Category Archives: Ethics

The American Oligarchy


Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

One of my lasting lessons from political science is that every major society has a pyramid structure in regards to wealth and power. The United States is no exception to this distribution pattern. However, the United States is also supposed to be a democratic society—which seems rather inconsistent with the pyramid.

While the United States does have the mechanisms of democracy, such as voting, it might be wondered whether the United States is democratic or oligarchic (or plutocratic) in nature. While people might turn to how they feel about this matter, such feelings and related anecdotes do not provide proof. So, for example, a leftist who thinks the rich rule the country and who feels oppressed by the plutocracy does not prove her belief by appealing to her feelings or anecdotes about the rich. Likewise, a conservative who thinks that America is a great democracy and feels good about the rich does not prove her belief by appealing to her feelings or anecdotes about the rich.

What is needed is a proper study to determine how the system works. One rather obvious way to determine the degree of democracy is to compare the expressed preferences of citizens with the political results. If the political results generally correspond to the preferences of the majority, then this is a reasonable (but not infallible) indicator that the system is democratic. If the political results generally favor the minority that is rich and powerful while going against the preferences of the less wealthy majority, then this would be a reasonable (but not infallible) indicator that the system is oligarchic (or plutocratic). After all, to the degree that a system is democratic, the majority should have their preferences enacted into law and policy—even when this goes against the wishes of the rich. To the degree that the system is oligarchic, then the minority of elites should get their way—even when this goes against the preferences of the majority.

Recently, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted just such a study: “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”  using data gathered from 1981 to 2002.

The researchers examined about 1,800 polices from that time and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

As noted above, a truly democratic system should result in the preferences of the majority being expressed in policies and laws more often than not. However, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.” As such, this study would seem to provide strong evidence that the United States is an oligarchy (or plutocracy) rather than a democratic state.

It might be contended that this system is fine since, to use a misquote, what is the preference for GM is the preference for Americans. That is, it could be claimed that the elites and the majority of Americans have the same or similar preferences.  However, the study found that the interests of the wealthy are not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens.” As such, the preferences of most Americans do not match the interests of the wealthy—but the wealthy generally get what they want.

One current example of this, which was not part of the study, is the fact that a very strong majority of Americans favor various gun control measures (such as universal background checks) yet bills that would make these measures into laws have failed. This provides a rather clear example of how the system works in general. Naturally, this example is merely an illustration—the statistical support is based in the 1,800 examined policies.

One possible objection is that the preferences of the majority are mistaken—that is, the majority wants things that are not in their best interest and what the elites want is what is actually best. For example, while most Americans might prefer stronger consumer protection laws when it comes to financial institutions, it could be claimed that they are in error. What is in their best interest is less consumer protection, which is what the financial elites want.

The obvious reply is that even if it were true that the majority is in error and the elites know best, this would arguing that the oligarchic system is better than a democratic system not that the system is not and oligarchic one.

Another possible objection is that the system is democratic in that people do vote for elected officials who then enact policies. Since the citizens can vote such officials out of office, they must be expressing the preferences of the citizens—despite the fact that policy and law consistently goes against the expressed preferences of the majority. This is to say that we have democratically created an oligarchy, so it is still a democracy (or at least a republic).

This objection is certainly interesting and raises a question about why people consistently re-elect people who consistently act contrary to their expressed preferences. One possibility is that the choices are very limited—you can vote for anyone you want, but a Democrat or Republican will almost certainly be elected. As such, the voters do get to vote, but they generally do not get real choices.

Another possibility is ignorance—people do not generally realize that what they get does not match what they claim to want. Such ignorance would put the moral blame partially on the citizens—they should be better informed.  Then again, given the abysmal approval rating for congress it seems that people do realize this. This creates a rather odd scenario: people really hate congress, yet generally keep re-electing them over and over.

A third possibility is that there are many strong propaganda machines that are devoted to convincing people that the laws and policies are good. So, while people have a preference for one thing, they are persuaded to believe that what is in the interest of the oligarchy is what they should like. People might also be distracted by other matters—for example, people who oppose same-sex marriage will support politicians who oppose it, even if the politician also supports policies that are contrary to the voter’s economic interests. In this case, the moral failing is on the part of the deceivers—they are tricking citizens with deceit and corrupting democracy.

Another approach to objecting to the study is to raise questions about the methodology. One obvious question would be whether or not the 1,800 policies are properly representative of the political system. After all, if the researchers picked ones that favored the wealthy and ignored others that matched public preferences, then the study would be biased. As such, a key question is whether or not the sample used in the study is large enough and representative enough to adequately support the conclusion.

Another obvious question would be whether or not the study had the preferences of the people correct. After all, in order to properly claim that the laws and policies do not generally match the preferences of the majority, the claimed preferences would need to be the actual preferences of the majority.

Naturally, addressing these concerns would require examining the study carefully and objectively, rather than merely dismissing or accepting it based on how one feels about the matter. Some might also be tempted to dismiss the study based on mere ad homimen attacks on those conducting it. For example, one might fallaciously reject the study by simply claiming that those involved are biased liberal intellectuals who are trying to advance a leftist agenda. If this were true and the study were thus flawed, then the evidence would lie in the defects of the study—not in the feelings of those attacking with ad homimens.


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The Cost of Litter

English: Littering in Stockholm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After running the Palace Saloon 5K, I participated in a cleanup of a nearby park. This event, organized by my running friend Nancy, involved spending about an hour and a half picking up trash in the Florida sun.  We runners created a pile of overstuffed trash bags full of a wide range of discarded debris.

On my regular runs, I routinely pick up litter. This ranges from the expected (discarded cans) to the unusual (a blender dropped off in the woods). These adventures in litter caused me to think about the various issues related to litter and most especially the cost of litter.

