Monthly Archives: November 2008

Starbucks Bows to Philosophical Pressure!

Well, OK.  Not really.  But Starbucks say they will use only Fairtrade coffee in all coffee drinks sold in the UK.  That’s a large and welcome change from previously using only 6% or so Fairtrade beans.  Read all about it.  I may, just may, permit myself a latte when the deal goes through.

Previous posts on the subject include a discussion of turkey welfare whores, a correspondence with Starbucks and a final conclusion.

Ethics Stimulus Package

Brace yourself for a double dose of Adam Smith:

‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.  We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages’

‘To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature.’

He’s right on both counts, isn’t he?  In our business dealings we really do operate with not much more than our own interest in mind.  But that’s not all there is to us.  Even Adam Smith knows that.  When we get things right, when we near perfection, we’re feeling for others, ignoring or restraining ourselves, and acting out of concern for someone else.

Moral considerations kick in for their own reasons — what really gets them going is anybody’s guess.  (What moves us to see that the reasons which were there all along are suddenly not just good reasons, but the motivation for morally right action?)  Our governments are doing a lot to fix what’s gone wrong with our world, but I don’t think they can pour money into the categorical imperative or make our hedonistic calculations easier by adjusting interest rates.  I keep thinking, too, that we’ll do something ourselves if things get bad enough.  When times are really awful, human beings can, sometimes, gestalt shift themselves into selfless creatures.  Maybe you’ve seen it or done it yourself.  I just wonder what makes us do it, what tips us over from self-interested shopkeepers to manifestations of self-restrained benevolence.

Paradox #6: On Not Being Sorry about the Morally Bad

You ought to be sorry when bad things happen, right? Paradoxically, sometimes no – says Saul Smilanksy in 10 Moral Paradoxes (chapter 6).

Suppose you wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for some bad past event, B. The bad thing could be that your infant sister died; if it weren’t for that, you wouldn’t have been conceived (an example from Smilansky’s own life). A similar example that comes to my mind: B might be the fact that your mother was raped by your father. On a larger scale: B could be the Holocaust, without which your parents wouldn’t have met in a concentration camp. Similarly, B could be the 18th century slave-trade, without which your great-great-great-grandparents wouldn’t have met.

Morally, do you have to be sorry that B occurred? It seems so, since B is so bad. On the other hand, if you are not sorry that you exist, then how can you be sorry that B occurred? Smilanksy distinguishes between being sorry for and being sorry that. Of course we must be sorry for the victims in all these cases. But, within limits, we can be not sorry that B occurred. He admits he is not sorry that his sister died–and can’t be, since he is not sorry that he exists. That, he claims, is morally tolerable. It’s different when B is something vast, as in the Holocaust example. But then, I assume he would say, if you are sorry that the Holocaust occurred, and your existence depended upon it, then you must also be sorry you exist.

I find the paradox strange “at both ends,” so to speak.  It seems altogether strange not to be sorry that your mother was raped or your sister died.  It seems altogether strange to be sorry that you exist, just because you are sorry about some vast tragedy that was the precondition of your existence.

Of all the paradoxes in the book (all ten of them) this is the one I’d most like to overcome.   I have the feeling there’s something ill conceived here. Morally, it doesn’t seem good to be sorry you exist, except for reasons intrinsic to your own life.  It doesn’t seem good not to be sorry about horrible things that happened to innocent people.  How can logic really force us into these attitudes?

Maybe there’s something deep down mistaken about aiming our “sorriness” at events based on their links to other events. Maybe there’s too much that’s fortuitous about such links, and sorriness shouldn’t “go there.” But maybe I’m pretty much grasping at straws.

The chapter discusses another tantalizing example of not being sorry about the morally bad, one involving neo-Nazis going off a cliff in an “unfortunate” bus accident. Possibly I suffer from an excess of schadenfreude.  I don’t mind not being sorry about the accident.  It’s the first case that keeps bothering me.

Previous posts on the book: Paradox 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Paradox #5: Non-punishment

The fifth paradox from 10 Moral Paradoxes. Smilanksy says this one came to mind after he became acquainted with parking enforcement in some areas of London. Apparently, your car will be towed for the most minor offense. “This caused an immediate improvement in my parking behavior,” he writes, “and concentrated my mind.” But it also got him thinking about “perfect deterrence.”

