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Professor Gun Ban

While all states allow for concealed carry, schools have generally been areas of exemption. As this is being written, my adopted state of Florida is considering a bill that would make concealed carry legal on the campuses of the state’s public universities. Some other states have already passed such laws. While I have written about concealed campus carry before, my focus here is on professors who refuse to allow guns in their classrooms and offices.

While I am not a lawyer, I am inclined to believe that professors lack the legal authority to impose such bans. This is, presumably, something the courts will be hashing out in upcoming lawsuits—perhaps including suits alleging a violation of a constitutionally protected right. Since I am not a lawyer, I will leave the legal matters to the experts. Instead, I will focus on the moral aspects of the subject.

One moral argument that could be made in favor of the professors is that they have the right to ban things they regard as morally offensive from their classrooms and offices. So, a professor who is morally opposed to guns could refuse to allow them. This is analogous in some ways to religious freedom arguments used to justify a business not providing coverage of contraception or those deployed against allowing same sex-marriage. The idea in all these cases is that the moral interest of one person or group overrides that of another, thus justifying the freedom of one over another. In the case of guns, it is the right of the professor to teach and hold office hours in a gun-free environment that overrides the right of others to carry guns.

One reply to this argument, as is used in the religious freedom cases, is that the right of the professor to restrict the right of the students is not justified. That is, their right to carry a weapon trumps her right to be in a weapon free zone. This would be somewhat similar to how the right of a same-sex couple to marry trumps the right of religious people to live in a same-sex marriage free country.

Another reply to this argument is to draw an analogy that is aimed at showing the absurdity of such a professorial ban. Imagine a professor who has a deep and abiding moral opposition to birth control and wants to ban them from her classroom and office. This includes birth control that is being “concealed” in the body (for example, a woman on the pill)—while the professor cannot see it, the mere presence is morally intolerable to her. While the professor has the right to keep students from fornicating in class, she would not seem to have the right to ban the presence of birth control. A similar argument could be made with smart phones: a professor can forbid their use in class because they can be disruptive and be used to cheat, but he cannot refuse to allow students to have them in their backpacks or pockets. As such, professors do not seem to have the right to ban guns simply because they are morally offended by them.

A better moral argument is based on the matter of safety: a professor could be concerned about people being shot (intentionally or accidentally). Colleagues of mine have also spoken about the chilling effect of allowing guns on campus: people, it is claimed, would be afraid to discuss contentious issues. It is also claimed that some professors would be inclined to grade easier to avoid getting shot.

There certainly are legitimate safety concerns about allowing guns on campus. However, there are two obvious points worth considering. The first is that guns are already allowed many places and people do not seem generally inclined to avoid contentious discussions or to not do their jobs properly because someone might shoot them with a (up to the murder attempt) legally carried gun.  As such, unless campuses are simply special places, this concern does not warrant a special ban on campus carry. Put another away, if guns are allowed almost everywhere else, then without a relevant difference argument, they should be allowed on campuses. The second, as I point out to my colleagues, people can very easily carry guns illegally on campus. If someone intends to kill a professor over a bad grade or a heated discussion (which has happened) they can do so. Campuses are generally quite open and I have never seen anyone checked for weapons at any university. A professor ban would certainly not provide a greater degree of safety—even if the professor was able to enforce such an almost certainly illegal ban.

Interesting, the state legislatures who pass concealed carry on campus laws generally forbid people to bring guns to the legislature. While this shows inconsistency, it does not show the law is wrong. It does, however, point towards a relevant difference argument—perhaps the campus is relevantly similar to the legislature.

My view is that there is not really a compelling reason to walk around campus with a gun and I am concerned about safety issues. However, I do not have the moral right to ban guns from my classroom or office. In fact, I would plan on carrying one myself.

 

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Trumping Along

Despite the predictions of many pundits, presidential candidate Donald Trump still leads the Republican pack as of the end of January.  As should be expected, Trump’s remarks have resulted in criticism from the left. Somewhat unexpectedly, he has also been condemned by many conservatives. The National Review, a bastion of conservative thought, devoted an entire issue to harsh condemnation of Trump. This is certainly a fascinating situation and will no doubt become a chapter in many future political science textbooks.

That Trump is doing well should itself not be surprising. As I have argued in previous essays, he is the logical result of the strategies and tactics of the Republican Party. The Republican establishment has been feeding the beast; they should not be shocked that it has grown large. They crafted the ideal political ecosystem for Trump; they should not be dismayed that he has dominated this niche. As in so many horror stories, perhaps they realize they have created a monster and now they are endeavoring to destroy it.

It is not entirely clear what the “(un)friendly fire” of fellow Republicans is supposed to accomplish. One possibility is that the establishment hopes that these attacks will knock Trump down and allow a candidate more appealing to the establishment to win the nomination. Trump, many pundits claim, would lose in the general election and the Republicans certainly wish to win. However, Trump should not be counted out—he has repeatedly proven the pundits wrong and he might be, oddly enough, the best chance for a Republican victory in 2016.

The United States electorate has changed in recent years and Trump seems to be able to appeal very strongly to certain elements of this population. Bernie Sanders has also been able to appeal very strongly to other elements—and perhaps some of the same. As such, the Republican establishment might wish to reconsider their view of Trump’s chances relative to the other candidates.