One obvious cost of litter is the aesthetic damage it inflicts. Litter is ugly and makes an area look, well, trashy. While this cost might be partially paid by those who litter, it is also inflicted on those who visit the area and do not litter. One of the many reasons I pick up litter is that I prefer not to run through trashy places.

Another obvious cost of litter is the environmental damage it inflicts. Some of this is quite evident, such as oil or paint leaking from discarded cans. Other damage is less evident, such as the erosion and flooding that can be caused by litter that clogs up storm drains.  There is also the harm done to animals directly, such as sea life killed when their stomachs fill with plastic debris. As with the aesthetic damage, the cost of the litter is largely paid by those who did not litter—such as the turtles and sea-birds harmed by discarded items.

A somewhat less obvious cost is that paid by people who pick up the litter discarded by others. For example, I take a few minutes out of almost every run to pick up and dispose of trash discarded by others. There are also walkers in my neighborhood area who pick up trash during their entire walk—I will see them carrying full bags of cans, bottles and other debris that have been thrown onto the streets, sidewalks and lawns.  And no, they are not gathering up the debris to cash it in for recycling money.

What I and others are doing is paying the cost of the littering of others with our time and effort. This is doubly annoying because the effort we need to expend to pick up the debris and dispose of it properly is generally more than the effort the discarder would have needed to expend to simply dispose of it herself. This is because such debris is often scattered about, in pieces or tossed into the woods—thus making it a chore to pick up and carry. Also, carrying trash while running is certainly more inconvenient than simply transporting it in a vehicle—and much of the trash beside the road is hurled from vehicles.

Some states, such as my home state of Maine, do shift some of the cost of litter to the litterer. To be specific, these states have a deposit on bottles and cans. When someone litters a can or bottle, he is throwing away the deposit—thus incurring a small cost for his littering. When someone picks up the bottle or can, she can redeem it for the deposit—thus offsetting the cost of her effort. While this approach does not cover all forms of litter, it does have a significant impact on the litter problem by providing people with an incentive to not litter or to pick up the litter thrown away by others.

This model of imposing a cost on littering and providing a reward for cleaning up litter seems to be an ethical system. In terms of fairness, it seems right that the person littering should pay a price for the damage that she does and the cost that she inflicts on others. It also seems right that people who make the effort to clean up the messes caused by others should receive compensation for their efforts. The obvious challenge is making the model work on a broader scale beyond just bottles and cans. Unfortunately, there are many more people who are lazy, uncaring or imbued with a feeling of entitlement than there are who have a sense of responsibility and duty. As such, I know I will be cleaning up after others for the rest of my life.



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Exotic Pets

English: Sleeping lioness at Exotic Animals Pa...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In her April 2014 National Geographic article “Wild Obsession, Lauren Slater considers the subject of exotic pets in America. While the article does mention some of the moral issues regarding such pets, I think it is worthwhile to consider the ethics of owning such pets in more depth.

While there are various ways to define what it is for a pet to be exotic, I will focus on non-domesticated animals that are kept as pets. Naturally, some of these pets do not involve much moral controversy. For example, keeping a tank of small fish seems to be morally fine—provided the fish are properly cared for. I am, for this short essay, mainly concerned with animals such as lions, tigers, bears, wolves, kangaroos, chimpanzees and other such animals. That is, animals that are wild and can present a danger to human beings.

One of the most obvious moral arguments against allowing people to own such exotic pets is that they can present a serious danger to human beings—be it their owners or other people. For example, a bear can easily kill its owner. As another example, an escaped tiger would present a rather serious threat. There is also the harm caused to ecosystems by escaped pets, such as the constrictors infesting parts of my adopted state of Florida. This can be cast as utilitarian argument in terms of the harms outweighing the alleged benefits of having such exotic pets.

The obvious response to this argument is that non-exotic pets, such as dogs and horses, injure (and even kill) people. As such, it would seem that the harm argument would also hold against having any pet that could be legitimately seen as a potential danger to a human being. This response could be taken to entail at least two things. One is that all pet ownership of potentially dangerous animals should not be allowed. This, of course, would not appeal to most people. The other is that people should be allowed to have potentially dangerous pets, be the pet a dog or a bear. While this view has some appeal, the easy and obvious counter is that there are clear relevant differences between pets like dogs and pets like bears.

While a domesticated animal like a dog or horse can seriously injure or even kill a human, they are generally less dangerous and far less likely to attack a human than a wild species like a bear or tiger. After all, domestic animals have been (mostly) selected to not be aggressive towards humans and for other appropriate (from the human perspective) behavior. So, while my husky can bite, she is not as dangerous as a bear and is extremely unlikely to attack a human, even when provoked. This is not to say that it is impossible for a previously well-behaved dog to turn violent. This is just to say that a well-trained dog is extremely different from even a well-trained bear or tiger.

As a side point, there are many reports of people being harmed by dogs—but this is because there are so many dogs kept as pets. As such, even a low percentage of aggressive dogs will result in a relatively high number of incidents. There is also the legitimate concern about dogs that have been bred and trained to be very aggressive (even towards humans).  Such dogs, most notoriously pit bulls, would present a threat to people and arguments can be made about restricting ownership of such dangerous dogs (and some places have such laws).

Another obvious moral argument is based on the harms done to the exotic animals. While domesticated animals can do well in a human environment (for example, my husky is quite happy with living in my house—provided that she gets her regular runs and outdoor adventures), wild animals often do not do very well. Most people who own exotic pets cannot provide the sort of environment that a wild species needs (even some zoos cannot) to be happy and healthy. There are also the concerns about medical care, proper exercise, diet and so on. As such, allowing people to own exotic pets would tend to have negative consequences for the animals. Once again, the moral case can be made on utilitarian grounds.

