering. Like most men, I’ve been hurt (and hurt others) when just playing around at rough housing.

That said, the police are supposed to be trained properly in the use of force and they are supposed to follow the guidelines—which, in this case, expressly forbid chokeholds. They are also morally responsible to be aware of what is happening to a person they are engaging. Given what occurred in the video, it seems clear that Garner’s death was unjustified.

Overall, the pundits that are endeavoring to blame Garner for his death are in error. It is true that if he was not suspected of a crime and if he had not resisted arrest, then he would probably still be alive. But, it is also true that if the police had used proper procedures and proportional force (or tried talking more), then he would probably still be alive. Even if a person commits a crime and resists arrest, it does not follow that his death is justified.


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Medbots, Autodocs & Telemedicine


In science fiction stories, movies and games automated medical services are quite common. Some take the form of autodocs—essentially an autonomous robotic pod that treats the patient within its confines. Medbots, as distinct from the autodoc, are robots that do not enclose the patient, but do their work in a way similar to a traditional doctor or medic. There are also non-robotic options using remote-controlled machines—this would be an advanced form of telemedicine in which the patient can actually be treated remotely. Naturally, robots can be built that can be switched from robotic (autonomous) to remote controlled mode. For example, a medbot might gather data about the patient and then a human doctor might take control to diagnose and treat the patient.

One of the main and morally commendable reasons to create medical robots and telemedicine capabilities is to provide treatment to people in areas that do not have enough human medical professionals. For example, a medical specialist who lives in the United States could diagnose and treat patients in a remote part of the world using a suitable machine. With such machines, a patient could (in theory) have access to any medical professional in the world and this would certainly change medicine. True medical robots would obviously change medicine—after all, a medical robot would never get tired and such robots could, in theory, be sent all over the world to provide medical care. There is, of course, the usual concern about the impact of technology on jobs—if a robot can replace medical personnel and do so in a way that increases profits, that will certainly happen. While robots would certainly excel at programmable surgery and similar tasks, it will certainly be quite some time before robots are advanced enough to replace human medical professionals on a large scale

Another excellent reason to create medical robots and telemedicine capabilities has been made clear by the Ebola outbreak: medical personnel, paramedics and body handlers can be infected. While protective gear and protocols do exist, the gear is cumbersome, flawed and hot and people often fail to properly follow the protocols. While many people are moral heroes and put themselves at risk to treat the ill and bury the dead, there are no doubt people who are deterred by the very real possibility of a horrible death. Medical robots and telemedicine seem ideal for handling such cases.

First, human diseases cannot infect machines: a robot cannot get Ebola. So, a doctor using telemedicine to treat Ebola patients would be at not risk. This lack of risk would presumably increase the number of people willing to treat such diseases and also lower the impact of such diseases on medical professionals. That is, far fewer would die trying to treat people.

Second, while a machine can be contaminated, decontaminating a properly designed medical robot or telemedicine machine would be much easier than disinfecting a human being. After all, a sealed machine could be completely hosed down by another machine without concerns about it being poisoned, etc. While numerous patients might be exposed to a machine, machines do not go home—so a contaminated machine would not spread a disease like an infected or contaminated human would.

Third, medical machines could be sent, even air-dropped, into remote and isolated areas that lack doctors yet are often the starting points of diseases. This would allow a rapid response that would help the people there and also help stop a disease before it makes its way into heavily populated areas. While some doctors and medical professionals are willing to be dropped into isolated areas, there are no doubt many more who would be willing to remotely operate a medical machine that has been dropped into a remote area suffering from a deadly disease.

There are, of course, some concerns about the medical machines, be they medbots, autodocs or telemedicine devices.

One is that such medical machines might be so expensive that it would be cost prohibitive to use them in situations in which they would be ideal (namely in isolated or impoverished areas). While politicians and pundits often talk about human life being priceless, human life is rather often given a price and one that is quite low. So, the challenge would be to develop medical machines that are effective yet inexpensive enough that they would be deployed where they would be needed.