That said, while Trump has done quite well in the polls, this is rather different from doing well in the actually trench work of politics. Doing well in the polls is rather like being a popular actor or athlete—this does not require a broad organization and a nationwide political machine. Trump is certainly a media star—quite literally. Soon, however, the “ground game” begins and the received opinion is this is where organization and political chops are decisive. Critics have pointed out, sweating just a bit, that Trump does not seem to have much of a ground game and certainly has little political chop building experience. Doing well in this ground game is analogous to doing well in a war; it remains to be seen if Trump can transition from reality TV star to political general.

As a counter to this, it can be argued that Trump could simply ride on his popularity and this would offset any weaknesses he has in regards to his organization and political chops. After all, highly motivated voters could simply get things done for him.

A second possibility is that at least some of the critics of Trump are motivated by more than concerns about pragmatic politics: they have a moral concern about Trump’s words and actions. Some of the concern is based on the assertion that Trump is not a true conservative. These concerns are well-founded: Trump is certainly not a social conservative and, while wealthy, he does not seem to have a strong commitment to classic conservative ideology. Other aspects of the concern are based on Trumps character and style; he is often regarded as a vulgar populist.

Those who oppose Trump on these grounds would presumably not be swayed by evidence that Trump could do well in the general election—if he is an awful candidate, he would presumably be worse as president. This election could be a very interesting test of party loyalty (and Hillary loathing). Some Republicans have said that they will not vote for Trump and most of these have made it clear they will not vote for a Democrat. As such, the Democrat might win in virtue of Republican voters not voting. After all, a Republican who does not vote is almost as good as a vote for the Democrat. As such, it is not surprising that a popular conspiracy theory speculates that Trump is an agent of the Clintons.

 

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The Trump Ban

 

While the United Kingdom is quite welcoming to its American cousins, many of its citizens have petitioned for a ban against the now leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. This issue was debated in mid-January by the parliament, although no vote was taken to ban the Donald.

The petition to ban Trump was signed by 575,000 people and was created in response to his call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. While this matter is mostly political theater, it does raise some matters of philosophical interest.

One interesting point is that the proposal to ban Trump appears to be consistent with the principles that seem to lurk behind the obscuring fog of Trump’s various proposals and assertions. One obvious concern is that attributing principles to Trump is challenging—he is a master of being vague and is not much for providing foundations for his proposed policies. Trump has, however, focused a great deal on the borders of the United States. He has made the comically absurd proposal to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and, as noted above, proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. This seems to suggest that Trump accepts the principle that a nation has the right to control its borders and to keep out anyone that is deemed a threat or undesirable by the state. This principle, which might be one that Trump accepts, is certainly a reasonable one in general terms. While thinkers disagree about the proper functions of the state, there is general consensus that a state must, at a minimum, provide basic defense and police functions and these include maintaining borders. This principle would certainly warrant the UK from banning Trump.

Even if the is specific general principle is not one Trump accepts, he certainly seems to accept that a state can ban people from entering that state. As such, consistency would require that Trump accept that the UK has every right to ban him. Trump, if he were inclined to argue rationally, could contend that there are relevant differences between himself and those he proposes to ban. He could, for example, argue that the proposed wall between the United States and Mexico is to keep out illegals and point out that he would enter the UK legally rather than sneaking across the border. In regards to the proposed ban on all Muslims, Trump could point out that he is for banning Muslims but not for banning non-Muslims. As such, his principle of banning Muslims could not be applied to him.

A way to counter this is to focus again on the general principle that might be behind Trump’s proposals, namely the principle of excluding people who are regarded as a threat or at least undesirable. While Trump is not likely to engage in acts of terror in the UK, his behavior in the United States does raise concerns about his ideology and he could justly be regarded as a threat to the UK. He could, perhaps, radicalize some of the population. As such, Trump could be justly banned on the basis of a possible principle he is employing to justify his proposed bans (assuming that there are some principles lurking back there somewhere).

Trump could, of course, simply call the UK a bunch of losers and insist that they have no right to ban him. While that sort of thing is fine for political speeches, he would need a justification for his assertion. Then again, Trump might simply call them losers and say he does not want to go there anyway.

The criticism of Trump in the UK seems to be, at least in part, aimed at trying to reduce his chance of becoming the President of the United States.  Or perhaps there is some hope that the criticism will change his behavior. While a normal candidate might be influenced by such criticism from a close ally and decide to change, Trump is not a normal candidate. As has been noted many times, behavior that would have been politically damaging or fatal for other candidates has only served to keep Trump leading among the Republicans. As such, the petition against him and even the debate about the issue in Parliament will have no negative impact on his campaign. In fact, this sort of criticism will probably improve his poll numbers. As such, Trump is the orange Hulk of politics (not to be confused with Orange Hulk). The green Hulk gets stronger the angrier he gets, so attacking him just enables him to fight harder. The political orange Hulk, Trump, gets stronger the more he is rationally criticized and the more absurd and awful he gets. Like the green Hulk, Trump might be almost unbeatable. So, while Hulk might smash, Trump might win. And then smash.

 

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Threat Assessment I: A Vivid Spotlight

When engaged in rational threat assessment, there are two main factors that need to be considered. The first is the probability of the threat. The second is, very broadly speaking, the severity of the threat. These two can be combined into one sweeping question: “how likely is it that this will happen and, if it does, how bad will it be?”

