Common Sense for the 21st Century

Author Dan Hind has recently released his e-book, Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, and it’s fantastic.  The fifty-five page e-pamphlet encapsulates the deep-rooted rot of our societies, and the “common sense” – the accumulated assumptions that shape our understanding of the world – that make the rot invisible to those living within it.  The core of our contemporary common sense is comprised of the cult-like mantras of “the market” and “the expert.” Continue reading

The Dilemma of Judicial Review

The Supreme Court and its power of judicial review has come under the spotlight again as the Court provides a hostile and politically driven look at Obama’s useless health insurance reform act.  Transcripts of the Court deliberations are shocking for the childishness of the arguments being offered (some of which can be found here).  But every time a law comes under review, it’s time for someone to complain about “judicial activism” striking down the people’s law, or “legislating from the bench”.  That’s only when the courts strike down a law that they like – otherwise the courts are a valuable part of our checks and balances.  However, I agree that judicial review poses a dilemma for democratic institutions.  On the one hand, if a state has a constitution that is to remain inviolable, then the courts are going to have strike down democratically-established laws that violate that constitution.  On the other hand, courts are not typically democratically organized, with either appointed or professional judges, and judicial review involves these judges striking down law that has been formulated by a democratic process.  Either a democracy has the power to destabilize the viability of its own democratic organization, or it contains an undemocratic element.  How shall we solve this dilemma? Continue reading

You Can’t Shoot Children No Matter What They’re Wearing

Everybody knows about Trayvon Martin by now.  He was the 17-year-old shot to death in Sanford, Florida, by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman.  George Zimmerman saw Martin and decided that he was acting “suspicious”.  Zimmerman contacted the police, who told him not to confront Martin, but Zimmerman grabbed his pistol and did so anyway.  Trayvon Martin, unarmed, was shot to death.  If that were the end of it, this would simply be an ordinary injustice, rectified by an arrest and a trial for murder.  However, this has garnered national attention because the Sanford police have so far refused to arrest George Zimmerman, on the grounds that he acted according to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense laws.

Fortunately for our collective sanity, there has been a groundswell of support for justice for the Martins.  But there are still those who wear their racist psychopathy on their sleeves, and claim that Zimmerman acted appropriately.  Geraldo Rivera, for example, claimed that Martin had some culpability for his own shooting, as he was wearing a hoodie, which is some sort of sign of criminality, in Rivera’s world anyway.  Some sort of human detritus named Dan Linehan, writing at the Wagist has claimed that Martin may have smoked marijuana!  Further details from Zimmerman’s attorneys include claims that Martin broke Zimmerman’s nose, and a Zimmerman friend said that Zimmerman had been in fear of his life.

Here are a few obvious claims that these cretins should be made aware of:

  1. Lethal violence is only justifiable when lethal violence is offered.  If Martin had actually been armed with a gun, rather than candy and iced tea, then using a firearm might be justified.  But he was unarmed, so no amount of other details can justify his fatal shooting.  Nevertheless, this is lost on some people, so….
  2. You can’t kill children, or people more generally, for what they are wearing.  Martin could have been wearing literally anything or nothing, and that still cannot justify the shooting of an unarmed man.
  3. You can’t kill marijuana users, or as Linehan fatuously concluded, a “drug dealer.”
  4. No amount of after-the-fact details of Martin’s character can justify his homicide.  The media seems to enjoy digging up the dirt about a murdered child, as if the fact that he wasn’t a saint justifies his killing.  But nobody is, and it doesn’t matter, because he was shot to death while unarmed, offering minimal violence.
  5. George Zimmerman’s subjective state does not alter the moral and legal norms of a murderous act.  One of Zimmerman’s friends says that “he couldn’t stop crying” after the shooting.  That’s good – he did murder someone after all.  The fact that he was fearful for his life does not change the facts of the situation.  If you’re carrying a pistol around in your car in your gated community, you’re probably a coward.

But just as nothing about Martin’s character would justify his death, nothing about Zimmerman’s character justifies his arrest.  What does justify Zimmerman’s arrest is that he shot an unarmed 17-year-old in the street, whom he considered “suspicious” for what can only be racially-motivated reasons.

Participatory Representation

Most of us in the United States by now realize that the government does not work for us.  In a previous article, I discussed this, the most significant problem in American society.  Besides the many undemocratic features of government in the Unites States, the failure is partially a matter of the mechanism for electoral representation.  As readers may remember from that previous article, I identified the failure as being the “mediating factors” that distort the relationship of the elected representative to the represented citizens.  These mediating factors include campaign contributions, political party oligarchies, and special-interest organizations whose influence outweighs that of the voting constituency.  My solution to this problem is to replace these mediating factors with a public mechanism for electoral representation that organizes citizens’ power over their representative.  I call this mechanism “participatory representation.”  Participatory representation empowers citizens in their control over their representatives by creating a public process of democratic mediation between the represented and the representative. Continue reading


Tomorrow sites across the Internet will be blacked out from 8 am until 8 pm as a protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. Both of these proposed bills, drafted by entertainment industry associations, would allow entertainment corporations to bring civil action against web content providers for the possibility of infringing intellectual property. It has been offered that the intention is to prevent foreign companies from infringing, but the predictable outcome is a significant blow to the freedom of Internet publication. While most sites will be blacked out, I don’t know exactly how to do that. Nevertheless, we here at Philosophyhelmet support the blackout against SOPA and PIPA!

Right to Basic Needs: “Entitlements” are Not Charity

From the asylum of absolute lunacy that characterizes American politics today, we have been hearing that we can no longer afford “entitlements” that the lazy jobless people feed on.  The attitude is that such “entitlements” – a word that sounds like something less than “rights” – are merely coerced charity.  However, “entitlements” that maintain people’s basic needs are not public charity, and private charity cannot replace public provisions for basic needs.  Private charity does not only fail to solve the fundamental problem of people’s deprivation, it also fails conceptually.  Private charity is what is called in ethics an “imperfect duty,” which means that you should do it, but you don’t always have to do it.  That citizens provide for one another and ensure that each have their basic needs met is a “perfect duty”, one that is always and continuously performed, for which we must establish social institutions to act in our stead. Continue reading

“Start Seeing Motorcycle Helmets”: Helmet Laws and Liberty

Recently I was reading J.D. Trout’s The Empathy Gap.  The main thrust of the work is that the reasoning capacities of human beings are limited and should be supplemented by the structure of social institutions to improve our decision-making.  For example, as the title suggests, social institutions can be used to bridge the “empathy gap,” that inability to care about the people we don’t know or see.  Many of the examples are similar to what is found in Nudge, reviewed on this site.  The example that Trout uses that I want to discuss is the effectiveness of motorcycle helmet laws, and the relationship of such laws to paternalism. Continue reading

The Big Question of 2011: Why Occupy?

The big news of the last year has undoubtedly been the rise of democratic movements all across the world, beginning in 2010 in Tunisia and spreading to our own supposedly democratic shores as Occupy Wall Street.  Though our intrepid reporters (me – I was the intrepid reporter) brought you a firsthand account of its Richmond branch, we are a philosophy site, not a news site.  So on this New Year’s Day, I’m answering a question that I’ve heard a lot since my attempt to be involved in the local Occupation.  Namely, why? Continue reading