Not every type of crime and criminal can be deterred. Drug addicts aren’t sufficiently focused on the future, crimes of passion are too unpremeditated. But crimes like forgery and carjacking (for example) are highly planned.  So imagine a system that achieves perfect deterrence by threatening disproportionate punishments. Life without parole for forgery and carjacking. Enormous fines for important parking offenses. Keep the thought experiment clean by also supposing there are high standards of proof and other safeguards.

Here, then, is the paradox. (1) In such a system of perfect deterrence, there would be neither the relevant crimes, nor any punishments. So it would be ideal! (2) And yet we wouldn’t want such a system. It would actually horrify us. Like every other chapter of this book, this one gets the reader’s engines running. There’s no denying (2). So you to go to work on (1). No, such a system wouldn’t be ideal, and here’s why….. Smilanksy considers many possible moves and finds them wanting.

Very, very, briefly, and with no attempt to do justice to all the twists and turns: (A) You can say a system of perfect deterrence would be unjust…but how so, if no one’s ever actually subjected to a disproportionate punishment? (B) “In the real world, someone would eventually be punished this way!” Well, but a vast amount of crime and punishment would be avoided. Occasional implementation is a negligible problem, compared to the enormity of what’s avoided. (C) “But everyone would spend their lives suffering under the fear of these punishments!” Not really—think about disproportionate punishments that already exist. Do you live in fear of them? (D) “With such severe punishments, our freedom would be compromised!” Surely not—we could still commit the crimes, and endure the punishments. (Want details on A-D? Read the book!)

In short, Smilanksy tries to barricade all the windows and doors by which we might try to escape this paradox. We are stuck with it: a system of perfect deterrence is ideal, but we don’t want it! Ouch.


So much for explaining the chapter. I have a question and I’m hoping Saul will pay us another visit and give me an answer. Here’s something he writes, as he explains what kinds of punishments might be used to “perfectly deter” would be criminals. “There would also be ethical limits, such as not threatening to harm the criminal’s family.” My question:  Why are you “allowed” to say that, without further ado? If there are ethical limits on what a criminal justice system can threaten, then why isn’t that the crux of the whole matter? If it exceeds ethical limits to harm the criminal’s family “(they’re innocent”), then it exceeds ethical limits to impose life without parole for forgery (“punishment doesn’t fit crime”).  No?

Plus, a comment. What is the “real world” upshot here? We live in a world where systems of nearly perfect deterrence exist. As I understand it, places under the most extreme type of Islamic law really do almost perfectly deter crimes like theft by threatening to chop off hands and ears (but only rarely doing so). Can it really be that we only inarticulately “don’t want that system” and can’t give good reasons why not?

Utilitarianism & Bailing Out the Big Three

As the world economy continues to stagger about, the American government is considering whether to bail out the big three American automakers (Ford, GM and Chrysler). Like many business, they are running low on cash and are apparently in danger of bankruptcy or outright failure. While this is of great economic and political concern, this discussion also raises philosophic concerns as well.

From a moral standpoint, the question is whether the state should help out the Big Three on moral grounds. As usual, the easiest way to argue for this is to use a utilitarian approach. Making the case is simple enough: estimate the harms done to Americans (or the world if you want to expand the scope of the relevant beings) by not helping out the Big Three and the benefits that will come from helping them out.

The best estimate at this point are that 2 million Americans depend on the Big Three for their health insurance and that 1.4 to 1.7 million jobs would be lost if they failed. While the Big Three make vehicles, they also buy parts, purchase advertising and so on and these tie the companies into the overall American economy. If this figures are accurate, then many people would be harmed if these companies failed. Assuming that the proposed $25 billion (US) bailout would prevent them from failing, then serious harms would presumably be avoided. If the harms prevented are worth at least $25 billion, then a bailout would seem to be the right thing to do.

Of course, there are also other factors to consider. Laying aside the practical concerns about whether the bailout would save the day or not (after all, the Big Three could still fail even with all that extra cash), there is also the obvious concern that the money could be better spent elsewhere. In utilitarian terms, the question is whether there are other ways to use the money that would create greater utility than bailing out the Big Three. In terms of pure numbers, if spending $25 billion elsewhere could help more people, then that is what should probably be done instead. Of course, political spending tends to be decided more by lobbying power than by what would add the most to the general good.

