Monthly Archives: March 2011

Is Childhood an end in itself?

Here I sit in a room littered with toys, colorful books, and tiny dirty socks. I like to think of myself as an aesthete, but as a new parent my living room floor has been taken over by forces far more powerful than my aesthetic sensibilities. My desire to entertain my son coupled with my wish to do something other than clean while he is asleep have resulted in this. As I scan things more carefully, I see another theme arising. It’s not only a wish to preoccupy him that these toys are here, but also a desire in me to help him develop. I see flashcards to facilitate reading, boxes with images of animals to open his mind to the diversity of life on earth, and a miniature plastic piano for him to discover music. Although the ultimate goal of his development is not always clear to me (insofar as I’m not exactly sure what the purpose of life is), it seems much of his existence could be viewed as steps—no matter how small—towards adulthood.

Numerable philosophers throughout history have theorized about how to shape children into their idea of a fully-formed human being. Aristotle wanted children to receive a thorough education in correct moral conduct so that as an adult they could experience a life of virtue, which for Aristotle was synonymous with the good life: “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed society corrupted people, and so he argued that education needed to help children preserve as much of their natural goodness as possible. John Dewey, who tried to sidestep the issue of the purpose of life as defining of education, still wanted to prepare children to continue to grow and have more educative experiences.

Recently in the U.S. media, there has been a debate regarding the proper way to raise a child. Amy Chua, who kicked it off with an essay in the Wall Street Journal (based on her memoir) said that, for parents, “the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.” For Chua, this meant not allowing her children to have play dates or sleepovers, demanding that they get only straight As, and sometimes calling them “garbage” and “fatty.” It also meant that they had to spend grueling hours every day studying mathematics or practicing an instrument (she only allowed them to play violin or piano). Many critics argued that Chua was far too extreme, and that the end she had in sight for her daughters was in fact a rather narrow take on human life (see here and here, for example). The better approach to raising children, some said, would be to encourage children to have new social experiences and to delve into the humanities, both indispensible to the good life.

I am not suggesting that the focus on children as a means to adulthood is inherently bad; indeed it’s absolutely necessary to prepare them for what is to come, and to guide them in the process of learning. We could even say that to neglect this would be immoral. Yet, I still wonder: is there a feature of childhood that ought not simply be a means to an end? Is there something of moral value that we ought not reduce to an investment into the future, whether theirs or ours?

Taxes & Voting

1967 U.S. postage stamp honoring Henry David T...

Image via Wikipedia

In an earlier post I addressed the matter of whether taxes are theft or not. In the course of the discussion, I considered that if the citizens consented to the taxes, then they would not be theft. After all, part of what makes theft wrong is that it involves a lack of free consent on the part of the victims. As such, if those taxed voted for the taxes (or voted for representatives who voted for the taxes) then they would have given their consent and such taxes would not, on the face of it, be theft.

This, of course, could be seen as trying to settle one issue by making use of one that is at least as subject to debate. After all, to say that taxes are not theft when they have been properly voted into effect requires assuming that voting provides this consent in a meaningful way.

Obviously enough, if the voting is directly for a tax and everyone votes in favor, then this would be a clear case of consent. Likewise if everyone votes for someone who is clear that they will support a tax, then that would also seem to provide indisputable consent. As everyone knows, such unanimous voting is all but unheard of. This raises the matter of whether those who voted against the tax (or the tax supporter) have given their consent or not.

Intuitively, it would seem that by participating in the voting process, they have thus agreed to abide by the outcome-whether they win or lose. As such, those who vote against a tax (or tax supporter) would have given their consent to the outcome. Those who chose not to vote would also seem to consent as well-by electing not to vote, they have simply set aside their role in the process and not their consent to the process.

This does assume that there are not factors in play that would make the voting questionable, such as the use of fraud and force. It is easy enough to imagine circumstances in which a vote would clearly not count as a matter of consent. However, the discussion is focused on legitimate voting scenarios.

At this point, it might be objected that if voting is based on consent, whenever people vote against something they are showing their lack of consent. Hence, those who voted for a tax or anything (directly or indirectly) have given their consent while those who voted against it have not. As such, if I vote against a tax, when I am forced to pay I am being robbed. If I had voted for it, then I would not be a victim of theft. To use an analogy, suppose I am in a group and people start to decide what they want for dinner. After a vote, most people decide they want to go to Chez Expensive and have the Costly Quiche. I, however, decided I would rather just go home and make some spaghetti and salad. If these other folks decide to take my money to fund their Quiche, then it would certainly seem that they would be endeavoring to rob me.

