Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category


Ethics, Policy, & Environment Vol 14, Issue 1

April 2, 2011

Our March issue is up. Check out the editorial by Andrew and me.Ethics, Policy & Environment


Philosophy and Policy

September 9, 2010

Roger has a nice post this morning about the conflict and pushback he’s gotten from political scientists by working on policy issues. The same could be said for those working in philosophy and policy.

Curiously, many philosophers will insist that they’re interested in public policy issues. They will tell you that they focus on abstract philosophical questions associated with broad-reaching public policy concerns: moral status, personal identity, doing and allowing, the nature of value. These are all  interesting questions, of course, and I work on some of them too. When push comes to shove, however, many philosophers often refuse to go further. They’ll insist that many of the more pressing public policy issues aren’t philosophically interesting enough, that there’s no sense in dissecting the details. Doing so will certainly come off as scholastic and picayune.

Meh. Policy is messy, gritty stuff. The targets are moving. The questions are changing. Philosophers need to step up and get a little dirty. It ain’t as pure as all the beautiful as the M&E or metaethics stuff; it’s not as fun as the normative or even the applied ethics work; but it’s just as damned important.

Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretirt; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern. Or something like that.


Open the Border

June 6, 2010

My philosophy colleague, Mike Huemer, has an op-ed in the Daily Camera. I’m sure it will stir up all sorts of nuttiness.

According to government estimates, 11 million people presently reside in the United States illegally. This number is up 27 percent since 2000. What should be done about this apparent problem? Demands that the government “secure the border” are increasingly prominent, with many calling on other states to follow Arizona`s lead.

I have a different proposal: America should open the border, and grant amnesty to the 11 million undocumented residents. My argument is not that immigration benefits America, though that is true. My argument is that U.S. immigration policy is fundamentally unjust. It disregards the rights and interests of other human beings, merely because those persons were born in another country. It coercively imposes clear and serious harms on some people, for the sake of relatively minor or dubious benefits for others who happened to have been born in the right geographical area. The question Americans should be asking is not “What is best for current citizens?” but “What right do we have to exclude others from the same freedom and opportunity that we were given by an accident of birth?”

My premises are simple. First: it is wrong to knowingly impose severe harms on others, by force, without having a good reason for doing so. This principle holds regardless of where one`s victims were born or presently reside.

Second, the U.S. government, in restricting immigration, knowingly and coercively imposes severe harms on millions of human beings. Consider a simple analogy. Marvin is desperately hungry and plans to travel to a nearby marketplace to buy food. Sam intentionally stops Marvin and coercively prevents him from reaching the marketplace, knowing that this will prevent Marvin from obtaining food. Sam did not cause Marvin to be hungry to begin with. But when he coercively intervenes to stop Marvin from obtaining food, Sam becomes responsible for what results. If Marvin dies of starvation, Sam will be responsible for the death.

That is the behavior of the U.S. government. The government hires armed guards to stop people from crossing the border, and to forcibly expel those who are found residing in the country without permission. The U.S. government knows, when it does this, that many of these would-be immigrants will suffer severe poverty, oppression, and greatly diminished life prospects as a result. The government is therefore responsible for these consequences, just as Sam would be responsible for Marvin`s starvation.

Third, the U.S. government has no good reason for imposing such harms on potential immigrants. Immigration restrictions are typically defended by the claim that immigrants “steal American jobs” or dilute American culture. Now consider this analogy. After stopping Marvin from reaching the marketplace and thus causing Marvin to starve, suppose that Sam tries to defend his action by saying that it was necessary to prevent Marvin from competing with other buyers in the marketplace and thus driving up the price of bread. Or suppose Sam argues that his action was justified because Marvin has a different culture from most of the people already in the marketplace. Surely these justifications would not succeed. The desire to limit marketplace competition or cultural influence is not normally an adequate reason for coercively imposing serious harms on other people.

From these three premises, it follows that U.S. immigration policy is morally wrong. This typically goes unnoticed in the immigration debate, because most Americans are prejudiced against foreigners, in the same way that we were once prejudiced against blacks. No one today would dream of arguing that the government should stop white people from hiring blacks, so that blacks don`t “steal white jobs.” But we are not bothered by the prejudice displayed in arguing that the government needs to stop Americans from hiring foreign-born people so that the foreign-born don`t “steal American jobs.” This can only be because prejudice based on nationality has outlived prejudice based on race. But neither attitude is morally defensible.

Michael Huemer is a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado.


Sickle Cell Mos-keeters

April 28, 2010

Reposting this guest-commentary (by Patrick Moffitt) from the Center for Environmental Journalism. As someone who has lived through two Russian summers, and thus witnessed the aggressive onslaught of the post-Soviet mosquito, I will tell you that, upon reflection, I find the core assertion of this article not surprising in the least. I recall one time in particular, as I was walking through a park during White Nights, that I could feel the mosquitoes batting into my legs with the force of thousands of blades of hostile grass. I have, as well, slept several nights in country Dachas, burying my head under the sheets in a vain attempt to keep the buzzing parasites from doing the nasty in my ear canal.