Making rational decisions about dangers involves considering both of these factors. For example, consider the risks of going to a crowded area such as a movie theater or school. There is a high probability of being exposed to the cold virus, but it is a very low severity threat. There is an exceedingly low probability that there will be a mass shooting, but it is a high severity threat since it can result in injury or death.

While humans have done a fairly good job at surviving, this seems to have been despite our amazingly bad skills at rational threat assessment. To be specific, the worry people feel in regards to a threat generally does not match up with the actual probability of the threat occurring. People do seem somewhat better at assessing the severity, though they are also often in error about this.

One excellent example of poor threat assessment is in regards to the fear Americans have in regards to domestic terrorism. As of December 15, 2015 there have been 45 people killed in the United States in attacks classified as “violent jihadist attacks” and 48 people killed in attacks classified as “far right wing attacks” since 9/11/2001.  In contrast, there were 301,797 gun deaths from 2005-2015 in the United States and over 30,000 people are killed each year in motor vehicle crashes in the United States.

Despite the incredibly low likelihood of a person being killed by an act of terrorism in the United States, many people are terrified by terrorism (which is, of course, the goal of terrorism) and have become rather focused on the matter since the murders in San Bernardino. Although there have been no acts of terrorism on the part of refugees in the United States, many people are terrified of refugees and this had led to calls for refusing to accept Syrian refugees and Donald Trump has famously called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.

Given that an American is vastly more likely to be killed while driving than killed by a terrorist, it might be wondered why people are so incredibly bad at this sort of threat assessment. The answer, in regards to having fear vastly out of proportion to the probability is easy enough—it involves a cognitive bias and some classic fallacies.

People follow general rules when they estimate probabilities and the ones we use unconsciously are called heuristics. While the right way to estimate probability is to use proper statistical methods, people generally fall victim to the bias known as the availability heuristic. The idea is that a person unconsciously assigns a probability to something based on how often they think of that sort of event. While an event that occurs often will tend to be thought of often, the fact that something is often thought of does not make it more likely to occur.

After an incident of domestic terrorism, people think about terrorism far more often and thus tend to unconsciously believe that the chance of terrorism occurring is far higher than it really is. To use a non-terrorist example, when people hear about a shark attack, they tend to think that the chances of it occurring are high—even though the probability is incredibly low (driving to the beach is vastly more likely to kill you than a shark is). The defense against this bias is to find reliable statistical data and use that as the basis for inferences about threats—that is, think it through rather than trying to feel through it. This is, of course, very difficult: people tend to regard their feelings, however unwarranted, as the best evidence—despite it is usually the worst evidence.

People are also misled about probability by various fallacies. One is the spotlight fallacy. The spotlight fallacy is committed when a person uncritically assumes that all (or many) members or cases of a certain class or type are like those that receive the most attention or coverage in the media. After an incident involving terrorists who are Muslim, media attention is focused on that fact, leading people who are poor at reasoning to infer that most Muslims are terrorists. This is the exact sort of mistake that would occur if it were inferred that most Christians are terrorists because the media covered a terrorist who was Christian (who shot up a Planned Parenthood). If people believe that, for example, most Muslims are terrorists, then they will make incorrect inferences about the probability of a domestic terrorist attack by Muslims.

Anecdotal evidence is another fallacy that contributes to poor inferences about the probability of a threat. This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on an anecdote (a story) about one or a very small number of cases. The fallacy is also committed when someone rejects reasonable statistical data supporting a claim in favor of a single example or small number of examples that go against the claim. This fallacy is similar to hasty generalization and a similar sort of error is committed, namely drawing an inference based on a sample that is inadequate in size relative to the conclusion. The main difference between hasty generalization and anecdotal evidence is that the fallacy anecdotal evidence involves using a story (anecdote) as the sample.

People often fall victim to this fallacy because stories and anecdotes tend to have more psychological influence than statistical data. This leads people to infer that what is true in an anecdote must be true of the whole population or that an anecdote justifies rejecting statistical evidence in favor of said anecdote. Not surprisingly, people most commonly accept this fallacy because they want to believe that what is true in the anecdote is true for the whole population.

In the case of terrorism, people use both anecdotal evidence and hasty generalization: they point to a few examples of domestic terrorism or tell the story about a specific incident, and then draw an unwarranted conclusion about the probability of a terrorist attack occurring. For example, people point to the claim that one of the terrorists in Paris masqueraded as a refugee and infer that refugees pose a great threat to the United States. Or they tell the story about the one attacker in San Bernardino who arrived in the states on a K-1 (“fiancé”) visa and make unwarranted conclusions about the danger of the visa system (which is used by about 25,000 people a year).

One last fallacy is misleading vividness. This occurs when a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that an event is particularly vivid or dramatic does not make the event more likely to occur, especially in the face of significant statistical evidence to the contrary.

People often accept this sort of “reasoning” because particularly vivid or dramatic cases tend to make a very strong impression on the human mind. For example, mass shootings by domestic terrorists are vivid and awful, so it is hardly surprising that people feel they are very much in danger from such attacks. Another way to look at this fallacy in the context of threats is that a person conflates the severity of a threat with its probability. That is, the worse the harm, the more a person feels that it will occur.

It should be kept in mind that taking into account the possibility of something dramatic or vivid occurring is not always fallacious. For example, a person might decide to never go sky diving because the effects of an accident can be very, very dramatic. If he knows that, statistically, the chances of the accident are happening are very low but he considers even a small risk to be unacceptable, then he would not be making this error in reasoning. This then becomes a matter of value judgment—how much risk is a person willing to tolerate relative to the severity of the potential harm.