The obvious reply is that domestic animals also have needs that must be met. As such, it could be contended that if the keeping of domestic animals is acceptable provided that they are properly cared for, then the same must hold for the exotic animals. This reply does have considerable appeal. After all, if an animal is properly cared for and is both healthy and happy, then there would seem to be no moral grounds for forbidding a person from having such a pet.

As noted above, the practical problem is that caring properly for such exotic animals is more challenging and more expensive than providing proper care for a domestic animal. As I mentioned, my husky is fine living in my house and going on runs and expeditions with me. While medical care and food is not cheap, taking care of her is well within my financial ability. Exotic pets tend to present much more serious challenges in terms of cost. For example, a tiger is expensive to feed and one should not take a tiger out for an adventure in the local dog park. However, with proper resources these challenges could be addressed.

As a final moral argument, there is the concern that it is simply wrong to keep an exotic animal as a pet. To steal from Aristotle, it is not the function (or nature) of wild animals to exist as pets for humans. While people and animals might form bonds, the wild animals are such that being made into a pet is a distortion or even violation of what they are, which would be wrong. This, of course, would seem to suggest that we have distorted animals and perhaps wronged them by domesticating them—which might be true.

This line of reasoning can be countered in various ways, ranging from arguing against there being such natures to religious appeals to the claim that humans were given dominion over the animals and thus we can do what we wish with them.

My own view is somewhat mixed. Since I have a husky, it should be no surprise that I am morally fine with having a pet (provided the pet is well cared for). However, I tend to lean towards regarding keeping exotic animals as pets as morally problematic. That said, some people do truly love their exotic pets and take excellent care of them. In the case of endangered species, there is also the added moral argument involving the preservation of such species as pets—which does have some appeal when the alternative is extinction.

However, I would certainly not have a lion, tiger or bear as a pet. A dire husky…well, sure.


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Men, Women, Business & Ethics

Journal of Business Ethics

Journal of Business Ethics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 4/9/2014 NPR did a short report on the question of why there are fewer women in business than men. This difference begins in business school and, not surprisingly, continues forward. The report focused on an interesting hypothesis: in regards to ethics, men and women differ.

While people tend to claim that lying is immoral, both men and woman are more likely to lie to a woman when engaged in negotiation. The report also mentioned a test involving an ethical issue. In this scenario, the seller of a house does not want it sold to someone who will turn the property into a condo. However, a potential buyer wants to do just that. The findings were that men were more likely than women to lie to sell the house.

It was also found that men tend to be egocentric in their ethical reasoning. That is, if the man will be harmed by something, then it is regarded as unethical. If the man benefits, he is more likely to see it as a grey area. So, in the case of the house scenario, a man representing the buyer would tend to regard lying to the seller as acceptable—after all, he would thus get a sale. However, a man representing the seller would be more likely to regard being lied to as unethical.

In another test of ethics, people were asked about their willingness to include an inferior ingredient in a product that would hurt people but would allow a significant product. The men were more willing than the women to regard this as acceptable. In fact, the women tended to regard this sort of thing as outrageous.

These results provide two reasons why women would be less likely to be in business than men. The first is that men are apparently rather less troubled by unethical, but more profitable, decisions.  The idea that having “moral flexibility” (and getting away with it) provides advantage is a rather old one and was ably defended by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic. If a person with such moral flexibility needs to lie to gain an advantage, he can lie freely. If a bribe would serve his purpose, he can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then he can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, a morally flexible person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well-equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the morally flexible person has a considerable advantage over those who are more constrained by ethics. If women are, in general, more constrained by ethics, then they would be less likely to remain in business because they would be at a competitive disadvantage. The ethical difference might also explain why women are less likely to go into business—it seems to be a general view that unethical activity is not uncommon in business, hence if women are generally more ethical than men, then they would be more inclined to avoid business.

It could be countered that Glaucon is in error and that being unethical (while getting away with it) does not provide advantages. Obviously, getting caught and significantly punished for unethical behavior is not advantageous—but it is not the unethical behavior that causes the problem. Rather, it is getting caught and punished. After all, Glaucon does note that being unjust is only advantageous when one can get away with it. Socrates does argue that being ethical is superior to being unethical, but he does not do so by arguing that the ethical person will have greater material success.

This is not to say that a person cannot be ethical and have material success. It is also not to say that a person cannot be ethically flexible and be a complete failure. The claim is that ethical flexibility provides a distinct advantage.

It could also be countered that there are unethical women and ethical men. The obvious reply is that this claim is true—it has not been asserted that all men are unethical or that all women are ethical. Rather, it seems that women are generally more ethical than men.

It might be countered that the ethical view assumed in this essay is flawed. For example, it could be countered that what matters is profit and the means to this end are thus justified. As such, using inferior ingredients in a medicine so as to make a profit at the expense of the patients would not be unethical, but laudable. After all, as Hobbes said, profit is the measure of right. As such, women might well be avoiding business because they are unethical on this view.

The second is that women are more likely to be lied to in negotiations. If true, this would certainly put women at a disadvantage in business negotiations relative to men since women would be more likely to be subject to attempts at deceit. This, of course, assumes that such deceit would be advantageous in negotiations. While there surely are cases in which deceit would be disadvantageous, it certainly seems that deceit can be a very useful technique.

If it is believed that having more women in business is desirable (which would not be accepted by everyone), then there seem to be two main options. The first is to endeavor to “cure” women of their ethics—that is, make them more like men. The second would be to endeavor to make business more ethical. This would presumably also help address the matter of lying to women.