Since this is an obvious problem, it is hardly surprising that past thinkers addressed this matter. Locke’s approach is to contend that the consent given when forming a community extends to voting. He argues for this by noting that the political body must move one way (we either have a tax or we do not) and it must move  “the way the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority.” If it did not, then the body would be split and the original agreement would be broken.

Naturally, some might contend that the body should split when people disagree. Going back to the quiche example, if some folks want the quiche and I do not, we can simply go our separate ways.

The obvious reply is that while this is sensible in matters involving such minor things as dinner, it would be destructive to society to have the political body break apart over matters of law and policy. This, Locke claims, would be irrational. So, as Locke sees it, the original consent extends to voting and there is also the practical matter of going along with the majority so as to avoid shattering society.

This does lead to a rather serious concern that was perhaps most ably discussed by Mill, namely the tyranny of the majority. The majority (or those who try to pass as the majority) might decide to oppress some of their fellows or do other wicked things. As such, there is clearly a need to place limits on the power of the majority. Mill, being a utilitarian, advocates a utilitarian approach to this matter. As he sees it, the greater good is served by limiting the extent to which the majority can impose on the minority. While Mill does not focus on taxes, he does accept that citizens can be held obligated for “bearing a fair share of common defense or work necessary to the interest of society.”

In regards to the specific matter of taxes, it would seem that if the tax is within the limits of a “fair share”, then it would not be theft to tax someone even if they voted against the tax. However, a tax that went beyond this or had some sort of moral defect could be regarded as theft.

The above discussion does, obviously enough, assume that voting is legitimate. However, this is an assumption that is easy enough to question.  Thoreau, for example, claimed that (in his essay on civil disobedience) “voting for the right does nothing for it-it is a feeble expression of the desire that it should prevail.  The wise will not leave right to chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.”

Thoreau also addresses the matter of taxes and argues that people should be allowed to decide to not pay their taxes if they decide to withdraw from the political system. He does, however, make a point of saying that people should pay for what they use, such as paying the highway tax if one uses the highway.

This does seem to be consistent approach in the context of the consent theory. After all, if someone completely removes themselves from the political system, they remove their consent. To claim that they consent to the results of the votes made by others would thus seem to be an error. To use an analogy, if I do not join a club, they have no right to expect me to pay their membership fees-no matter how they vote on the matter. Likewise, if I am not part of a state, then the state would have no right to assume my consent merely because other people voted on something they want to impose on me.

This is not to say that the state would have no legitimate power over me. After all, if I tried to commit murder or theft within its borders, then the police would seem to be quite right to stop me.

Thoreau’s approach would require actually leaving the political body and not merely bailing after a particular vote. To use an analogy, if I agree to go out to dinner and pay my share, I have no right to bail out when they check arrives. However, if I have left a group or never joined, they would have no right to expect me to pay if they decide to go out to dinner.

As such, if a person did withdraw from society and agreed not to avail themselves of any of its goods or services without paying for them, then imposed taxes beyond this would be theft on the part of the state. After all, the state would be taking without consent and would be taking what it was, in fact, not truly owed.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Cure for Tyrants

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Image via Wikipedia

The revolutions in the Middle East have served to draw attention to the fact that many people live under the power of dictators and tyrants. This is, of course, not true merely of the Middle East. Many of the people in Africa live in abject poverty while their “leaders” enjoy lives of excess. In most cases, these tyrants are backed by outside states and receive support in return for access to natural resources or for how well they serve strategic interests. In many cases, Western powers have a hand in keeping these people in power. Given that we are supposed to be democratic states committed to justice for all, this sort of behavior seems especially wicked. After all, given our professed values we should be crushing tyrants or, at the very least, not lending them support and comfort.

It might, of course, be argued that we are acting in a realistic manner. In the global game of politics and power, we cannot afford be to impeded by such things as ethics or principles. We need to play to win and this means being willing to support tyrants who rob their people and control them with the tanks, tear gas and torture implements we fund or provide. This does have a certain appeal and has been argued for by folks such as Glaucon and Hobbes. Of course, taking this approach does rob us of any claim to moral goodness and empties our talk of justice and rights.