The defense against these fallacies is to use a proper statistical analysis as the basis for inferences about probability. As noted above, there is still the psychological problem: people tend to act on the basis on how they feel rather than what the facts show.

Such rational assessment of threats is rather important for both practical and moral reasons. The matter of terrorism is no exception to this.  Since society has limited resources, rationally using them requires considering the probability of threats rationally—otherwise resources are being misspent. For example, spending billions to counter a miniscule threat while spending little on leading causes of harm would be irrational (if the goal is to protect people from harm). There is also the concern about the harm of creating fear that is unfounded. In addition to the psychological harm to individuals, there is also the damage to the social fabric. There has already been an increase in attacks on Muslims in America and people are seriously considering abandoning core American values, such as the freedom of religion and being good Samaritans.

In light of the above, I urge people to think rather than feel their way through their concerns about terrorism. Also, I urge people to stop listening to Donald Trump. He has the right of free expression, but people also have the right of free listening.

 

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Trump & The Muslim Ban

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has found what seems to be a winning strategy: when a poll shows that he might be losing his lead, he makes an outrageous statement. His poll numbers then rise. On December 7, 2015 Trump said that the United States should forbid all Muslims from entering the country.

In making his statement, Trump asserted that “…the hatred is beyond comprehension” and that the ban must last “…until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses…” He apparently thinks that Muslims “…believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.” Since Trump is the leading Republican candidate, his remarks carry significant weight. As such, they demand serious consideration.

There are three main areas in which Trump’s proposal needs to be assessed. These are the legal, the moral and the practical. I will start with the legal.

While I am not a constitutional scholar or a lawyer, Trump’s proposal seems to be unconstitutional. There is no legal precedent for applying a religious test for admission to the United States and, most importantly, it would violate the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment. As such, even if such a law were passed by Congress, it would almost certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court. Since I am not an expert in this area, I would certainly defer to those who know this field.

As might be expected, the morality of Trump’s proposal depends on what sort of moral theory is used to assess it. Those who hold that morality is based on Christianity would presumably accept the command of Leviticus: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” This would seem to forbid such exclusion. Naturally, it could be objected that this command does not apply to Muslims—the challenge is providing the scriptural support for this claim. It could also be pointed out that the text is about the foreigner residing among us and, as such, does not forbid preventing the foreigner from coming here to reside. This sort of loophole is best debated by religious scholars.

For those who prefer ethics not based on religion, one standard approach is to consider the matter from the utilitarian standpoint. This would involve considering the harms and benefits of such a ban, weighing them, arguing that morality is a matter of consequences and then drawing the appropriate conclusion. This also brings in the practical assessment of the plan by considering its effectiveness or lack thereof.

Given what Trump says, he seems to think that the ban would protect Americans from harm. In one sense, he is right: if no Muslims are allowed into the country, then the Muslims that are kept out cannot harm Americans here. Americans would just face the usual dangers from everyone else and each other—and the leading cause of violent deaths of Americans is, of course, other Americans. As such, the increase in safety would be incredibly small.

There are numerous negative consequences to consider, such as the harm that would be done to refugees fleeing wars as well as the many Muslims who come to the United States to engage in peaceful, productive and beneficial activities such as working, learning, teaching, and being tourists. There is also the harm that would be done to the Americans who benefit from these activities. In practical terms, this could be measured in dollars lost. In moral terms, it could be measured in harms done.

In addition to the domestic harms, there is also the harm to America’s reputation. To impose such a ban on Muslims would be to throw down and stomp upon our claims of religious tolerance and religious liberty. We have claimed that we will take in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses that yearn to breathe free. To refuse to allow people into the country would repudiate these words. This is said to be the home of the brave. To impose such a ban would be to make this the home of the fearful and the intolerant. The harm to our reputation in the world would, I believe, be quite serious and would greatly offset any alleged gain in safety from the ban. This can, of course be countered by arguing that either the impact to our reputation would be insignificant or that it would be outweighed by the alleged gain in safety.

Finally, this sort of ban would be a propaganda gold mine for groups like Daesh. It would serve as excellent evidence for the claim that the West is at war with Islam and would serve as a powerful recruiting tool. Those banned from entering the United States would also have resentment against America, resentment that could in some cases be fanned into the flames of radicalization. This would, ironically, put Americans at greater risk. This could also be countered by arguing that such a ban would not have the claimed effect or that the positive impact of the ban on safety would outweigh the negative.

Given that the proposed ban is unconstitutional, immoral and would be ineffective as a means of providing protection (but very effective as Daesh propaganda) it should be evident it is an awful idea. In fact, its mere proposal is already harming the United States.

 

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Trump & Truth

As this is being written at the end of November, Donald Trump is still the leading Republican presidential candidate. While some might take the view that this is in spite of the outrageous and terrible things Trump says, a better explanation is that he is doing well because of this behavior. Some regard it as evidence of his authenticity and find it appealing in the face of so many slick and seemingly inauthentic politicians (Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are regarded by some as examples of this). Some agree with what Trump says and thus find this behavior very appealing.