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Utah, Same-Sex Marriage & The Procreation Argument

Gay Couple with child

Gay Couple with child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a general rule, I would contend that if something is morally wrong, then it should be possible to present non-fallacious and reasonable arguments to show that it is wrong.  I would also probably add that there should be actual facts involved. I would obviously not claim that the arguments must be decisive—one generally does not see that in ethics. While people continue to argue against same sex marriage, the arguments continue to be the usual mix of fallacies and poor reasoning. There is also the usual employment of “facts” that are often simply not true.

In the United States, the latest battle over same-sex marriage is taking place in Utah. The state is being sued on the grounds that the amendment that forbids same-sex marriage is a violation of their rights. The lawsuit certainly has merit—a state does not get to violate constitutional rights even if many people vote in favor of doing so. As such, a rather important legal question is whether or not same-sex couples’ rights are violated by this law.

Utah is following the usual model of arguing against same-sex marriage, although they have at least not broken out the argument that allowing same-sex marriage will lead to or is equivalent to a person marrying a goat.

As might be expected, they made used of the usual pair of fallacies: appeal to tradition and appeal to common practice by claiming that defining marriage as being between a man and a woman is correct because it is “age-old and still predominant.”

Utah also tried the stock procreation gambit, with an added bit about the state’s interest: “Same-sex couples, who cannot procreate, do not promote the state’s interests in responsible procreation (regardless of whether they harm it).” Utah has also made use of the boilerplate argument about “responsible procreation” and “optimal mode of child rearing.”

Same-sex marriage is thus criticized on two grounds in regards to “responsible procreation.” The first is that same-sex couples cannot procreate naturally. The second is that same-sex couples will fail to provide an “optimal mode of child rearing.” To deny same-sex couples the right to marry because of these criticisms would require accepting two general principles: 1) marriage is to be denied to those who do cannot or do not procreate and 2) people who are not capable of the “optimal mode of child rearing” are to be denied marriage.

The first principle entails that straight couples who do not want children or cannot have them must also be denied marriage. After all, if an inability (or unwillingness) warrants denying same-sex couples the right to marry, the same would also apply to different-sex couples.

This principle would also seem to imply that couples who use artificial means to reproduce (such as in vitro fertilization or a surrogate) must be denied marriage. After all, same-sex couples can use these methods to procreate. Alternatively, if different-sex couples can use these methods and be allowed to marry, then same-sex couples who procreate would thus also be entitled to marriage.

The principle would also seem to entail that all married couples would be required to have at least one child, presumably within a specific time frame to ensure that the couple is not just faking their desire (or ability) to have children in order to get married. This would certainly seem to be a violation of the rights of the parents and a rather serious intrusion of the state.

The second principle would entail that straight couples who are not optimal parents must be denied marriage.  This would seem to require that the state monitor all marriages to determine that the parents are providing an optimal mode of child rearing and that it be empowered to revoke marriage licenses (much like the state can revoke a driver’s license for driving violations) for non-optimal parents. Different-sex parents can obviously provide non-optimal modes. After all, child abuse and neglect are committed by different-sex couples.

While I do agree that irresponsible people should not have children and that the state has an obligation to protect children from harm, it seems absurd to deny such people the right to marry. After all, not allowing them to marry (or dissolving the marriage when they proved irresponsible) would hardly make such people more responsible or benefit the children. Now to the matter of the state’s interest.

For the sake of the argument, I will grant that the state has an interest in having people reproduce. After all, the state is just a collection of people, so if there are no new people, the state will cease to exist. Of course, this also would seem to give the state an interest in immigration—that would also replace lost people.

This interest in procreation does not, however, entail that the state thus has an interest in preventing same sex-marriage. Allowing same-sex marriage does not reduce the number of different-sex marriages—that is, there is not a limited number of allowed marriages that same-sex couples could “use up.” Also, even if there were a limited number of allowed marriages, same-sex couples would only be a small percentage of the marriages and, obviously enough, marriage is not a necessary condition for procreation nor responsible procreation. That is, people can impregnate or be impregnated without being married. People can also be good parents without being married.

In light of these arguments, the procreation argument against same-sex marriage is still clearly absurd.

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The “Princeton Mom” & Sexual Assault

Princeton University

Princeton University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Susan Patton, better known as the “Princeton Mom”, has been making the rounds of the talk and news shows promoting her Marry Smart: Advice for Finding THE ONE book. This book presents the 18th century view that a woman should focus primarily on finding a husband and do so quickly—fertility diminishes with time.

Patton attracted more attention with her March 11, 2014 interview with the Daily Princetonian. In a letter to the editor written about a year before the interview, she had make a rather provocative remark: “Please spare me your ‘blaming the victim’ outrage” and claimed that a woman who is drunk and provocatively dressed “must bear accountability for what may happen.” When asked why the woman is responsible in the case of rape or sexual assault, she had the following to say:


 The reason is, she is the one most likely to be harmed, so she is the one that needs to take control of the situation. She is that one that needs to take responsibility for herself and for her own safety, and simply not allow herself to come to a point where she is no longer capable of protecting her physical self. The analogy that I would give you is: If you cross the street without looking both ways and a car jumps the light or isn’t paying attention, and you get hit by a car — as a woman or as anybody — and you say, ‘Well I had a green light,’ well yes you did have a green light but that wasn’t enough. So in the same way, a woman who is going to say, ‘Well the man should have recognized that I was drunk and not pushed me beyond the level at which I was happy to engage with him,’ well, you didn’t look both ways. I mean yes, you’re right, a man should act better, men should be more respectful of women, but in the absence of that, and regardless of whether they are or are not, women must take care of themselves.


As might be imagined, this view has generated some backlash from faculty at Princeton and other people. Given the old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity and such controversy can help sell books, it is not clear that the view expressed is one that Patton truly holds. However, when discussing the ethics of the content of her claims, her actual belief does not matter. As such, I will take her expressed view at face value.