Another concern is to look beyond the more immediate consequences to the long term consequences. After all, the harms generated by bailing out the Big Three must also be considered. One consequence well worth considering is that such a bailout will encourage large companies to engage in more risky behavior. After all, their leadership might reason, if they are “too big or too important to fail”, then Uncle Sam will be there with a bag of cash if they start failing. As such, that anticipated rescue cash will become part of their planning, thus leading them to take more risks. But, even the United States cannot keep dumping taxpayer money into failing companies and this could lead to yet another economic disaster (or a continuation of the existing one).

Moving away from utilitarian concerns, there is also the other moral question: do the Big Three have a moral right to such a bailout? After all, many experts have argued that they are in such dire straits because of leadership failings and poor decision making. If this is true, then it would seem they have no right to expect cash from the state. After all, while the state is supposed to protect the citizens from enemies, the state does not seem to have an obligation to protect citizens from their own bad choices. After all, if I started a business trying to sell books many people did not want to read, then I should hardly expect a check from Uncle Sam when my business fails.

Obama, Race and Comedy

I recently heard a bit on the radio about comedy and Obama. The point was raised that white comedians are tending to avoid making fun of Obama out of fear of seeming racist. It was also said that the Obama victory has helped bring greater opportunities for black comedians-they will be needed because they can make fun of Obama without seeming racist. This does raise interesting issues about race and comedy.

I teach a class on Aesthetics and have included a discussion of race and comedy for the past several years. Naturally, when I teach the class this spring we will no doubt be discussing this issue as it relates to Obama.

The general consensus in the class has been that race is quite relevant when it comes to the question of who can make fun of whom and in what manner. Content is, of course, relevant and presumably any comedian could cross the line into racism. Put roughly, I’ve found that the majority of students think that comedians can “mock up and across”, but that “mocking down” is not acceptable. “Mocking up” means to make jokes towards those who are seen, as a class, to have more power. Or, as one student put it, “towards the oppressors.” For example, women making fun of men could be seen as “mocking up” as could blacks making fun of whites. “Mocking across” is to mock other groups that are seen as being at the same level. Obviously, one’s own group would be included here. For example, a Hispanic comedian making jokes about Hispanics or blacks might be seen as “mocking across” because Hispanics and blacks are seen as being oppressed by whites. “Mocking down” has often been seen as being unacceptable by my students, mainly because such humor can be seen as part of the tools of oppression. For example, it might be regarded as belittling or condescending.

In contrast, “Mocking up” can be regarded as an act of defiance against the oppressor classes and “mocking across” could be seen as comradely. Obviously enough, this sort of view takes the notion of oppressors and oppressed very seriously (even in comedy).

This view does have some plausibility. However, the fact that Obama is the President elect does change the power dynamic. Any comedian making fun of Obama would be “mocking up”, unless the comedian also happens to be a world leader as well. In this case, she would be “mocking across.” As such, it would seem to be fine for white comedians to make fun of Obama.

Then again, it might be the case that the direction of mocking (up, down or across) depends not on the individuals but the status of the classes they belong to. Since Obama is black, for white comedians to make fun of him would be “mocking down” because whites as a class are above blacks as a class on the power curve. So, until blacks and whites are on equal footing, white comedians will need to be careful in what they say about Obama (and the next black President).

Race can also be taken to matter in ways other than in terms of classes and power. I have heard people argue that it is acceptable for the members of one race to make fun of their own race, but not others. This has often been based on the view that a person cannot be racist to his own race. For example, David Alan Grier can present comedic pieces on Chocolate News based on black stereotypes without being racist because he is black. Some people extend this privilege to all minorities in terms of comedians from one minority making jokes about another minority. Not surprisingly, whites are fair game for everyone.

Of course, it seems obvious that a person can be racist towards his own race and that being in a minority is not proof against racism. This can easily be shown. Imagine you heard someone expressing all the hateful stereotypes about blacks and his hatred of blacks. You would no doubt think “what a racist.” But, suppose when you saw him, he turned out to be black. Would you then say, “well, I guess he is no racist after all”? Obviously not. Naturally, I have in mind the fictional blind black racist from the Chapelle Show.

In the case of why a minority can be racist, simply imagine that the white population became a minority and that people in the Ku Klux Klan and other such groups still held the views they do now. It would be absurd to say “well, since whites are a minority, the KKK is suddenly not racist.” Mere numbers, one suspects, is not a decisive factor in defining what is racist.