It might also be argued that people get the government they deserve. If, for example, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea and his family loot the government, it is only because the people (many of whom live on $2 a day) allow him to do so. They could, one might argue, rise up and provide a cure for their tyrant. That they elect not to do so shows that they have consented to this rule, however tyrannical it might seem.

Of course, there is the fact that this dictator, like so many others, is backed by outside powers (like us). As such, the people are at a terrible disadvantage-they are up against someone who has far more resources as well as outside backing. Hence, their alleged consent is the “consent” that an unarmed person gives to the robber who has a gun pressed to their head and another fellow backing him up with an even bigger gun-hardly consent at all.

There is also the argument that while tyrants are bad, they are (in a Hobbesian style argument)better than the alternatives. Better to have a single tyrant that maintains some degree of order rather than chaos or an even worse tyrant. Also, history seems to show that tyrants are often replaced by other tyrants-so why try to cure the problem of tyranny if the cure will not take? As such, the people should simply endure the tyranny to avoid something worse. Even if they try to rebel, the result will be death and destruction followed by a new tyrant.

At this point, some might point to Iraq: the United States and her allies  removed a tyrant and poured billions into constructing something that is sort of nation like. Perhaps the United States or other countries could use that sort of cure: roll in, kill the tyrants and rebuild the nations.

While this has  certain imperial appeal, the practical fact is that we cannot afford to do this to every dictator. There is also the concern that even if we do roll out one dictator, we cannot be even reasonably confident that the results will be better for the people.

One rather extreme option would be to simply assassinate tyrants. This would be far more cost effective than a war and would, on Lockean grounds, seem to be morally justified. Of course, there are the concerns that doing this would result in hostility towards the West and that killing one tyrant would merely pave the way for another (or chaos). However, there is a certain appeal in ridding the world of the wicked and it is easy enough to kill anyone. After all, tyrants are just humans and a single well placed shot or knife will kill them easily enough.  If potential tyrants realized that the reward of their tyranny would be death, then they might be less inclined to become tyrants. This is, after all, the logic of deterrence that states employ in their justification of punishment. What is sauce for the goose should also be sauce for the gander.

There would also seem to be a certain rough justice in making tyrants live in the sort of fear that they inflict on their own people. To steal a bit from Hobbes, if the people need to be kept in line by fear of the sovereign, it would seem to make equal sense that the sovereigns should be kept in check by fear as well. Just as a citizen can expect to be harmed when they cross the line, so too should a sovereign expect the same justice. As such, perhaps the proper cure for tyrants is death.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Stoics and Epicureans

Not just living, but living well, is a question worth exploring with the help of philosophy. From its history, we can gather thoughts about living well that invite rational scrutiny. Philosophers give reasons for their views, and do not rely, for the most part, on authority or revelation to carry the day. We may not agree with them, but from ancient times to the present, philosophers have explored many ideas about living well, the nature of a good life for human beings, the art of living, and the best routes to happiness.

The ancient Greeks wished their friends to ‘do well’ and ‘fare well’ in life. Doing well means acting morally and justly. Faring well has to do with prosperity, good health and general flourishing. The art of living is to become skilled in this. It is learning to do well oneself and create the best chances of faring well in life. Doing well and faring well differ, to my mind, in that the latter requires a bit of luck and the cooperation of a wider world. Doing well (acting justly in the world) is within one’s own power and requires no external conditions to make it possible. Ancient philosophy, in particular, has much to tell us about these topics. Consider the Stoics and Epicureans.

The Stoics hammered home the point that no one can force us to do evil and that there are worse things than death. What happens to us cannot determine how we think and feel. Our responses to what happens to us can come under our own control. In addition, they advocated detachment and a lessening of desires as a way to combat the sufferings of life. For the early Stoics, the art of living meant cultivating ‘Ataraxia’ or ‘Painlessness’, and this meant becoming indifferent to the things most people crave the most. According to Zeno, the first Stoic, we are to become indifferent to pleasure and pain, wealth and poverty, health and illness, indeed, life and death themselves. Each of these goods and evils are of no value in themselves, and are never to be preferred or avoided at the expense of reason and virtue. The art of living, for the Stoics, means following the universal laws of nature and facing whatever comes your way with equanimity, neither exulting in victory nor despairing in defeat. Stoic wisdom is all about doing your duty as reason and nature direct your reflective actions. Wisdom is the goal, not pleasure. At best, pleasure is a distraction from duty. At worst, it is destructive of the lives and fortunes of persons. Wisdom and right action are the goals of life.