Another is that there might be a psychological impact on the patient. When patients who have been treated by medical personal in hazard suits speak about their experiences, they often remark on the lack of human contact. If a machine is treating the patient, even one remotely operated by a person, there will be a lack of human contact. But, the harm done to the patient would presumably be outweighed by the vastly lowered risk of the disease spreading. Also, machines could be designed to provide more in the way of human interaction—for example, a telemedicine machine could have a screen that allows the patient to see the doctor’s face and talk to her.

A third concern is that such machines could malfunction or be intentionally interfered with. For example, someone might “hack” into a telemedicine device as an act of terrorism. While it might be wondered why someone would do this, it seems to be a general rule that if someone can do something evil, then someone will do something evil. As such, these devices would need to be safeguarded. While no device will be perfect, it would certainly be wise to consider possible problems ahead of time—although the usual process is to have something horrible occur and then fix it. Or at least talk about fixing it.

In sum, the recent Ebola outbreak has shown the importance of developing effective medical machines that can enable treatment while taking medical and other personnel out of harm’s way.


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Campbell Brown & Teacher’s Unions

English: The central courtyard of Albany High ...

Albany High School in Albany, New York, United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In July, 2014 Campbell Brown announced that her Partnership for Educational Justice had filed a legal complaint in Albany. This complaint is aimed at eliminating New York’s teacher tenure laws. The basis for the lawsuit is that the tenure laws interfere with the right of children to a sound education.

This is not Brown’s first foray into this matter. In 2013 Brown asserted that her Parents’ Transparency Project was claimed to be aimed at bringing transparency to the negotiation process involving teachers’ unions. In the course of this campaign Brown asserted that the union is “…a system that protects teachers who engage in sexual misconduct.” Brown did run into some conflict of interest issues in regards to this group and there were concerns about the anonymous funding behind it: as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, PTP can legally keep its donors secret and engage in political spending. As should be no surprise, critics of Brown saw PTP as an attempt at union busting backed by parties with political and economic agendas. The unions weathered the efforts of PTP and now they are facing off against Brown’s PEJ. To promote this new lawsuit, Brown appeared on the July 31, 2014 episode of the Colbert Report—having faced protestors outside the show.

I do agree with some of Brown’s claims. First, I do agree with her assertion that children are entitled to a sound basic education. Her critics contend that her actual interest is in busting the unions at the behest of those bankrolling PEJ. While Brown’s actual motives are a point of interest, they are logically irrelevant to the merit of her claims and arguments. However, Colbert did raise a relevant criticism: if Brown is, in fact, concerned that children receive a sound education and for educational equality, then she should be focusing on a key aspect of educational inequality, namely the extreme disparity in education funding. To be fair to Brown, it is quite reasonable for a group to focus on one issue at a time and to also leave other issues to other groups.

Second, I do agree with her position on seniority. As it now stands, schools follow a “first in, last out” policy. The problem with this is that merely being at a school a long time does not entail that a person is a good teacher. Since I believe that employment should be based on merit and mere seniority is not a mark of merit, I oppose this policy. That said, I know that experience can improve a teacher’s abilities (I am a much better professor now than I was when I was fresh out of graduate school). However, these improved abilities should be discernible in job performance and not just by looking at the calendar. Naturally, a rational case can be made for seniority—but I believe that all such cases must rest on the connection between experience and ability.

Third, I regard her claim that three years is not enough time to earn tenure as having some appeal. After all, tenure at the university level requires six years (and, at my university, involves a yearlong review process starting in the department and ending with the university President). The easy and obvious counter is that teaching at a university requires an advanced degree (which requires 5+ years beyond the Bachelor’s degree required to teach K-12), so having a shorter tenure period at K-12 schools is reasonable. So, my view is that this matter can be legitimately debated—although I would be fine with the three year tenure period (provided that the process is merit based, fair and rigorous).