Patton’s first claim is that since the woman is most likely to be harmed, she needs to be responsible for her safety. There are at least two ways to view this claim. One is the very reasonable claim that a person needs to be responsible for her own safety—that is, a person has an obligation to herself to make sure that she is not needlessly in danger. This view that self-preservation is rational and obligatory is nicely defended by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. Another way to view the claim, which is that apparently taken by her critics, is that the burden falls completely on the woman. While this is certainly a prudent view, it does run afoul of the notion that the person who wrongfully inflicts harm on another should bear the majority of the responsibility for the harm inflicted (if not all of it).

Patton’s second claim is that a woman has an obligation to not allow herself to be incapable of self-defense. Presumably Patton means that a woman has an obligation to not become some drunk that she cannot defend herself from a man who means to assault or rape her. In defense of this claim, Patton offers her analogy: a woman who gets assaulted or raped when she is too drunk to defend herself is like someone who gets hit by a car because they did not look both ways before crossing the street—even though she had the light.

The analogy does have some merit—while drivers are obligated to take care not to hit people, a person should take due precautions to avoid being hit. To do otherwise is clearly foolish. However, there is a distinction between what is prudent and what is morally obligatory. While it makes perfect sense that a woman should not impair herself when she has reason to believe that she will be vulnerable to assault or rape, this is a different matter than her having a moral obligation to herself to avoid being vulnerable in this way. There is also a third matter, namely who is responsible when a drunk woman is raped or assaulted.

In regards to the second matter, this is essentially a question of whether there is a moral obligation for self-defense. It is generally accepted that people have a moral right to self-defense and for the sake of the discussion that will be assumed. This right gives a person the liberty to protect herself. If it is only a liberty, then the person has the right to not act in self-defense and thus be an easy victim. However, if there is an obligation of self-defense, then failing to act on this obligation would seem to be a moral failing. The obvious challenge is to show that there is such an obligation.

On the face of it, it would seem that self-defense is merely a liberty. However, some consideration of the matter will suggest that this is not so obvious.  In the Leviathan, Hobbes presents what he takes to be the Law of Nature (lex naturalis): “a precept or general rule, found by reason, that forbids a man to do what is destructive of his life or takes away the means of preserving it and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved.” Hobbes goes on to note that “right consists in liberty to do or to forbear” and “law determines and binds.” If Hobbes is correct, then people would seem to have both a right and an obligation to self-defense.

John Locke and Thomas Aquinas also contend that life is to be preserved and if they are right, then this would seem to impose an obligation of self-defense. Of course, this notion could be countered by contending that all it requires is for a person to seek protection from possible threats and doing so could involve relying on the protection or restraint of others rather than one’s self. However, there are arguments against this.

I will start with a practical argument. While the modern Western state projects its coercive force and spying eyes into society, the state’s agents cannot (yet) observe all that occurs nor can they always be close at hand in times of danger. As such, relying solely on the state would seem to put a person at risk—after all, he would be helpless in the face of danger. If a person relies on other individuals, then unless she is guarded at all times, then she also faces the real risk of being a helpless victim. This would, at the very least, seem imprudent.

This argument can be used as the basis for a moral argument. If a person is morally obligated to preserve life (including his own) and others cannot be reliably depended on, then it would seem that she would have an obligation of self-defense and this would include not intentionally making herself vulnerable to well-known threats. These threats would, sadly, include those presented by bad men. As such, a woman would have a moral obligation to avoid being vulnerable. This seems reasonable.

The third matter is the question of moral responsibility when a drunk woman is assaulted or raped by a man who takes advantage of her vulnerability.  In the abstract, it could be argued that the woman does bear some of the responsibility—if a woman has an obligation to defend herself, she would have failed in her obligation by becoming vulnerable in this way. As with her analogy, someone who crosses the road without looking and gets hit has failed in a clear duty to herself. However, even if this point is granted, there is still the matter of who bears the majority of the responsibility.

On the face of it, it seems evident that the man who assaulted or raped the woman bears the overwhelming moral responsibility. After all, even if the woman should have avoided being vulnerable, the man has a far greater moral obligation to not harm her. There is also the matter of reasonable expectations. To be specific, while a person is obligated to protect herself, this does not obligate her to be hyper-vigilant against all possible dangers. To use an analogy, if woman does not buy body armor to wear on campus (after all, there have been campus shooting) and she is shot by a gunman, it would be absurd to blame her for her injury or death. The blame rests on the shooter—his obligation to not shoot her vastly outweighs the extent of her obligation to be prepared.

In the case of rape and sexual assault, while a woman should be prudent for the sake of self-protection, the overwhelming moral responsibility is on the man. That the woman makes herself vulnerable to rape or assault no more lessens the rapist’s responsibility than the fact that the woman was not wearing body armor lessens the responsibility of the shooter. The principle here is that vulnerability does not mitigate moral responsibility. This is intuitively plausible: just because a victimizer has an easier time with his victim, it hardly makes his misdeeds less bad.

Patton does acknowledge that men should act better, but she does insist that a woman must take care of herself. This could be seen as sensible advice: a woman should not count on the goodwill of others, but be on guard against reasonably foreseeable harm. This advice is, of course, consistent with the view that the rapist is the one truly responsible for the rape.



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Sexbots, Killbots & Virtual Dogs

Sexbots,_Killbots_&__Cover_for_KindleMy most recent  book, Sexbots, Killbots & Virtual Dogs, is now available as a Kindle book on Amazon. It will soon be available as a print book as well (the Kindle version is free with the print book on Amazon).

There is also a free promo for the Kindle book from April 1, 2014 to April 5, 2014. At free, it is worth every penny!