The Epicureans also claim to follow reason and nature, but here pleasure in one form or another recommends itself as the good we all seek for ourselves. Its founder, Epicurus, tells us that life is simple, the good is easily within our grasp, and happiness is living in harmony with your friends. Nothing more is needed. In fact, having more than one needs to satisfy legitimate animal desires leads to an uneasy mind filled with imaginary fears of losing what you do not need in the first place. The art of living, here, is to develop the skill to avoid the idols and temptations of the world, and simply to cultivate your garden in harmony with yourself and nature.

For Epicurus, the art of living gives us the ability to maintain peace of mind. Part of this freedom comes in releasing an excessive fear of death. Such a fear, more than any other, hinders us in living. Death is nothing, and so nothing to fear. “Where I am, death is not. Where death is, I am not.” And if you say that it is precisely this ‘nothing’ that you fear, the reply is that it can only be something to fear while you are alive, so why waste the time. Again, we can lessen our fears by negotiating life in such a way as to avoid the shoals of superstition and the stares of vengeful gods. If gods exist, and are happy, then they will not associate themselves with unhappy humans. If the gods do not exist, it is the same. Stick to natural desires, which are easy to satisfy. Avoid vain desires that are expensive to satisfy and cause mental disturbances.

Both the Stoics and Epicureans have worked out ways of living that recognize the pains and sufferings of human existence while negotiating a way through them. It is true that Stoics tend to keep the idea of God to give the universe a providential frame, but they revere the God of reason and the laws of nature. The stoic follows nature and tries to see everything that happens as only a tiny part of a greater universe. The Epicureans do without supernatural consolation, but since no one will ever taste death (only dying), we do not have to worry about it. Where the philosophy of Epicurus sits uneasily is in philosophies or religions that denigrate the body and, especially, the pleasures of the body. However, when we read what Epicurus said, it turns out that the life he recommends is miles away from the common idea of hedonists as irrational pleasure seekers and addicts. Plain living and high thinking are his prescriptions for the good life. Though the stoics and Epicureans disagree, there is nothing to stop us learning from their insights about how to do well and fare well in this (human) life.

Are Taxes Theft?

Photographic portrait of Emma Goldman, facing ...

Image via Wikipedia

One underlying theme I have noticed in America’s Tea Party movement (and among other folks as well) is the idea that taxes are a form of theft. Interestingly enough, this idea was also put forth by the anarchists. As the (in)famous anarchist Emma Goldman said “…the State is itself the greatest criminal, breaking every written and natural law, stealing in the form of taxes, killing in the form of war and capital punishment…” However, a negative view of taxes no doubt dates back to the first tax.

The first step of the discussion involves laying out an intuitive and adequate account of theft. Obviously, a merely legal account of theft will not do here. After all, if theft is defined as taking property via illegal means, then taxes would almost never be theft-after all, they tend to be instituted by law. As such, what is needed is a moral definition of theft.

Without getting into torturous semantical details, it seems safe to regard theft (at least in this context) as the the unjustified taking of legitimate property, typically via means such as deceit or force. This definition is, of course, easily subject to criticism as not being a sufficient and necessary definition. However, the discussion does not seem to require such a definition. If it does, however, I trust that someone will be forthcoming with a better one.

Obviously enough, states can engage in theft via taxes. For example, if the unelected dictator of a state sends his lads around to take money and valuables from people using the threat of violence, then that would seem to qualify as theft. My focus will not, however, be on such cases. Rather, I will focus on whether taxes in a democratic state can be justly considered theft or not.

One rather clear case in which taxes cannot be considered theft is the case when the citizens vote directly on a proposed tax. If I, for example, vote in favor of a tax, then that tax would not be theft. After all, part of what makes theft wrong is that it involves a lack of free consent on the part of the victim. If I freely agree to pay, then that is not theft. As another example, if I vote for a politician courageous or crazy enough to admit that she will create a new tax, then I have given my consent and cannot claim to have been robbed.