Fourth, I do agree with her view that tenure laws should not make it nearly impossible to fire ineffective or dangerous teachers. Tenure, as I see it, is supposed to ensure that teachers/professors can only be fired for cause and through due process. It is not so that teachers/professors can never be fired. At the college level, this is obviously connected to defending academic freedom. At the K-12 level, academic freedom might not be seen as being as great a concern, however there is the concern about protecting teachers from the vagaries of ideology, politics and such. To use a concrete example, tenure is useful for protecting biology teachers from being fired because parents disbelieve in evolution or believe that vaccines cause autism.

Brown’s view gets some psychological support from the common misconception that tenure means that a teacher cannot be fired. However, as the above discussion indicates, tenure does not entail that a teacher cannot be fired, just that due process must be used. It would presumably be hard to defend the view that a teacher could be legitimately fired for just any reason without any due process (though there are people who do hold that view). After all, such firing would be (by definition) unjustified—something that would be hard to justify. It is, however, easy to defend the view that even a tenured teacher should be fired for being ineffective (and certainly for being dangerous).

The problem, then, does not seem to be with the general principle of tenure. If there is a problem, it would seem to lie in the process that is used and perhaps the specific rules used to keep the ineffective or dangerous in their jobs. The fix to this would not seem to be the elimination of tenure, but a change in the process so that teachers are protected from unjustified dismissal and students are protected from ineffective or dangerous teachers. The system will never be perfect—but that is an unreasonable standard.


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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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Carlos Danger & Badness

, member of the United States House of Represe...

Carlos Danger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One longstanding philosophical concern is the matter of why people behave badly. One example of this that filled the American news in July of 2013 was the new chapter in the sordid tale of former congressman Anthony Weiner. Weiner was previously best known for resigning from office after a scandal involving his internet activities and his failed campaign of deception regarding said activities. Weiner decided to make a return to politics by running for mayor of New York. However, his bid for office was overshadowed by revelations that he was sexting under the nom de sext “Carlos Danger” even after his resignation and promise to stop such behavior.

While his behavior has been more creepy and pathetic than evil, it does provide a context for discussion the matter of why people behave badly.

Socrates, famously, gave the answer that people do wrong out of ignorance. He did not mean that people elected to do wrong because they lacked factual knowledge (such as being unaware that stabbing people hurts them).  This is not to say that bad behavior cannot stem from mere factual knowledge. For example, a person might be unaware that his joke about a rabbit caused someone great pain because she had just lost her beloved Mr. Bunny to a tragic weed whacker accident. In the case of Weiner, there is some possibility that ignorance of facts played a role in his bad behavior. For example, it seems that Weiner was in error about his chances of getting caught again, despite the fact that he had been caught before. Interestingly, Weiner’s fellow New York politician and Democrat Elliot Spitzer was caught in his scandal using the exact methods he himself had previously used and even described on television.  In this case, the ignorance in question could be an arrogant overestimation of ability.

While such factual ignorance might play a role in a person’s decision to behave badly, there would presumably need to be much more in play in cases such as Weiner’s.  For him to act on his (alleged) ignorance he would also need an additional cause or causes to engage in that specific behavior. For Socrates, this cause would be a certain sort of ignorance, namely a lack of wisdom.

While Socrates’ view has been extensively criticized (Aristotle noted that it contradicted the facts), it does have a certain appeal.

One way to consider such ignorance is to focus on the possibility that Weiner is ignorant of certain values. To be specific, it could be contended that Weiner acted badly because he did not truly know that he was choosing something worse (engaging in sexting) over something better (being faithful to his wife). In such cases a person might claim that he knows that he has picked the lesser over the greater, but it could be replied that doing this repeatedly displays an ignorance of the proper hierarchy of values. That is, it could be claimed that Weiner acted badly because he did not have proper knowledge of the good. To use an analogy, a person who is offered a simple choice (that is, no bizarre philosophy counter-example conditions) between $5 and $100 and picks the $5 as greater than $100 would seem to show a failure to grasp that 100 is greater than 5.

Socrates presented the obvious solution to evil: if evil arises from ignorance, than knowledge of the good attained via philosophy is just what would be needed.