It might be thought that race provides a person with a special status that allows certain behavior between members of that race that is denied to others. An obvious example is the use of the N-word. I sometimes hear black students using that term when referring to each other and people generally do not take offense (there have been some rather notable exceptions). Obviously, if a white student started throwing the word around, things would be just a bit different. Perhaps the same applies to comedy.

Of course, the view that race grants such special comedic and language privileges does seem to be a bit racist. This is because it is based on the assumption that racial distinctions are real and that people are to be granted certain privileges because they belong to a particular race. So, to think that white comedians cannot make fun of Obama without being racist and that black comedians can safely do so because they are black would seem to be a racist view. After all, race would be the deciding factor rather than the content of the comedy. Obviously, there can be racist comedy-but the color of the comedian should not be the determining factor.

So, everyone should be free to make fun of Obama (within the limits of comedic taste, of course). He is the President of all Americans and we have a God given right to make jokes about whoever sits in that oval office regardless of race, creed or color.

The Moral Crunch

I worried a little last summer about morality on mountaintops, about the demands of morality when one is under duress.  I’m thinking that the problem is a real one for us now — anyway it stands out to me a little more.  Does morality change when the going gets tough?  Or do moral demands stick with us unchanged, in good times and in bad.  Is it maybe when things are awful that we see what moral stuff we’re made of, or are we let off, a little, when times are tough?  In the end I am tempted to think that it’s as wrong to cut the rope on the mountaintop as it would be to leave someone to an awful fate right here on the ground.  I am tempted, but I get the feeling, too, that provisos have to kick in here and there.  I just don’t know which ones and how many and when, much less why.

The world is getting tougher for some of us, maybe most of us, as the economic crisis deepens.  In the UK, for example, one in ten of us will be unemployed by early next year.  There’s talk of a lot of people who cannot afford fuel bills freezing in the coming months.  There is some awfulness on the horizon.  Do you think, when times get tough and even as your own belt has to tighten, that you have more moral obligations, fewer obligations or just the same obligations to others?

Paradox #4: Blackmail

Today’s paradox is about blackmail. Actually, it’s only a puzzle, at least initially, and once it gets under your skin it will bother you for days. (See 10 Moral Paradoxes chapter 4.  Previous posts about this book are below.)

A blackmailer says “If you don’t give me money, I will reveal your dirty secret.” Not only does this seem wrong, but it’s also illegal. That’s puzzling, considering that similar threats during boycotts and strikes (and the like) don’t seem wrong and they’re legal. The boycotter says things like “If you don’t pay the workers more, I will stop buying your product.” The striker says things like “If you don’t pay us more, I will stop working.” How can it be that the manipulation in the blackmail case is morally and legally suspect, when in the other cases it’s innocent?

My long-suffering family discussed this over dinner one night (kids warmed up to it nicely after initial protests–so this would actually make a good “philosophy for kids”), and we thought we had it figured out, but I’m not so sure. There’s a temptation to build all sorts of nefariousness into the blackmailer, while painting the boycotter and striker as well-intentioned.  What’s interesting is that the puzzle persists, even if you keep nefariousness to a minimum.

This is my own example, not Smilansky’s:  Suppose Jane has a mind to publicize the misdeeds of a rich political candidate. In public, the candidate has portrayed himself as the devoted husband of a woman who has end-stage cancer (herself a beloved public figure). In private he’s having an affair. (American news junkies will know I’m talking about a real person.) Jane thinks voters ought to know the candidate’s real character. On the other hand, Jane has a child who needs an operation, and she can’t afford the cost. So she tells the candidate she will go to the press if he doesn’t send her money.

If the politician pays her off, the kid gets better. If he doesn’t, an important story is published. Either way, things will turn out better for Jane’s engaging in blackmail. Yet the intuition persists that what Jane is doing is wrong, and should continue to be illegal, while boycotters and strikers do no wrong.

Smilanksy inventories the various solutions in the literature, and finds some merit here and there, but says on the whole we can’t really explain what’s so bad about blackmail in terms of something intrinsic to it. ‘Paradoxically, what singles it out is that little or no good derives from it.” In my scenario, you can’t even say that.