However, the people who voted against the tax or the politician would seem to have not given their consent. As such, the state would be taking their money without their consent and this would seem to be an act of theft.

The stock reply to this line of reasoning is that when people vote, they agree to abide by the outcome-even if it is not the outcome they want. To refuse to do so would be to break that agreement and it would essentially render voting pointless.

The stock counter to this is to point out that there are situations in which going along with a vote would be to go along with something whose evil would exceed the wrong of breaking the agreement to abide by the vote. For example, if a vote was taken to restore slavery, good people should vote against it and should refuse to accept the return of slavery even if it were voted back into legality. In the case of taxes, the question would be whether the evil of the taxes justifies breaking the agreement to abide by the results of a vote. This, of course, takes the discussion far beyond whether taxes are theft or not and into a discussion of the legitimacy of voting. However, if the evil of the taxes justified rejecting the vote, then it would seem that if the state imposed the taxes on the unwilling, then the state would be engaged in theft. The challenge is, of course, showing that the evil of the tax warrants what amounts to rebellion against the state.

Another type of case in which taxes cannot be considered theft is when the taxes are payments for goods and services. For example, if I pay a tax that pays for the roads I drive on, then I am hardly being robbed. To use an analogy, if I have a meal at a restaurant and the bill is brought, it would be absurd of me to cry out that I am a victim of theft because I am being forced to pay for my meal. If I did not pay, I would be the thief.

While this line of reasoning is appealing, people generally pay taxes that are used to pay for goods and services that they themselves do not use or oppose. As such, this justification would seem to fail in such cases. For example, a family that pays for its children to go to a private school would not be using the public schools that their tax dollars support. As such, it would seem that they are being robbed-provided that they do not want to pay these taxes. As another example, someone who is morally opposed to abortion could claim that they are being robbed if some of their taxes are used to pay for abortions. As a final example, someone who opposes war or corporate subsidies could argue that they are being robbed when their tax dollars are used in such ways.

To use an analogy, if I go to a restaurant and I am billed for food I did not order, want or eat, then I would be robbed if I were forced to pay. Likewise for  taxes.

One stock reply to this is that people might think that they do not benefit from what they are paying for, they actually are receiving benefits and hence are paying for goods and services rather than being robbed. For example, the family that does not want to pay for public schools does benefit from having these schools in existence. Of course, this only holds when the taxpayer is, in fact, receiving a benefit.

A second stock reply is that even if the taxpayer is not receiving a direct benefit, they are contributing to the general good or, at least, helping others who are in need. The standard reply to this is that people should be able to decide whether they want to contribute to the general good or help others. To use an analogy, if someone steals from me so as to donate the money to a charity, they are still robbing me. This, of course, takes the discussion from the specific matter of taxes to the more general question of what we owe to others. If people owe nothing to the general good or to others, then a case could be made that taxes that aim at these goals would be theft. This sort of argument would be based on the lack of consent as well as the lack of a moral obligation to provide support in such cases.

There is, of course, a great deal of appeal to the idea that people should only pay taxes that yield benefits to them or that they are morally obligated to pay. Going back to the analogy of the bill, I should pay for what I receive or use, but not beyond that-unless I wish to do so. As such, it could be inferred that taxes that go beyond this would thus be theft for they would involve taking from me without my consent and taking beyond what I owe. Avoiding this would seem to require a tax system that is modeled on a billing system and a volunteer charity system: we would pay for what we used and decide to donate (or not) to what we do not actually use. Working out what each person owes (financially and morally) would be a rather challenging matter, but does seem to be something that could be done. As far as the financial part, companies and businesses already seem to have worked out a system of billing and this could be applied to the state as well. As far as the moral aspects of what we owe, that seems to be something that must be worked out (as a practical matter) via politics. This process will likely result in people being required to pay for things they do not use or agree with, but this would seem to be part of the price of being a citizen of a democracy. This, naturally enough, leads to the questions about voting-but that is a tale for another time.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Ask Ronald Dworkin anything

90px-ronald_dworkin_at_the_brooklyn_book_festivalIf all goes well, I’ll interview Ronald Dworkin early next week, and as an experiment I thought I might ask a few questions from the teeming millions who read tpm, and publish his response.  Please include your name, so I can attribute the question to you. 