Book Description

While the story of Cain and Abel does not specify the murder weapon used by Cain, traditional illustrations often show Cain wielding the jawbone of an animal (perhaps an ass—which is what Samson is said to have employed as a weapon). Assuming the traditional illustrations and the story are right, this would be one of the first uses of technology by a human—and, like our subsequent use of technology, one of considerable ethical significance.

Whether the tale of Cain is true or not, humans have been employing technology since our beginning. As such, technology is nothing new. However, we are now at a point at which technology is advancing and changing faster than ever before—and this shows no signs of changing. Since technology so often has moral implications, it seems worthwhile to consider the ethics of new and possible future technology. This short book provides essays aimed at doing just that on subjects ranging from sexbots to virtual dogs to asteroid mining.

While written by a professional philosopher, these essays are aimed at a general audience and they do not assume that the reader is an expert at philosophy or technology.

The essays are also fairly short—they are designed to be the sort of things you can read at your convenience, perhaps while commuting to work or waiting in the checkout line.

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Concentration of Wealth


WEALTH IN THE USA (Photo credit: er00mb0b)

In early 2014 Oxfam International released some interesting statistics regarding the distribution of the world’s wealth. Here are some of the highlights:


  •          1% of the population owns about 50% of the wealth.
  •          This 1% owns $110 trillion.
  •          $110 trillion is 65 times the wealth owned by the bottom (economically) 50% of people.
  •          The bottom 50% owns the same amount of wealth as the top 85 wealthiest people.
  •          In the United States, the top 1% received 95% of the growth since 2009 while the 90% lost wealth.

That there is an extremely unequal distribution of wealth is hardly surprising. In my very first political science class, I learned that every substantial human society has had a pyramid shaped distribution of wealth. Inevitably, the small population of the top owns a disproportionally large amount of wealth while the large population at the bottom owns a disproportionally small amount of wealth. This pattern holds whether the society is a monarchy, dictatorship, communist state or democracy.

From a moral standpoint, one important question is whether or not such a distribution is just. While some might be tempted to regard any disproportional distribution as unjust, this would be an error. After all, the justness of a distribution is not a simple matter of numbers. To use an easy example, consider the distribution of running trophies. Obviously enough, there is a very unequal distribution of such awards. First, almost all people who have them will be (or will have been) runners. As such, most people will not have even one trophy. Second, even among the population of runners there will be a disproportionate distribution: there will be a fairly small percentage of runners who have a large percentage of the trophies. As such, there is a concentration of running trophies. However, this is not unjust: the competition for such trophies is open, the competition is generally fair, and a trophy is generally earned by running well. Roughly put, the better runners will have the most trophies and they will be a small percentage of the runner population. Because of the nature of the competition, I have no issue with this. There is, of course, also the biasing factor that I have won a lot of trophies.

Those who defend the unequal distribution of wealth often endeavor to claim that the competition for wealth is analogous to the situation I presented for running trophies: the competition is open, the competition is fair, and the reward is justly earned by competing well. While this is a plausible approach to justifying the massive inequality, the obvious problem is that these claims are not true.

Those who start out in a wealthy family might not make their money by inheritance, but they enjoy a significant starting advantage over those born into less affluent families. While it is true that a few people rise from humble origins to great financial success, those stories are so impressive because pf the difficulty of doing so and the small number of people who achieve such great success.

There is also the obvious fact that those who hold wealth use their influence to ensure that the political and social system favors the wealthy. While this might not be aimed at keeping people from becoming wealthy, the general impact is that existing wealth is favored and defended against attempts to “intrude” into the top of the pyramid. Naturally, people will point to those who succeeded fantastically despite this system. But, once again, these stories are so impressive because of the incredible challenges that had to be overcome and because such stories are incredibly rare.

There is also the obvious doubt about whether those who possess the greatest wealth earned the wealth in a way that justifies their incredible wealth. In the case of running, a person must earn her gold medal in the Olympic marathon by being the best runner. In such a case, there is little doubt that the achievement has been properly earned. However, the situation for great wealth is not as clear. Now, if a person arose from humble origins and by hard work, virtue, and talent managed to earn a fortune, then it seems fair to accept the justice of that wealth. However, if someone merely inherits a pile of cash or engages in misdeeds (like corruption or crime) to acquire the wealth, then it seems reasonable to regard that as unjust wealth.

As such, to the degree that the competition for wealth is open and fair and to the degree that the earning of wealth is proportional to merit, then the incredibly unbalanced distribution can be regarded as just. However, it seems evident that this is not the case.  For example, a quick review of the laws, tax codes, and so on will show quite nicely how the system is designed to work.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the distribution of wealth is actually warranted on grounds similar to the distribution of running trophies. That is, suppose that the competition is open, fair and the rewards are merit based. This still provides grounds for criticism of the radical concentration of wealth.

One obvious point is that the distribution of running trophies has no real impact. After all, a person can live just fine without any such trophies. As such, letting them be divided up by competition is fine—even if most trophies go to a few people. However, wealth is another matter. At the basic level, a degree of wealth is a necessity for survival. That is a person needs it (or, rather, what it can buy) to survive. Beyond mere survival, it also determines the material quality of life in terms of general health, clothing, living quarters, education, and entertainment and so on. Roughly put, wealth (loosely taken) is a necessity. To have such a competition when the well-being (and perhaps the survival) of people is at stake seems to be morally repugnant.

One obvious counter is a variation on the survival of the fittest arguments of the past. The basic idea is that, just like all living things, people have to compete to survive. As in nature, some people will not compete as well and hence they will have less and perhaps even not enough to survive. Others will do better and some few will do best of all.