The malaria climate connection however raises important ethical questions. Malaria is too often framed as a “climate disease” by NGOs, regulatory agencies, media and some scientists. (See here and here.) This carefully constructed message implies the control of malaria requires that we control carbon dioxide emissions. This message is untrue, unethical and immoral.

Malaria is a preventable and treatable disease that we allow, by our inaction, to kill one million people and infect another 250 million to 350 million each year. (See this report from the World Health Organization.) These are not modeled deaths. Nor are they possible deaths related to some future carbon scenario. These dead had names, were loved, and are mourned. And nearly 80% of these dead are African children under the age of five.

Malaria, for some reason, seems to be the bugaboo of the anti-environmental community. Rachel Carson has certainly taken her lumps for allegedly “causing” the deaths of millions, a view that has been heavily disputed in many places, though usually on empirical grounds.

My view is that this is a straw man. Nobody but the most extremely silly in the environmental community actually argue that all pesticides and all spraying to eradicate a scourge like the mosquito is unacceptable. Most people take a considerably more measured approach. Even in Boulder, bastion of environmentalism, we spray for West Nile Virus. Frankly, as a one-time victim of meningitis, I’d like to see a bit more spraying for West Nile in Boulder. Alas, as luck has it, we have plenty of extremely silly people who fetishize one concern to the neglect of another. People do that with vaccines too.

It is, however, an important point: that not all environmental disasters are attributable to climate change, and once in a while it is important to just address questions in a more traditional context.

I’m not sure if there are more effective pesticides on the market than DDT, but certainly, if there’s an outbreak of malaria, it makes sense to spray. It just doesn’t make sense to spray indiscriminately. And it’s the spraying indiscriminately, it seems to me, that rankles the feathers of otherwise silent environmentalists.


How to Avoid Racial Profiling

April 26, 2010

One of the major concerns with the new Arizona immigration law, apparently, is that it will inspire a wave of racial profiling. At least, that’s what everyone is saying.

I said a few days ago that racial profiling is not the major concern, and I stick with that point. Here’s another way of thinking about what I was saying before, and one that I think is actually implied by this law, if not an impending state of affairs if the law goes into effect.

One way to avoid racial profiling is to apply a law to all races (however described) equally. (Set aside, for the time being, the conceptual absurdity of racial categories.)

So, for instance, one can demonstrate that one is not racially profiling when pulling over speeders by showing that the number of speeders pulled over is roughly proportional to the racial makeup of the driving population. One can also avoid racial profiling at airports by running all passengers, say, through a metal detector before they get on an airplane.

Am I right? Yes, I’m right.

So, since there are no non-arbitrary features that implicate any given person as a citizen or a non-citizen based simply on looks or perception — skin color, accent, language difficulties, many people packed in a car (?), dirty shoes —  and since racial profiling is itself illegal, if law enforcement aim to get around the problem of racial profiling, they can just take all comers. Every person they stop, or ever tenth person they stop, should need to produce citizenship papers: whites, blacks, browns, tans — no problem.

Do I support this proposal? No. I don’t support the immigration legislation, and I don’t support this solution. But I don’t support the legislation in part because I don’t support this solution. I would be massively, hysterically, outrageously resentful if some law enforcement officer took it upon himself to ask me for my papers in my own country. I suspect many other Americans would feel the same way.

Further, and here’s one final thought, this law will be uncontested if it works out 100% of the time. If every person pulled over and asked for papers ends up being a non-citizen, then the police will have some serious powers of perception. What, then, of the time that it doesn’t work? The time that they stop a person in the street because they suspect he might be an illegal immigrant, and it turns out that he is not an illegal immigrant, but a full, tax-paying citizen. What will they appeal to? The color of his skin? His accent? His shoes? Seriously, how will they get around the non-arbitrariness charge?

This is an unenforceable and unethical law. It cannot be justified.


Graham Threatens Pullback

April 24, 2010

In an unbelievable move of political cowardice and logical hubris, Lindsey Graham has threatened to pull out of proposed climate and energy legislation (scheduled to be released on Monday) unless Obama backs off on his criticism of the recent Arizona immigration legislation and his possible shift to focus on moving immigration legislation forward. PostCarbon breaks the story.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) threatened to abandon his effort to push a climate and energy bill Saturday, saying he will only continue if Democratic leaders promise to relinquish plans to bring up immigration legislation first.

Graham’s departure, if he follows through on his ultimatum, would likely doom any chance of passing a climate bill this year. He is the sole Republican working with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a compromise proposal which they had planned to unveil Monday.

Because, you know, permission to erode civil liberties should certainly be a determining factor in how serious we are about addressing climate change and our energy future.


Liberty and Freedom

April 24, 2010

I probably don’t need to say much about this, but I thought I’d just point out how outrageously unethical the new Arizona immigration law is. It’s not just a bad law, it’s an unethical law, an unjust law, and it cuts deep into liberty and freedom — values that, I’m under the impression, are supposedly important to folks who have been making quite a stink lately. [Here’s the actual law.]