So now’s your chance.  Ask Ronald Dworkin anything.

Yes, But…

In the 1890s when gender role reversals could ...

Image via Wikipedia

I have been a consistent supporter of the idea that women should be regarded as the moral, legal, and political equals of men. In general, I have based this support on the principle of relevant difference: people can (morally) be treated differently only the the basis of a (morally) relevant difference between them. So, while it would be acceptable to pay someone who has more education more than another person, it would not be acceptable to pay someone less simply because she happens to be a woman (or he happens to be a man). I first learned of this principle as an undergraduate during a class on feminism. This class had a lasting impact on me, including an interest in gender issues that persists to this day.

As time marched on from my undergraduate days, I was pleased to see various unjust aspects of American society change. Women had ever increasing opportunities in business, education, sports and in many other areas as well. This trend continued, with the occasional specific set back, until some feminists went so far as to claim that feminism had grown stale or even that there was no longer a need for feminism in America.

While I was pleased with the trend towards equality, another trend that has stood out is what could be called the “yes, but…” trend. I first noticed this when I was doing research for some essays on men, women, and higher education (which appeared in my book). I found that the although the majority of undergraduates were women, there seemed to be almost no concern about this new gender inequality. This initially struck me as odd. After all, feminists and their allies had always been very quick to point out gender disparities that were not in favor of women and endeavored to rectify such imbalances. When I would bring up my concerns about the male decline in higher education, I would most often by the phrase “yes, but…” where the “but” would be followed by some area where men still exceeded women, such as in  physics or the highest levels of the corporate world. Watching the occasional news report that mentioned gender issues, I noticed a similar pattern: it would be pointed out that women exceeded men in some area, but this would be followed by pointing out some area (like income) where women were said to lag behind men.

I most recently noticed this in a Newsweek article, “Born Again Feminism“, by Kathleen Parker. She writes:

As a group, we are worse at some things, but better at others—the very “others,” it also turns out, that happen to be driving today’s economy and that of the future.

Consequently, in the U.S. today, women hold a majority of the jobs, and dominate in colleges and professional schools. They also hold a majority of managerial and professional positions, and about half of all accounting, banking, and insurance jobs.

These socioeconomic facts don’t mean that women have achieved perfect parity with men, who still dominate at the highest levels of business.

As a side point before getting back to the main issue, it is interesting to note that Parker also makes use of a common device in today’s discussion of gender issues: men and women are different, but women are better than men in terms of what is needed today. This, in many ways, is a distorted echo what might be called the old sexism in which men and women were seen as different, but men were regarded as being better than women in the ways that mattered economically, politically and so on. Given this similarity, this sort of thing should be a point of concern among those who are worried about sexism.

Getting back to the main point, this nicely illustrates the “yes, but…”approach. Parker notes that women hold the majority of American jobs, classrooms, managerial positions and have parity in accounting, banking and insurance. But, they have not “achieved perfect parity with men.”

One obvious response is that she is quite right. In America, women have not achieved perfect parity because they are the majority in the areas she mentioned. Perfect parity would require that no gender dominates in any area-even if the dominate gender is female.

I always find it interesting how quickly certain people can transition from saying how women dominate in so many areas to criticizing the fact that there are still areas dominated by men. What is most interesting about this is that the arguments used to argue for equality in the areas still dominated by men would certainly seem to apply to the areas that are now dominated by women. As such, it would seem that the concern about the remaining male dominated areas should also apply to those areas where women now dominate. After all, if gender inequality is unjust when it favors men over women, it would seem to be unjust when it favors women over men. However, this concern often seems to be lacking and it might be suspected that there is a certain moral inconsistency at play in some cases.

This is not to say that there are not areas where the inequality does not unjustly favor men nor is it to say that there are no longer any valid problems left in the area of women’s rights. When people use the “yes, but…” approach they often do point out legitimate problems that need to be addressed. However, they all too often seem to miss the legitimate concerns in regards to areas in which women dominate.