The easy and obvious reply is that knowledge of what is better and what is worse is consistent with a person choosing to behave badly rather than better. To use an analogy, people who eat poorly and do not exercise profess to value health while acting in ways that directly prevent them from being healthy. This is often explained not in terms of a defect in values but, rather, in a lack of will. The idea that a person could have or at least understand the proper values but fail to act consistently with them because of weakness is certainly intuitively appealing. As such, one plausible explanation for Weiner’s actions is that while he knows he is doing wrong, he lacks the strength to prevent himself from doing so. Going back to the money analogy, it is not that the person who picks the $5 over the $100 does not know that 100 is greater than 5. Rather, in this scenario the $5 is easy to get and the $100 requires a strength the person lacks: she wants the $100, but simply cannot jump high enough to reach it.

Assuming a person knows what is good, the solution to this cause of evil would be, as Aristotle argued, proper training to make people stronger (or, at least, to condition them to select the better out of fear of punishment) so they can act on their knowledge of the good properly.

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Soda & the State


Soft drinks on shelves in a Woolworths superma...

Soft drinks on shelves in a Woolworths supermarket (Australia). Taken by myself. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The mayor of New York is considering a ban on selling sweetened drinks larger than 16 ounces. The ban would not cover diet sodas, fruit juice, dairy products (like milkshakes) or alcohol. It also does not cover grocery or convenience stores. As might be suspected, the intent of this ban is to help combat obesity. About half of the adult population of the city is overweight and the mayor presumably hopes that this ban will help with this problem.

There are, of course, two key factual issues here. The first is whether or not the large drinks in question are a causal factor in obesity. The second is whether or not the ban would have the intended effect.

Not surprisingly, the folks in the relevant industries are claiming that the drinks are not the cause of the problem. On the one hand, it can be claimed that they are in error. After all, it does make sense that consuming large quantities of high calorie beverages (a 12 ounce soda has 124-189 calories) would contribute to people being overweight. On the other hand, it can be argued that this is not the case. After all, the drinks are not the only (or even main) source of calories and hence they are just one contributory cause among many. There is also the point that people are not compelled to consume the large beverages and people are, by in large, obese because of their choices. My considered view is that these drinks make it easier to be obese, but that it would be an error to cast them as the primary villains, so to speak.

In regards to the effectiveness of such a ban, it seems likely that the impact will be fairly minor. While people will not be able to get drinks over 16 ounces, they are not prevented from getting refills or buying as many as they want. While the 16 ounce limit will make it slightly less convenient to get a greater volume of sweet drinks, I suspect that this inconvenience factor will not be enough to impact the obesity problem. After all, people already buy multiple burgers or tacos and can probably adjust easily to getting multiple drinks. There is also the fact that the ban does not affect drinks whose calorie content can exceed that of the banned drinks and people can switch to those. For example, unsweetened apple juice has 169-175 calories per 12 ounce serving.

While the factual matters are of concern, what is of philosophical interest is whether or not the state has a right to impose such bans. As might be imagined, it is easy enough to argue for and against this right using the very same principles.

One reasonable principle is that the state has a legitimate role in preventing harm to the citizens and has a right to use its compulsive power in this capacity. The most obvious examples of this include the state’s role as a military protector and its role as the police. Another reasonable principle, taken from John Stuart Mill, is that the state does not have a right to impose on the liberty of individuals except in cases in which the individual’s actions could cause unwarranted harm to others. For example, the state clearly has a right to prevent citizens from murdering each other.

In the case of the sweet drink ban, it could be argued that the state is acting to prevent harm to the citizens and is thus operating within its legitimate rights. After all, the easy accessibility of high calorie foods in high volume servings makes it far easier for people to over-consume calories and this leads to increased obesity. Obesity presents a clear health threat to individuals as well as imposing significant costs on society (such as lost productivity and increase medical costs). As such, the state would be acting rightly in banning such sweet drinks.

One easy reply is to contend that the ban would not be effective (as argued above) and hence would be an imposition on liberty that fails to achieve its stated goal. It seems reasonable enough to accept that the state should not restrict liberty when doing so would not achieve the stated goal of the imposition-after all, the justification for the imposition would simply not be grounded.