Trump was once again in the media spotlight for an outrageous claim. This time, he made a claim about something he believed happened on 9/11: “Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”

Trump was immediately called on this claim on the grounds that it is completely untrue. While it would be as reasonable to dismiss Trump’s false claim as it would be to dismiss any other claim that is quite obviously untrue, the Washington Post and Politifact undertook a detailed investigation. On the one hand, it seems needless to dignify such a falsehood with investigation. On the other hand, since Trump is the leading Republican candidate, his claims could be regarded as meriting the courtesy of a fact check rather than simple dismissal as being patently ludicrous.  As should be expected, while they did find some urban myths and rumors, they found absolutely no evidence supporting Trump’s claim.

Rather impressively, Trump decided to double-down on his claim rather than acknowledging that his claim is manifestly false. His confidence has also caused some of his supporters to accept his claim, typically with vague references about having some memory of something that would support Trump’s claim. This is consistent with the way ideologically motivated “reasoning” works: when confronted with evidence against a claim that is part of one’s ideologically identity, the strength of the belief becomes even stronger. This holds true across the political spectrum and into other areas as well. For example, people who strongly identify with the anti-vaccination movement not only dismiss the overwhelming scientific evidence against their views, they often double-down on their beliefs and some even take criticism as more proof that they are right.

This tendency does make psychological sense—when part of a person’s identity is at risk, it is natural to engage in a form of wishful thinking and accept (or reject) a claim because one really wants the claim to be true (or false). However, wishful thinking is fallacious thinking—wanting a claim to be true does not make it true. As such, this tendency is a defect in a person’s rationality and giving in to it will generally lead to poor decision making.

There is also the fact that since at least the time of Nixon a narrative about liberal media bias has been constructed and implanted into the minds of many. This provides an all-purpose defense against almost any negative claims made by the media about conservatives. Because of this, Trump’s defenders can allege that the media covered up the story (which would, of course, contradict his claim that he saw all those people in another city celebrating 9/11) or that they are now engaged in a conspiracy against Trump.

A rather obvious problem with the claim that the media is engaged in some sort of conspiracy is that if Trump saw those thousands celebrating in New Jersey, then there should be no shortage of witnesses and video evidence. However, there are no witnesses and no such video evidence. This is because Trump’s claim is not true.

While it would be easy to claim that Trump is simply lying, this might not be the case. As discussed in an earlier essay I wrote about presidential candidate Ben Carson’s untrue claims, a claim being false is not sufficient to make it a lie. For example, a person might say that he has $20 in his pocket but be wrong because a pickpocket stole it a few minutes ago. Her claim would be untrue, but it would be a mistake to accuse her of being a liar. While this oversimplifies things quite a bit, for Trump to be lying about this he would need to believe that what he is saying is not true and be engaged in the right (or rather) wrong sort of intent. The matter of intent is important for obvious reasons, such as distinguishing fiction writers from liars. If Trump believes what he is saying, then he would not be lying.

While it might seem inconceivable that Trump really believes such an obvious untruth, it could very well be the case. Memory, as has been well-established, is notoriously unreliable. People forget things and fill in the missing pieces with bits of fiction they think are facts. This happens to all of us because of our imperfect memories and a need for a coherent narrative. There is also the fact that people can convince themselves that something is true—often by using on themselves various rhetorical techniques. One common way this is done is by reputation—the more often people hear a claim repeated, the more likely it is that they will accept it as true, even when there is no evidence for the claim. This is why the use of repeated talking points is such a popular strategy among politicians, pundits and purveyors. Trump might have told himself his story so many times that he now sincerely believes it and once it is cemented in his mind, it will be all but impossible for any evidence or criticism to dislodge his narrative. If this is the case, in his mind there was such massive celebrations and he probably can even “remember” the images and sounds—such is the power of the mind.

Trump could, of course, be well aware that he is saying something untrue but has decided to stick with his claim. This would make considerable sense—while people are supposed to pay a price for being completely wrong and an even higher price for lying, Trump has been rewarded with more coverage and more support with each new outrageous thing he does or says. Because of this success, Trump has excellent reasons to continue doing what he has been doing. It might take him all the way to the White House.

 

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The West vs. Islam?

Crusader 2015One popular narrative on the American right is that the West is engaged in a “clash of civilizations” with Islam. Some phrase it in terms of Islam being at war with the West, while some are willing to cast the war as being between the West and radical Islam (rather than all of Islam). Not surprisingly, the various terrorist groups that self-identify as Muslim would probably be quite pleased with this narrative: they also would like it to be a war between all of Islam and the West.

There are various psychological reasons to embrace this narrative. Seeing oneself on the side of good in an epic struggle with evil is certainly very appealing. This provides a person with meaning and a sense of significance that is so often lacking in modern life. There is also the lure of racism, bigotry and religious intolerance. These are strong motivating factors to regard those who are different as an implacable enemy—inferior in all ways, yet somehow demonically dangerous and devilishly clever.

There are also powerful motivations to get others to accept this narrative. Leaders can use it as political fuel to gain power and to justify internal oppression and external violence. It also makes an excellent distractor from other problems. As such, it is no surprise that both American politicians and terrorist leaders are happy to push the West vs. Islam narrative. Doing so serves both their agendas.

While the psychology and politics of the narrative are both very important, I will focus on discussing the idea of the West being at war with Islam. One obvious starting point is to try to sort out what this might mean.