Naturally, I am open to the idea that cases of gender inequality need not be cases of injustice. For example, in my book I consider that the gender disparities in higher education might be due to free choices on the part of men and women and not the result of any form of sexism. However, I am also careful to consider (as I learned from the feminists) that gender disparities could be the result of injustice. Those who use the “yes, but…” approach should be careful to apply a consistent set of principles to both sorts of situations, those in which men dominate and those in which women dominate. After all, we surely do not want to trade one form of sexism for another.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Is Piracy Theft?

A stereotypical caricature of a pirate.

Image via Wikipedia

In my ethics class, one of the  cases the students can select for their papers is about the morality of copying software, movies, music and so on. As I point out in the hints section of that case, a rather important part if the debate hinges on whether such piracy is theft or not. After all, theft is fairly well established (with some notable exceptions) as morally incorrect-or at least morally questionable.

Normally one would expect that a commercial computer game developer would be opposed to the piracy of software. However,  Minecraft creator Markus Persson’s  stated that “piracy is not theft” at the Game Developers Conference.

Persson’s argument is exactly the sort that I have seen in student papers for years: “Piracy is not theft. If you steal a car, the original is lost. If you copy a game, there are simply more of them in the world.”

This does have a certain appeal. After all, the most obvious sort of harm from theft is that the rightful owner is being denied the use of their property and thus experiences an actual loss. If someone merely copies my software, then they have not deprived me of my copy and hence I am unharmed by this.

This same sort of reasoning would, of course, apply to copying books, theories, formulas, recipes, designs and so on. After all, if I copy the formula for a drug or a philosophical theory, the creator or “owner” still has their formula or theory. On this view, only the taking of physical objects would seem to count as theft-laying aside the science fiction scenarios in which someone could remove an idea from someone’s mind or other such things.

If this is pushed, it might be taken as applying to identity piracy and pirating credit card numbers. After all, if someone pirates your identity or your credit card number, you still possess both. The pirate is merely using what they have pirated, just as the pirate merely uses the pirated software. As such, copying your identity or your credit card number would be piracy rather than theft.

On the face of it, this does seem like an absurd result. If it does really follow from Persson’s principle, then it would show that his principle is flawed. Unless, of course, this result does not follow or it does an one bites the bullet and accepts the results.

The stock reply to the claim that piracy is not theft is that the pirate is stealing a sale and thus harming the person who “owns” what was pirated.

Persson does give a reasonable counter to this objection: “There is no such thing as a ‘lost sale’… Is a bad review a lost sale? What about a missed ship date?”

As he notes, a bad review of a product can play a role in  a person not buying it. Also, a missed ship date can also play a role in diminished sales. There are many other things that could play a causal role in a person not buying product. For example, if my book is worse than another competing book, that author will almost certainly play a role in my not selling as many books. If I price my book cheaper than the competition, then that can play a role in their not selling as many books. However, it would be absurd to claim that I am engaged in theft (or being a victim of theft). In more general terms, it would be absurd to claim that I was being subject to unwarranted harm (or being subject to it). If pirating a copy is analogous to these other things, then it would seem to follow that piracy is no worse than they are.

Of course, it could be taken that Persson is arguing that since there is no such thing as a lost sale, then piracy cannot cause a lost sale. Obviously enough, if there are no lost sales, then this certainly follows.

However, there do seem to be some points worth considering. It could be argued that there is such a thing as a lost sale. This would seem to involve showing that but for the factor in question, a purchase would have been made. As noted above, such factors as competing product being better or cheaper could be in that “but for” category and it would be absurd to consider such scenarios theft in a moral or legal sense. As such, what would be needed is a factor that would unjustly result in the lack of a sale.

For example, suppose that you own a company that sells vegetarian food and someone maliciously spreads rumors that your food contains goat testicles. The harm that is done certainly seems to involve the reduction in your sales and this appears to be unjust because it was caused by a lie. As such, it would seem reasonable to regard this action as unethical and you would certainly appear to have reasonable grounds for legal action. Obviously enough, if your competitors lure away your customers with better products or better prices, then you would have no grounds to regard yourself as harmed unjustly. They have a right to compete. However, they have no right to lie.

Piracy certainly seems to be a situation in which revenue is lost via means that are unjust. After all, if I buy Starcraft II rather than a competitor because Strarcraft II is a better game, then that is hardly unjust. However, if I do not buy the competitor because I have pirated it, that seems to be a rather different sort of scenario. Blizzard has the right to compete, but I can hardly claim that I have a right to copy software.