The fun thing about paradoxes is that they spur feverish figuring out. Reason doesn’t like the paradoxical, so tries to fix it and avoid it. My own “fixing” over the last couple of days leads me to say this on behalf of the striker and boycotter: if the business owner doesn’t comply with their demands, then he deserves what he gets. The punishment (no workers, no business) has a connection with the crime.

But in blackmail it’s a different story. If the sleazy politician doesn’t pay Jane, he doesn’t deserve to have his misdeeds exposed for that. Maybe it’s proper for his misdeeds to be exposed. Maybe he would have no reason to complain if a journalist reported the story. But Jane is setting things up so that the exposure is due to the non-payment. Jane has set a trap for him that can only make him feel that life is wretchedly unfair. And since none of us want to be in the politician’s position, it’s a good thing blackmail is illegal.

Puzzle solved, paradox avoided…unless I’ve overlooked something, which I probably have. Comments welcome.

Mohawk in America

Now that Obama is President, people are talking a great deal about race-at least in terms of blacks and whites. There is, on occasion, some side mention of Hispanics and Asians-perhaps as a modest acknowledgment that there are people who are not black or white in America. However, I almost never see references to Native Americans. For example, I carefully followed the political discussions of the white voters, the black voters and the Hispanic voters. However, I cannot recall any mention of the Native American voters. After the election, I began reading about race in America and, once again, the emphasis was on blacks and whites. Asians and Hispanics are, once again, sometimes mentioned on the side. However, Native Americans are consistently left out. In this way, and in many others, Native Americans seem to be invisible in their own country. Of course, they do get a bit of the spotlight in November-people remember the Indians when they serve the Thanksgiving Turkey. After that, Indians go back to being seen mainly as mascots for sports teams.

Naturally, I wonder why Native Americans are so consistently ignored.

One reason might be the desire to avoid reminding people about what happened in America. Massive theft and attempted genocide tend to be things that most people would rather forget. Perhaps it is a subconscious thing, perhaps not. Or perhaps this is not the reason at all.

Another reason might be that Native Americans make up only about 1% of the population (down from 100% before the Europeans arrived). Hence, they might be seen as largely irrelevant when it comes to politics and concerns about race. In contrast, blacks make up about 12% of the population, hence they are of greater concern to the media and politicians.

A third reason is that Native Americans seem to lack the spokespeople needed to gain the attention of the media and the politicians. There is, as far as I know, no Native American equivalent to Jesse Jackson or Oprah. Without such people to attract attention, the media has little interest.

This situation does bother me. In part, it is an ethical concern. It seems wrong that Native Americans are now all but invisible in their own lands. In part, it is a personal concern. My great grandfather was Mohawk, although I look white (and not just white-“Nazi recruiting poster white” as my friend Lena once said). This leads to another possible reason why Native Americans are effectively invisible.

America has had a long obsession with race and this has mostly focused on an obsession with blacks and whites. This is most manifest in the “one drop rule.” The idea is that someone is black if they have “one drop” of “black blood.”

This view is still held today. After all, people do not say that Obama is white-they say he is black. The same is said of many black people who are actually mostly not black. Interestingly, the “one drop” rule does not apply to other ethnic groups.

This has various implications for how race is viewed. In my case, I’m seen as white. First, because my non-white ancestry is Mohawk (hence the “one drop” rule does not apply). If my great-grandfather had been black instead of Mohawk, I’d be black. Interesting how that works. Second, because I look white and race is a very visual thing.

When I first started teaching at Florida A&M University (an historically black college) I had an experience that nicely showed the typical American view about race. We were discussing race in class and I told the students that my great-grandfather was Mohawk and asked if that made me a Native American. One student laughed dismissively and said “you’re white.” The other students agreed that I was, in fact, white. Then I asked the obvious question: what about “black” people who have mixed ancestry? The unanimous view was that such people are black. Then I asked the next obvious question: what about someone whose last “100% black” ancestor was his great-grandfather? They all agreed this person would be black. So, I asked the last obvious question: so, why am I white and not Native American? No one had an answer to that one. But, the clear answer is that I’m white because of how people see whiteness and the black person would be black because of how people see blackness.

So, one reason that Native Americans are largely invisible is that many of us are not seen as Native Americans. In my case, people just see a white guy and the Mohawk is invisible.

Join the Conversation

it’s always good to have an author explain his ideas in his own words.  Saul Smilansky is doing so in the comments to my last post about his book 10 Moral Paradoxes.  Join us, below.