It might seem easy to define the West—this could be done by listing the usual Western nations, such as the United States, France, Germany, Canada and so on. However, it can get a bit fuzzy in areas. For example, Turkey is predominantly Muslim, but is part of NATO and considered by some to be part of the Western bloc. Russia is certainly not part of the classic West, but is the target of terrorist groups. But, perhaps it is possible to just go with the classic West and ignore the finer points of this war.

Establishing the war is fairly easy. While many terrorist groups that claim to be fighting for Islam have declared open war on the West, the overwhelming majority of Muslims have not done so. As such, the West is only at war with some Muslims and not with Islam. Likewise, Islam is not at war with the West, but some Muslims are. Muslims are also at war with other Muslims—after all, Daesh (which likes to call itself “ISIS”) has killed far more Muslims than it has killed Westerners. The West could, of course, establish a full war on Islam on its own. For example, President Trump could get Congress to declare war on Islam.

There are, however, some obvious practical concerns about taking the notion of a war on Islam seriously. One concern is the fact that while the are some predominantly Muslim nations that are hostile to the United States (such as Iran and Syria), there are others that are nominal allies (such as Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) and even one that is part of NATO (Turkey). As such, a war against Islam would entail a war against these allies. That seems both morally and practically problematic.

A second concern is that many friendly and neutral countries have Muslim populations. These countries would probably take issue with a war against their citizens. There is also the fact that the United States has Muslim citizens and waging a war on United States citizens could also prove somewhat problematic both legally and practically. But perhaps Muslim Americans could be treated the way Japanese Americans were treated during WWII. That worked out great, so why not just repeat history? Donald Trump has laid out some of his thoughts on this matter, at least in regards to handling the war with Muslims in America. He has considered requiring Muslims to be registered in a special database and to identify their faith. As those who are familiar with history will remember, this sort of thing has been done before. While I am no constitutional scholar, this sort of thing would seem to be a clear violation of basic civil rights and is clearly immoral.

A third practical concern is determining the victory conditions for such a war. “Classic” war typically involves trying to get the opposing country to surrender or to at least agree to conditions that end the war. However, a war against a religion would seem to be inherently different. One rather awful victory condition might be the elimination of Islam, either through extermination or conversion. This sort of thing has been attempted against faiths and peoples in the past with varying degrees of “success.” However, such exterminations seem to be rather morally problematic—to say the least. Alternatively, Muslims might be rounded up and kept in concentrated areas where the West could observe them and ensure they did not engage in any hostilities against the West. This also seems rather impractical and morally horrifying.

Victory might be defined in less extreme ways, such as getting Islam to surrender and creating agreements to behave in ways that the West approves. This is, after all, how traditional wars end. There are, of course, many practical problems here. These would include the logistics of Islam’s surrender (since there is no unified leadership of Islam) and working out the agreements all across the world.

Or perhaps there is no actual intention to achieve victory: the war on Islam is simply used to justify internal suppression of rights and liberties, to manipulate voters, to ensure that money keeps flowing into the military-security complex, and to provide pretexts for military operations. As such, the war will continue until a more traditional opponent can be found to fill the role of adversary.  Russia seemed eager to get back into this role, but they now seem willing to take part in the war on terror.

One reasonable counter to the above is to insist that although the ideas of a war with Islam and a clash of civilizations are quite real, a more serious approach is a war with radical Islam rather than all of Islam. This narrower approach could avoid many of the above practical problems, assuming that our Muslim allies are not radicals and that our and allied Muslim citizens are (mostly) not radicals. This would enable the West to avoid having to wage war on allies and its own citizens, which would be rather awkward.

While this narrowed scope is an improvement, there are still some obvious concerns. One is working out who counts as the right sort of radical. After all, a person can hold to a very radical theology, yet have no interest in harming anyone else. But perhaps “radical Islam” could be defined in terms of groups that engage in terrorist and criminal acts that also self-identity as Muslims. If this approach is taken, then there would seem to be no legitimate justification for labeling this a war on Islam or even radical Islam. It would, rather, be a conflict with terrorists and criminals—which is as it should be.

There are some very practical reasons for avoiding even the “war on radical Islam” phrasing. One is that using the phrase provides terrorist groups with a nice piece of propaganda: they can claim that the West is at war with Islam, rather than being engaged in conflict with terrorists and criminals who operate under the banner of Islam. The second is that the use of the phrase alienates and antagonizes Muslims who are not terrorists, thus doing harm in the efforts to win allies (or at least to keep people neutral).

It might be objected that refusing to use “radical Islam” is a sign of political correctness or cowardice. While this is a beloved talking point for some, it has no merit as a serious criticism. As noted above, using the term merely serves to benefit the terrorists and antagonize potential allies. Insisting on using the term is a strategic error that is often driven by bravado, ignorance and intolerance. As such, the West should not engage in a war on Islam or even radical Islam. Fighting terrorists is, of course, another matter entirely. We should certainly put an end to Daesh and other such groups to protect the West and Muslims. And Western Muslims.

 

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Refugees & Terrorists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Taxing the 1% III: The Avoidance Argument

As noted in previous essays on this topic, those with the highest income in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. Some on the left have proposed increasing the tax rate to 40% or even 45%. For the most part, conservatives oppose these proposed tax increases. This essay will look at the avoidance argument against this increase.

The gist of this argument is that the tax increase is pointless because the rich will simply find ways to nullify the increase. They might use already established methods or develop new ones, but (the argument goes) they will manage to avoid paying the increase.