Another reply, and the one I favor, is that even if the ban was to prove effective, it is still an illegitimate violation of liberty. The state does, of course, have a right to protect people from toxic ingredients, especially when such ingredients are not known to the consumer. To use a specific example to illustrate this, the state would be acting legitimately by banning companies from surreptitiously using lead  acetate in place of sugar as sweetener. This is because this substance is known to be toxic and most customers would not willingly consume “sweet lead.” In this case, the state would be protecting the customers from being harmed by the manufacturers. After all, companies do not have the liberty to poison ignorant customers.

In the case of the sweet drinks, the customer knows what s/he is getting: a high calorie (typically low nutrient) drink. While it is unwise and unhealthy to consume large amounts of such drinks, as long as the consumer is freely making the choice to drink the beverage and is aware of its contents and effects, then the state has no right to impose on the individual’s liberty. As usual, John Stuart Mill’s arguments in favor of liberty work quite well here. Naturally enough, the state would be well within its rights to require companies to make information about the beverages available to consumers so that they can make informed choices. However, treating adults as if they were children in this regard is not acceptable nor within the legitimate rights of the state. After all, what is solely the business of the individual is not the business of the state and how much sweet drink a person consumes would seem to be solely his or her business. The choice is thus the right of the individual, be it a good choice (to avoid sweet drinks) or a bad choice (to consume mass quantities of sugar water).

The obvious reply to this is that the harms done by obesity are not limited to the individual. Obesity increases health care costs for everyone, impacts productivity, and has other consequences that extend beyond the individual. Given that the obesity of an individual harms others, then it would seem that the state would have the right to step in and impose restrictions to counter obesity. After all, while people have every liberty to be as fat as they can and want to be, they do not have the right to expect the rest of society to also bear the consequences and costs of their poor choices.  To modify a stock line from the right in the US, why should the rest of us subsidize the cost of obesity-surely that would be a socialism of fat.  If this reasoning is plausible, then there seem to be two reasonable alternatives (and, of course, there might be others).

The first is that the state should act within its legitimate rights to endeavor to counter causal factors that significantly contribute to obesity (such as high volume high calorie beverages). The second is that individuals who wish to enjoy the liberty to be as fat as they choose to be would need to take full responsibility for the consequences of their choices. They would, for example, need to opt out of state medical support in regards to any conditions caused by or aggravated by their obesity, perhaps by purchasing special insurance. Provided that an individual was willing to eliminate the harms his/her choices would impose on others, then s/he would have the perfect right to do as s/he pleases. This is analogous to how certain states allow people to ride motorcycles without helmets provided that they have adequate insurance. Perhaps people could received special ID cards proving they have obesity insurance and  this would allow them to purchase large beverages (and other such things).

A second reply to the liberty argument is that it could be argued that the sweeteners used to create the sweet drinks is actually a toxic substance. Interestingly enough, lead acetate was once used as a sweetener until is was clearly established that it is, in fact, toxic. As such, it is not wildly implausible that the sweeteners currently in use are actually toxic substances that should be properly regulated. While it is easy enough to dismiss the idea that, for example, sugar could be toxic because it just sounds silly, it is rather important to make such assessments on the basis of scientific evidence. If sweeteners are not harmful, then an objective scientific investigation would surely show this. As such, those who think that it is silly to consider sugar and other sweeteners as toxic should insist on objective and extensive evaluation. After all, doing so would silence the rational critics of sweeteners and provide hard evidence to counter attempts to ban or restrict sweeteners and products that use them, such as sweet drinks.

My own view on the matter is that people have a right to the liberty of self-abuse (even self-destruction). However, this liberty does not allow them to impose on others. As such, the freedom to be fat comes with the responsibility to ensure that other people are not forced to bear the price that the individual alone should pay. As the hackneyed saying goes, freedom is not free-and this goes for fat freedom as well.

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Same Sex Marriage (Revisited)

May Hansen celebrating the vote on the same-se...