Some people (like, Fox News and CNN) are saying that liberal critics of the law are concerned about racial profiling. To my mind, racial profiling is the least of the concerns. A bigger concern is arbitrariness.

Arizona basically now requires law enforcement to demand papers from any person that any officer deems suspicious or illegal in any way, and permits those officers to detain those people on these grounds alone. It doesn’t specify the look of that person. It doesn’t specify the nationality of that person. It just specifies that a cop must be suspicious of that person being in the country legally. How does it ensure that the decision to request papers or detain a person won’t be based on the arbitrary whim of the police officer? It doesn’t. Presto. Carta blanca.

This differs dramatically, I think, from current criminal law which enables an officer to arrest or detain a person with “probable cause,” where that probable cause is a reasonable suspicion that a person has committed a crime. Criminals come in all shapes and sizes, so some non-arbitrary evidence — blood stains, eye-witnesses, a weapon, so on — is required that will distinguish the criminal from the non-criminal. Not so with citizenship. With citizenship, there is no non-arbitrary evidence. Some attributes may function as decent proxies for non-citizenship — brown skin, a Mexican accent, dirty clothes and shoes — but those proxy attributes aren’t even close to “evidence” in the traditional sense of the term. Many hard-working and voting citizens also have those attributes (about 16 million naturalized citizens and 37 million foreign born).

This means, in effect, that you will need to carry your papers, or at least some legal documentation, with you at all times, no matter what you’re doing. If you go to the gym. If you go on a run. If you take the dog for a walk. You need to have your papers.

Oh, sure, clean white people with ‘merkin accents and nice shirts will likely not fall victim to the vagaries of this law. They’re way too American, despite the fact that they may be Canadian.

As it happens, the Governor is apparently somewhat concerned about the racial profiling implications of this law (not the above-mentioned problem with arbitrariness and universalizability), so she’s instructed the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board to establish a training program for officers on how to “appropriately implement Senate Bill 1070.” Nothing cops like more than “sensitivity training.” And hey, there’s no mention in that executive order either of just what one is to be sensitive to.

Even if nobody falls victim to the law, this law cannot be justified. I fully and completely expect it to be deemed unconstitutional if it ever comes to the Supreme Court. But, then, I’m not a legal scholar, so I’m happy to be shown the error in my reasoning.



April 7, 2010

Here’s a very nice post from Robert Wolff on the Obama Administration’s recent shift in nuclear policy.


To Your Health

March 23, 2010

Two nights ago, like many in the US, I opened a bottle of wine to celebrate our embarrassing milestone of having finally joined the rest of the industrialized world in passing healthcare reform. Today it’s law. Yay us.

FWIW, I likely would’ve opened the wine anyway, but passage of healthcare reform somehow made that wine twice as enjoyable. Plus, that I would’ve opened the bottle of wine anyway lends all the more credibility to my reported elation, as I wasn’t in it for the wine. (Or something to that effect.)

As anybody who has been following this issue knows, getting here has been no easy undertaking. Even as you read this, the nattering naybobs of nincompoopitude are donning their tri-cornered hats and reenacting a fantasy era in American mythology, albeit this time with beer guts and bulging Lloyd Marcus (?) t-shirts. Now that challenges to the new law are coming out of the woodwork, it raises the important question: what does this terrible, awful, no good, very bad healthcare bill do?

If, for some reason you haven’t seen this yet, here’s a list of the “Top 10 immediate benefits” from Representative John B Larson. And here’s a nice, slightly harder to read, overview of some of the immediate benefits.

  1. Prohibit pre-existing condition exclusions for children in all new plans;
  2. Provide immediate access to insurance for uninsured Americans who are uninsured because of a pre-existing condition through a temporary high-risk pool;
  3. Prohibit dropping people from coverage when they get sick in all individual plans;
  4. Lower seniors’ prescription drug prices by beginning to close the donut hole;
  5. Offer tax credits to small businesses to purchase coverage;
  6. Eliminate lifetime limits and restrictive annual limits on benefits in all plans;
  7. Require plans to cover an enrollee’s dependent children until age 26;
  8. Require new plans to cover preventive services and immunizations without cost-sharing;
  9. Ensure consumers have access to an effective internal and external appeals process to appeal new insurance plan decisions;
  10. Require premium rebates to enrollees from insurers with high administrative expenditures and require public disclosure of the percent of premiums applied to overhead costs.

Now what about any of these is so hard to understand? Let’s go through a few of them…

Read the rest of this entry ?


New Blog

March 22, 2010

Reader Prajwal Kulkarni has started a new blog on science, policy, and politics. Unlike me, he’s chosen a straightforward name for his blog, which should spare him the now standard S&M jokes. Check it out. I think you’ll like what you see.

And apologies for the slack posting of late. We’re on spring break and I’m playing catch up.