The obvious reply is that this sort of competition makes some degree of sense when resources are so scarce that all cannot survive. To use a fictional example, if people are struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, then the competition for basic survival might be warranted by the reality of the situation. However, when resources are plentiful it seems morally repugnant for the tiny few to hyper-concentrate wealth while the many are left with very little. To use the obvious analogy, seeing a glutton stuffing herself with a vast tableful of delicacies while her guards keep people away so her minions call sell the scraps would strike all but the most callous as horrible. However, replace the glutton with one of the 1% and some folks are quite willing to insist that the situation is fair and just.

As a final point, the 1% also need to worry about the inequality of distribution. The social order which keeps the 99% from slaughtering the 1% requires that enough of the 99% believe that the situation is working for them. This can be done, to a degree, by coercion (police and military force) and delusion (this is where Fox News comes in). However, coercion and delusion have their limits and society, like all things, has a breaking point. While the rich can often escape a collapse in one country by packing up and heading to another (as dictators occasionally do), until space travel is a viable option the 1% are still stuck on earth with everyone else.


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A Fair Price for Drugs?

A pill

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are about three million Americans and about 170 million people around the world infected with Hepatitis C. In the recent past, the cost of treatment could be up to $300,000 in extreme cases. A new drug, Sovaldi, would reduce that cost to about $84,000. On the face of it, that seems like a great deal. However, the company manufacturing the drug has generated some outrage. The reason is simple: the company, Gilead, plans to charge $1,000 per pill.

While $1,000 for a pill might seem exorbitant, Gilead has made the reasonable point that they have the right to recover the cost of developing the medicine. This is certainly correct—the expense of developing a product can be legitimately passed on to the customers.

In the case of Sovalidi, Gilead “developed” it by buying the company that developed it for $11 billion. While this is a certainly a large sum of money, if 150,000 people are treated at the asking price of $1,000 per pill, the company will have recovered what it spent to buy the company that developed it. This is a not uncommon practice in areas with high initial development costs. For example, new technology initially comes at a premium price and then the price drops as a company recovers its development costs.

When asked if Gilead would reduce the cost once it recovered its money, the vice president of the company said, “”That’s very unlikely that we would do that. I appreciate the thought.” One way to justify this is by contending that the cost of producing the pill warrants keeping the price high. After all, the cost of production is clearly a legitimate factor in calculating a fair price for a product.

However, the drug is most likely fairly cheap to produce. According to Andrew Hill, who is in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Liverpool, the cost per treatment would be $150-250 per person. If this is correct, the company would be making truly massive profits off a drug that is rather cheap to produce. On the face of it, such a mark-up would seem to be unfair.

It might be contended that the free-market will sort this out. However, there are two major concerns here. The first is that Gilead’s ownership of the drug rather limits the competitive force of the market. Until another company produces a competing drug, Gilead has an effective monopoly. Competing companies would need to spend considerable sums to develop a competing drug and they would have to avoid infringing on the ownership rights of Gilead. Whether this is seen as wrong or not depends on how one looks at the matter. On the one hand, there is the view that a company has the right to its government enforced monopoly and can use this to charge any amount it deems fit until competition forces it to reduce prices. On the other hand, there is the view that it is wrong for a company to use the coercive power of the state (the state ensures that the drug cannot be copied and sold by others) to exploit the very citizens that the state is supposed to protect from exploitation. The second is that the treatment is not a luxury item for the patients but a necessity—without it they risk severe illness and death. As such, the customers are coerced by their condition and this is being exploited by Gilead. If Gilead were selling $84,000 watches or cars, people could elect to buy them or not—so Gilead would need to make the product match the price. In the case of medicine, Gilead can set its price and give people a choice between buying and dying.

Interestingly, Gilead does plan to offer lower prices in countries such as India, Pakistan, Egypt and China. While the price is not set, the estimate is that “It’ll be from the high hundreds to low thousands for these types of markets.” This rather obviously indicates that Gilead could sell the pills for less in the United States. This lower cost could be seen in at least two ways. One is that Gilead is being nice by offering people in these other countries a price break. Another is that Gilead knows that it will simply not be able to sell the pills for $1,000 each in such countries and are settling for taking what they can get. That is, some profit is better than none.

If Gilead is giving patients in these countries a real break—that is, selling the product with a very narrow profit margin, then the company would seem to be acting in a laudable way by providing an important treatment while only making large profits. However, given the estimated cost of providing the treatment ($150-250) the company would be making very large profits by selling the treatments for the high hundreds to low thousands. The company would also be making what might be regarded as obscene profits in countries like the United States where the pills would sell for $1,000 each.

Given that Gilead would recover its costs quickly and the actual cost of providing treatment is relatively low, what remains to be determined is what would warrant charging such a high price for a essential treatment.

Alton presents a standard reason for this:  “Those who are bold and go out and innovate like this and take the risk — there needs to be more of a reward on that. Otherwise, it would be very difficult for people to make that investment.”

Alton’s basic point is reasonable. Developing new medicines is a risky business since most drugs never actually make it to being a sellable product. As such, this increases what companies must spend to actually develop a product they can sell.

One point of concern is the degree of risk that Gilead took when it bought the company that developed the drug. If that company took risks and developed the drug, then that company certainly earned the right to recover the cost of the risks it took. However, it is not clear that Gilead was bold, innovative and risk taking by buying that company.

Another point of concern is determining the cost and value of risk. That is, sorting out how risk taking legitimately contributes to a higher price. Oversimplifying things a bit, it would seem fair to consider the cost of legitimate attempts to develop drugs that failed as part of the legitimate operating expenses of a company and thus these can justly passed on to the consumer. However, as noted above, Gilead will recover the cost of buying the developer of the drug quickly and hence will lose the justification that it must charge a high price in compensation for its risk. Even if it is granted that risk taking warrants charging high prices, this should not warrant the high prices when the cost of the risk has been recovered. At that point a new justification would be needed for the high price. In the case of the medicine, the cost of providing the treatment would not warrant the high price. Also as noted above, the market is effectively not free since the state ensures that Gilead has a monopoly on the medicine it bought and the patients are coerced by their illness. If the patients tried to produce the medicine on their own by copying the pills, the state would send police to arrest them and they would face severe legal action.