This argument does has a certain appeal—after all, there is little sense in engaging in actions that will have no effect. As such, it would seem reasonable to leave things as they are, since this change would do exactly that—only at the cost of enacting ineffective legislation.

Despite this appeal, there are two key factual issues that need to be addressed. The first is the issue of whether or not the rich would try to avoid the tax increase. Some of the wealthy have at least claimed to favor higher tax rates, so they might elect to accept the increase. However, most people (be they rich or not) generally prefer to not pay more taxes. There is also the fact that many of the rich already do all they can to minimize their tax burden. There is no reason to think that a tax increase would change this behavior. As such, it is reasonable to infer that most of the rich would try to minimize the impact of the tax increase.

The second factual issue is whether or not the rich would be able to nullify the tax increase. Or, if they cannot completely nullify it, the focus would be on determining the degree of nullification. One approach to this question is to consider that if the rich are concerned about the tax increase, then this indicates that it would affect them. After all, people generally do not worry about things they believe will not affect them.

A reasonable counter to this is that while the rich will be affected by the tax increase, their concern is not that they will be paying more taxes, but that avoiding the increase will cost them. For example, they might have to pay lawyers or accountants to enable them to neutralize the increase.  Or they might need to lobby or “donate” to politicians. Some even claim that the rich would be willing to expend considerable resources to mitigate the tax increase—if this expenditure would be lower than what paying the increase would cost them, then this approach could be rational. It could even be claimed that some might be willing to pay more to avoid the taxes than the taxes would cost them, perhaps as a matter of principle. While this sounds odd, it is not inconceivable.

Another approach is to consider how effectively the rich avoid existing taxes. Even if they are somewhat effective at doing so, the increase could still impact them and thus generate more tax revenue (which is the point of the tax increase). As such, an increase could be effective in regards to the stated goal of increasing revenue.

In addition to the factual issues, there is also the issue of whether or not the principle that underlies this argument is a good principle. The principle is that if people will be able to avoid a law (or policy), then the law should not be put in place.

As noted above, this principle does have a pragmatic appeal: it seems irrational to waste time and resources creating laws or policies that will simply be avoided. This sort of avoidance argument is also used against proposed bills aimed at gun control. Interestingly enough, many of those who use the avoidance argument in regards to gun control do not accept this same argument when it comes to attempts to limit abortion or to keep marijuana illegal. This is as should be expected: people tend to operate based on preferences rather than on consistent application of principles.

One possible response is that if a law is worth having, then steps should be taken to ensure that people cannot simply avoid it. If it was found that some people were able to get away with murder, then the morally right reaction would not be to simply give up on the law. The correct reaction would be to ensure that they could not get away with murder. Naturally, it can be argued that the tax increase would not be a law worth having—but that is a different argument distinct from the avoidance argument being addressed here.

A second possible response is to reject the consequentialist approach and take the approach that the fact that people will be able to avoid a law or policy is not as important as the issue of whether or not the law or policy is right. Some people take this approach to drug laws: they accept that the laws are ineffective, but contend that since drug use is immoral, it should remain illegal. As always, consistency is important in these matters: if the principle that moral concerns trump the pragmatic concerns is embraced, then that principle needs to be applied consistently in all relevantly similar cases. If the principle that the pragmatic should trump the moral is accepted, then that needs to be applied consistently to all relevantly similar cases. While the issue of whether such a tax increase is morally right or not is important, my concern here is with the avoidance argument. But, if the tax increase is not the right thing to do and the rich would just avoid it, then imposing it would be both wrong and a bad pragmatic choice.

 

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Performance Based Funding & Disadvantaged Students

As I have discussed in previous essays, Florida state universities now operate under a performance based model of funding and Florida A&M University (FAMU), my university, has performed poorly in regards to the state standards. One area of poor performance is the six-year graduation rate. Another is student loan debts, both in terms of the debt accrued and the default rate. Currently, it has been claimed that FAMU students default on their loans at three times the state average. It has been claimed that one explanation for this poor performance is that FAMU accepts students who are ill-prepared for a four year university. It has also been suggested that such students would be better served by community colleges.

I will not dispute the claim that FAMU admits some students who are ill-prepared for a four year university. This is because the claim is true. One reason it is true is because FAMU has had an historical mission of providing an opportunity for the disadvantaged. One part of this mission is shown by the fact FAMU is an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). Before desegregation, HBCUs provided almost the only higher education opportunities for African-Americans. After the end of legal segregation, HBCUs still served a vital role in providing such opportunities. As predominantly white colleges (PWCs, also known as Predominantly White Institutions or PWIs) became more integrated, people began to argue that this old mission of HBCUs was no longer relevant. After all, if black students can attend any school they wish and racism is no longer a factor, then one might say “mission accomplished.” Unfortunately, as I discussed in my essay on performance based funding and race, race is still a significant factor in regards to economic and academic success. As such, while the dismantling of some barriers to education is to be lauded, many more still remain. Among these are numerous economic barriers.

While it could be argued that FAMU no longer has a mission to offset racism in America by offering educational opportunities to African Americans, FAMU has also had a longstanding mission of serving the economically disadvantaged. Students who come from a background of economic and academic disadvantage (these are almost always tightly linked) face many challenges to graduating and, not surprisingly, are more likely to have student debt. It is well worth considering why disadvantaged students generally perform worse than other students.