That this is so can be seen in the following analogy involving a test. One way to do well on a test is to “pay” an honest price by going to class and studying. Another way is to simply copy the answers off the person who actually attended class and studies. Obviously, the person copying is not stealing answers in the sense of removing them from the original test, but they have no right to those answers and it would be quite right to prevent them from doing so and punishing them. It would also make sense to regard them as stealing-after all, they are taking what they have not earned. Likewise for pirates.

This distinction does seem to a rather important one, if only on moral grounds.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Nanny Corporation

Nanny and the Professor

Image via Wikipedia

While the “nanny state” is commonly presented as a bugbear, there is typically little talk of the nanny corporation. Like the nanny state, the nanny corporation acts to control people “for their own good.” Interestingly, this is a rather old idea: Henry Ford docked his workers’ pay if they smoked, drank or visited hookers.

While all companies impose a certain degree of tyranny at work (think about all the rules for decoration, dress, behavior and so on that go beyond mere professionalism), the nanny corporation purports to have the right to control people outside of work.

For example, Scotts Miracle-Gro does random urine tests for nicotine. Those who fail are fired. As such, the company demands that workers not smoke-even on their own time. As another example, Clarian Health fines employees $10 per check for being fat and $5 each time they exceed the allowed levels for glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol on regular tests. These are, of course, the sort of impositions that folks who loath the nanny state rail against.

It might be argued that since employees are free to leave a job, these “nannyisms” are a matter of free choice and thus are not truly impositions. After all, a person who wants to smoke can simply elect to not work for Scotts Miracle Grow. In the case of the state, people have far less choice. While they can leave the country, this is something  rather more difficult than merely seeking a different job.

That said, it could be argued that the nanny state is, at least in the case of democracies, also a matter of choice. People vote for or against the nannyisms and are obligated, as per John Locke;s arguments,  to accept the results of these votes (with some notable exceptions that would justify rebellion and resistance). As such, the nanny state would be little worse than the nanny corporation and if choice justifies the nannying, then the state nannyisms wold be just as justified as those of corporations.

It might also be argued that the corporations are merely acting in the way they are supposed to act: to maximize profits. While this nannying might be seen as for the workers’ own good, these impositions actually aim at the bottom line. Healthy employees are more productive, have fewer sick days and cost the company less in health care. As such, nannying is a way to enhance profits or, at least, lower costs.

Of course, proponents of the nanny state can avail themselves of the same sort of argument. Citizens who take poor care of themselves and engage in risky behavior are a greater burden on the public than people who take care of themselves and elect to follow healthy behavior patterns. As such, the same sort of financial and productivity argument can be given. After all, what is good for Miracle Grow is thus good for the nation.

Naturally enough, some people (such as myself) find the public and private nannying to be rather undesirable. After all, as Mill effectively argued, as long as I am a competent adult and not harming others, then I should not be forced to act as others think I should act. Even if it is, in fact, for my own good.

Of course, the argument that the individual is being imposed upon for the general good (or corporate profits) does have some bite. An unhealthy employee who is unhealthy through his/her own choices and actions is unfairly harming the company with lowered productivity, more missed days, and often greater costs. As such, the company would seem to have the right to impose to avoid said harms and fire workers who refused. Likewise, the state has the right to impose on citizens in order to avoid the harms that would accrue from their poor choices regarding health and behavior.

People should, however, have the chance to opt out. As noted above, people who wish to engage in behavior that goes against company policy can find another job. If they prefer to behave in harmful ways, then they cannot expect the company to bear the cost of this behavior. In the case of citizens, they should also have the option to opt out. This can be done by leaving or, less extremely, by forfeiting their claims to state support. So, for example, a person could elect to smoke and forgo buying health insurance. However on that day when she finds she has lung cancer, she cannot expect the state (that is, the rest of us) to pick up the tab for her. She had her choice and, as they say, choices have consequences. While it might be argued that such people would still be owed care and support, the failure would not be on the part of the state. Rather, the person could see who failed them by looking in the mirror. Naturally,  citizens can also seek to change the laws so that they can behave in unhealthy ways and yet still have others bear some of the costs for them.

Enhanced by Zemanta