Image via Wikipedia

New York recently passed a law legalizing same sex marriage, which once again brought the matter into the public eye. Opponents trotted out the stock appeal to tradition and also made the slightly better argument that passing the law would have dire consequences.

Although I am in favor of legalizing same sex marriage and think that the arguments for it are compelling, as a philosopher I think I am obligated to consider the best possible opposing arguments.

One stock argument is the appeal to tradition: marriage has always/for a long time been between a man and a woman, so same sex marriage should be illegal. As noted above, this line of reasoning is fallacious. The mere fact that X has been around a long time does not make it right. After all, slavery was an accepted practice for a very long time, yet it hardly seems reasonable to accept that it is correct. Also, the “traditional” marriage that people point to is not, in fact, the traditional form of marriage. Marriage as practiced in 21st century western countries is rather different from what was practiced 100 or even 50 years ago, let alone in biblical times.

A second stock argument is the slippery slope argument: if same sex marriage is allowed, then people will then be allowed to marry turtles, dolphins, trees, cats or iPads.  Since this would be bad/absurd, same sex marriage should not be allowed. Obviously, this slippery slope is a fallacy since the folks who claim these dire results do not make the causal link needed to infer, for example, that allowing same sex marriage will lead to people marrying goats. Also, a slippery slope argument could be made against allowing same sex marriage: if we allow different sex people to marry, the next thing you know, same sex couples will get married and then people will be marrying flying fish. Since this is absurd, by parity of reasoning the original argument would seem to be absurd as well.

A third stock argument is the religious argument, namely that God forbids same sex activities of this sort. One problem is that if the religious argument is accepted as the basis of law, then the same principle would need to apply across the board. So, for example, there should be laws against unclean foods (like lobster) and it should be legal to stone disobedient children to death. Imposing such religious laws would seem far more harmful than allowing same sex marriage. Another obvious problem is that God is a big boy and He gets what He wants. If he did not want people to be gay, there would presumably be no gay people. In any case, if God does exist, surely He’d pop in and let us know what He thinks about a matter so obviously important to Him. At the very least, He’d throw down a smite or burn a bush.

A fourth stock argument is the procreation argument: marriage is for procreation, same sex couples cannot procreate, therefore they should not be allowed to marry. The stock reply is that straight people who do not or cannot have children are still allowed to marry. Consistency would require that if same sex marriage is banned on these grounds, then straight couples who cannot or will not produce offspring must be denied marriage. This seems absurd.

A fifth stock argument is the moral argument: being gay is evil, evil people should not be allowed t0 marry, so same sex marriage should not be allowed. As with the procreation argument, the obvious flaw is that there are plenty of evil straight people and they are not denied the right to marry on this basis. A person who is a convicted rapist, mass murderer, serial killer, and arsonist can still get married. On a less extreme note, liars, cheats, bullies, and petty thieves can also get married. As such, this argument has little merit.

A sixth catch all argument is the consequence argument: allowing same sex marriage will have dire consequence D, inflicting D is wrong, therefor same sex marriage is wrong. This argument is the strongest of the lot and does have a certain appeal. After all, if same sex marriage were to cause dire harms, then it would seem reasonable to ban it on the same grounds that dangerous things like alcohol and tobacco are banned. I mean, rather on the same grounds that dangerous things like cars and junk food are banned. Um, I mean on the same grounds that heroin and driving drunk are banned.

The main problem with these sorts of arguments lies not with the reasoning or the moral theory (consequentialism). The main problem is that they all seem to suffer from false or dubious premises. Some examples include that it has been claimed that allowing same sex marriage will lead to anarchy, that it will destroy marriage, that it will harm children and so on. However, these claims never seem to stand up to scrutiny. That said, if a harm can be shown and this harm outweighs the benefits of allowing same sex marriage, then it could be argued that it should be banned on the basis of the harm principle. However, the harm has to be properly established and it needs to be the right sort of harm. After all, if some people claim that legalizing  same sex marriage will make them very sad, that is not adequate. If it can be shown, for example, that anarchy and chaos will result, then that should suffice.

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