It could be replied that $84,000 is a bargain compared to the current cost and this justifies the high price. To use an analogy, if one surgeon charges $300,000 to do a procedure and I will provide the same results for $84,000 then that seems like a good deal. However, if it only costs me $250 to treat the person, that would hardly seem to be a fair price. It would be a better price—but better is not the same as fair.

I freely admit that I have not settled the matter of what is a fair price. However, it does seem clear that $1,000 per pill is not a fair price.


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Large open water fish, like this Northern blue...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The March 2014 issue of National Geographic featured Kenneth Brower’s article on Bluefin tuna. While the article has the usual National Geographic balance, it certainly led me to consider the issues raised by the handling of the tuna harvest.

Like many species, the Bluefin is in decline. This is, obviously enough, due to human activity—primarily overfishing. While the dangerous decline of the tuna population is well-established, the powers-that-be are handling it in the usual way and are following the usual template that leads to resource depletion and perhaps extinction.

Like most industries, the tuna industry has a regulatory organization, the International Commission for the Conservation of Tuna (ICCAT). Given the name, one might suspect that it aims at conserving tuna. However, critics jokingly claim that ICCAT stands for “International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.” While this might not be completely accurate, ICCAT does seem to act in ways that ignore scientific data and in favor of keeping the catch limits high.

For example, in tracking catch volume ICCAT divides the North Atlantic into western and eastern zones. The problem is that the management data is not accurate—the fish are treated as two distinct stocks that do not mix, but they actually do so. As such, fish caught in the western zone could very well be from the eastern zone and vice versa. As another example, the ICCAT models also fail to consider illegally caught fish—although this is apparently significant.

Like many regulatory entities, the ICCAT often elects to simply ignore its own scientific panel. In the case of ICCAT, catch limits are set considerably higher than the recommended levels for sustainability and it seems to ignore the fact that the actual catch levels are at least double the limits it sets. Scientists have recommended that the catch limits be reduced and that fishing be suspended during most of the spawning time for the fish. These recommendations have been ignored so far.

While some might claim that these recommendations are the result of the alleged liberal agenda to destroy the fishing industry and from a hatred of all that is good and holy in capitalism, the recommendations are actually aimed at achieving sustainable fishing. That is, the recommendation is aimed at preserving the industry rather than destroying it.

It might be contended that the fishing companies would not engage in behavior that would destroy their industry. However, this is clearly not true. One reason is that there is a “strip mining” mentality in regards to handling resources. The basic idea is to get as much short-term profit as fast as possible and to not be concerned too much about the long term consequences. This approach is also fueled by the usual human tendency to discount the future and to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term. For example, people often buy things they want (but do not need) on credit and end up suffering financially later. The same sort of mentality also applies to handling resources such as tuna. Or, as some might prefer, living creatures like tuna.

This also ties into the “move on” attitude which is the view that once something has been stripped of its value, the thing to do is simply move on to another area in which to gain fast and maximum profit. That these attitudes are prevalent is clearly shown by the way that other resources are often managed, such as fossil fuels and forests.

As such, it is certainly reasonable to believe that fishing companies and their regulators would engage in the seemingly irrational activity of destroying their own industry by overfishing. After all, this has been done before. At one time Monterey Bay had a thriving sardine industry and then in the 1950s this industry crashed in part due to overfishing. What has been already occurred can surely occur again, only this time with a different species. While the big financial fish can easily move on to new profits, there is always a terrible price paid by the little fish—that is, all the people who depended on the resources for their livelihood and now find them exhausted.

It might be contended that it is possible to keep moving on—that is, to shift to a new species once one species is eliminated. This is, of course, possible—but there is clearly a finite limit to how often this can be done since there are a finite number of species. It is also worth pointing out that human activity tends to hit many species at once, which will also reduce the ability to switch species.

It might also be contended that a solution will be found that does not require engaging in sustainable fishing—people like to point to past forecasts of doom that did not come true because of some innovation or invention. While human ingenuity is impressive, to simply assume that we will be able to solve every such problem would be mere wishful thinking.  Naturally, if there is a clear and plausible plan for solving the problem, that would be another matter.

In addition to ignoring scientific data, there is also the standard tactic of “massaging” science.  A common method is to make an appeal to uncertainty. The idea is that uncertainty in the data warrants simply sticking with business as usual.  In the case of tuna, the claim is that there is uncertainty about the stock assessments in terms of numbers and the impact of human activity. This uncertainty is then exploited to warrant expanding or at least maintaining quotas. The reasoning seems to be this: since the exact numbers and effects is are not known with certainty, the new limits suggested by scientists are not warranted—so stick with the old ones or set them higher. This same approach is taken with the environment in general, as has been the case with climate change. A general pattern is also to deny that humans are having the alleged effect and attributing it to other causes—and claiming that thus there is nothing we can do (other than staying the course).

In an interesting parallel with fossil fuels, biologists who are funded by the tuna industry have claimed that there might be as-of-yet undiscovered tuna spawning grounds so the fishing can continue at the current rate (or increase).  While this is possible, there is no actual evidence for this claim. However, this sort of wishful thinking (to be generous) allows business to go on fueled by false hope unsupported by facts.

Given the growing world population, effective management of resources is critical not only for the profits of the few, but the survival of the many. As such, action should be taken to ensure a sustainable harvest of tuna. However, it is most likely that business as usual will continue and the tuna population will crash as other fish populations have crashed before them.

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