One rather obvious factor is that students from poor schools (which tend to be located in economically disadvantaged areas) will face the challenge imposed by being poorly prepared for college. While individuals can overcome this through natural talent and special effort, this poor preparation is analogous to a weight chained to a runner’s leg—she will have to run so much harder to go as fast as others who are not dragging such a burden.

Another especially disturbing factor is that poverty has been found to negatively impact brain development as well as academic performance. Poverty is quite literally damaging American children and thus doing harm to the future of America. Unfortunately, for many politicians the concern regarding children seems to end at birth, so this problem is unlikely to be seriously addressed in the existing political climate.

A third factor is that disadvantaged students, being disadvantaged, generally need to borrow more money than students from wealthier backgrounds. This entails more student debt on the part of the disadvantaged. It also creates a rather vicious scenario: a student who needs to take out loans is more likely to end up with financial challenges in school. A student who is challenged financially is more likely to drop out than a student who is not. Students who drop out are more likely to default on student loans. This provides a rather clear explanation of why disadvantaged students have low completion rates, high debts and high default rates.

As might be expected, seventy percent of African American students say that student debt is their main reason for dropping out. In contrast, less than fifty percent of white students make this claim. This is quite consistent with my own study of student performance: over the course of my study, the primary reason for missing class was work and the main reason students gave for not graduating was financial.

In terms of why students are taking out more and larger loans than any time in United States history, there are some easy and obvious answers. One is the fact that incomes for all but the wealthiest have, at best, stagnated for nearly thirty years—as such people have less money to spend on college and thus need to take out loans. Students also need to work more in college, which can make attending class and completing work challenging.

A second is the fact that state funding for education has dropped substantially as a result of both ideology and the great recession. Even after the broader economy rebounded, education funding was not restored and some states continued to cut funding. With less state funding, universities raised tuition and this, naturally enough, has led to an increased need for students to work more (which impacts graduation rates) and take out loans—which leads to debt. It is a cruel irony that the very people who have cut education funding judge schools by how well they handle the problems such cuts have created or acerbated. To use an analogy, this is like taking a runner’s shoes, striking her legs with a baton and then threatening to do more damage unless she runs even faster than before. This is madness.

Given the factors discussed above, it should hardly be surprising that a school, such as FAMU, that intentionally enrolls disadvantaged students will perform worse than schools who do not have such a mission. Since FAMU’s funding is linked to its performance, it is rather important to consider solutions to this situation.

The state legislature could address this problem in various ways. One approach would be to address the economic and academic inequality that creates disadvantaged students. This, however, seems extremely unlikely in the present political climate.

A second approach would be to restore the education funding that was cut (or even increase it beyond that). However, the current ideological commitment is to cutting education funding while, at the same time, expressing shocked dismay at greater student debt and punishing schools for not solving this problem by taking away even more money. As such, it seems reasonable, though rather unfortunate, to dismiss the state legislature as a source of solutions and instead regard them as a major part of the problem.

For schools such as FAMU, one option is to change the mission of the school to one that matches the views of those providing oversight of the schools. This revised mission would not include providing opportunities to the disadvantaged. Rather, it would involve improving the graduation and debt numbers by ceasing to admit disadvantaged students. On the plus side, this would enable FAMU to improve its performance relative to the goals imposed by the legislature that helped create the student debt crisis and helped lower graduation rates. However, the performance based funding system imposed by the state must have losers, so even if FAMU improved, it might not improve enough to push some other schools to the bottom.  Even if it does improve, it would merely shift the punishment of the state to some other school—which is certainly morally problematic (rather like the old joke about not needing to outrun the bear, just one other person).

On the minus side, abandoning this historic mission of providing opportunity to the disadvantaged would mean abandoning people to the mire of poverty and the desert that is a lack of opportunity. As a professor who teaches ethics, this strikes me as morally reprehensible—especially in a country whose politicians cry endlessly about opportunity, economic mobility and the American Dream.

As has been well-established by history, a college degree is a way to achieve greater economic success and it has been a ladder out of poverty for many previous generations of Americans. To kick away this ladder would be to say that the American Dream is only for those lucky enough to already be well off and the rest can simply stay at the bottom. This could be done, but if it is done, then we must no longer speak of this being a land of opportunity for everyone.

It might be countered that, as was suggested, the disadvantaged students could attend a two-year college. While this idea has become something of a talking point, the evidence shows that it is actually not a low cost, low debt option for students. Because of higher education costs and reduced state support, disadvantaged students will still need to take out loans to attend such schools and will face the same general challenges they would face at a four-year institute.

It could also be countered that enrolling disadvantaged students does not actually help them. After all, if they do not graduate and end up accumulating considerable debt, then it could be argued they would have been better off never making the attempt. They could, instead, go straight to work right out of high school (or complete some technical training). The money that would have been spent on them could be spent on students more likely to succeed (because they already enjoy advantages).

While I am committed to the value of education, this is a point well worth considering. If an objective and fair assessment of the data shows that disadvantage students are worse off when they attempt a four-year degree, then it would make no sense to admit such students. However, if the data shows that providing such students with this opportunity does provide positive benefits, then it would seem a good idea to continue to offer people a chance to escape to a better future from a disadvantaged past. This is, of course, a matter of value—how much is it worth to society to provide such opportunities and at what point should we, as a people, say that the cost is too high to give our fellow Americans an opportunity? Or, put another way, how much are we willing to spend to be able to speak about the American Dream without speaking lies?

 

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