Monthly Archives: August 2013

Syria

Syria

Syria (Photo credit: ewixx)

As I write this, the United States and our allies are contemplating military action against Syria. While the Syrian government has been busy killing its people for quite some time, it is now claimed that it has crossed the red line by using chemical weapons. Thus, there is apparently a need for a military response.

The United Kingdom, which has often been the Tonto to America’s Lone Ranger, has expressed reluctance to leap into battle. Even the American congress, which rushed to authorize our attack on Iraq, has expressed opposition to Obama taking executive military action. As others have said, memories of the “slam dunk” that led up to the Iraq war are playing a significant role in these responses. Interestingly, the leadership United Kingdom seems mainly concerned with how quickly the attacks will begin as opposed to being concerned about attacking Syria. In the United States congress’s main worry seems to be that the President will rush ahead on his own and deny them what they see as their right to get us into war.

Despite the fact that the people of the United States and the United Kingdom seem opposed to attacking Syria, it seems likely that there will be an attack soon. One obvious reason is that Obama played the red line game (which, on the face of it, said to Syria that they could keep killing as long as they did not use weapons of mass destruction). If he fails to make good on his red line talk, the United States will lose credibility. From a moral standpoint, it could be claimed that the United States and the West have already lost some moral credibility by their ineffectual condemnation of the slaughter in Syria.

Assuming that we will be attacking Syria, there is the obvious question of what we should be endeavoring to accomplish and what plan we have for what will follow the attack. Iraq and Afghanistan stand as examples of what happens when we go to war without properly considering the matter and setting clear, attainable and worthwhile objectives.

One approach is a limited, punitive strike. That is, to attack Syrian targets in order to punish the government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. In this case, the obvious questions are whether or not the Syria government actually used chemical weapons and whether or not such a punishment strike would achieve its goal(s). The goal might be simple punishment: they use chemical weapons, then we blow some things up to pay them back for their misdeed. Or the goal might be deterrence via punishment: they use chemical weapons, we blow some things up. And we will keep doing it until they stop.

Morally, the Syrian government has certainly earned punishment and it would be a good thing to deter them from engaging in more killing—or to even deter them from killing with chemical weapons. However, there is the question of whether or not our attacks will be just punishment or adequate deterrence.  If the goal is deterrence, then there is the question of how long we will engage in deterrence attack and what sort of escalation we should engage in should the initial attack fail to deter.

Another approach is to strike in support of the opposition. That is, to attack Syrian targets with the primary goal of improving the opposition’s relative position. This could, of course, also be a punishment attack as well. In this case, the questions would be whether or not such intervention would be effective and whether or not the results would be desirable for the United States.

One obvious concern about the conflict in Syria is that it is not an oppressive government against plucky, freedom-loving rebels. If that was the case, then the matter would be rather easier.  Rather, it is a battle between an oppressive government and a bewildering array of opposition groups (including an Al Qaeda franchise). There are also outside forces involved, such as Iran, Russia and China.

Because of the fragmentary and problematic nature of the opposition, it is important to consider the consequences of attacking in support of the opposition (or, more accurately, the oppositions). While the Syrian government is a morally bad government and an enemy of America, it has imposed order on the state and is, obviously enough, not the worst option. If, for example, the Syrian government were to topple and the area fell into almost complete chaos, that would be worse than the current situation. Even worse for the United States and most other people would be a takeover of the state by radical forces and extremists.

It is also rather important to take into account the possible and likely reactions of the other powers that are involved in the conflict. Iran, China and Russia have a significant stake in the matter and they might actually react to an American attack. Russia, for example, is sending warships to the area. While Russia or Iran most likely would not engage American forces in the region to defend Syria, this is not an impossibility. For example, the conflict could escalate from an accident.

Unfortunately, I do not have a great deal of confidence in any of the leaders involved in this matter. After all, there are rather different skill sets involved in being a politician who wins office and being able to make effective policy and military decisions. That is, playing the political game is rather different than war. That said, I do hope that wise decisions are made. But, no matter what, many more people are going to be killed—it is mainly a question of how many and with what weapons.

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The Chipped Brain & You

Cover of Cyberpunk 2020

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in the heyday of the cyberpunk genre I made some of my Ramen noodle money coming up with “cybertech” for use in the various science-fiction role-playing games. As might be guessed, these included implants, nanotechology, cyberforms, smart weapons, robots and other such technological make-believe. While cyberpunk waned over the years, it never quite died off. These days, there is a fair amount of mostly empty hype about a post-human future and folks have been brushing the silicon dust off cyberpunk.

One stock bit of cybertech is the brain chip. In the genre, there is a rather impressive variety of these chips. Some are fairly basic—they act like flash drives for the brain and store data. Others are rather more impressive—they can store skillsets that allow a person, for example, to temporarily gain the ability to fly a helicopter. The upper level chips are supposed to do even more, such as increasing a person’s intelligence. Not surprisingly, the chipping of the brain is supposed to be part of the end of the human race—presumably we will be eventually replaced by a newly designed humanity (or cybermanity).

On the face of it, adding cybertech upgrades to the brain seems rather plausible. After all, in many cases this will just be a matter of bypassing the sense organs and directly connecting the brain to the data. So, for example, instead of holding my tablet in my hands so I can see the results of Google searches with my eyes, I’ll have a computer implanted in my body that links into  the appropriate parts of my brain. While this will be a major change in the nature of the interface (far more so than going from the command line to an icon based GUI), this will not be as radical a change as some people might think. After all, it is still just me doing a Google search, only I do not need to hold the tablet or see it with my eyes. This will not, obviously enough, make me any smarter and presumably would not alter my humanity in any meaningful way relative to what the tablet did to me. To put it crudely, sticking a cell phone in your head might be cool (or creepy) but it is still just a phone. Only now it is in your head.

The more interesting sort of chip would, of course, be one that actually changes the person. For example, when many folks talk about the coming new world, they speak of brain enhancements that will improve intelligence. This is, presumably, not just a matter of sticking a calculator in someone’s head. While this would make getting answers to math problems more convenient, it would not make a person any more capable at math than does a conventional outside-the-head calculator. Likewise for sticking in a general computer. Having a PC on my desktop does not make me any smarter. Moving it into my head would not change this. It could, obviously enough, make me seem smarter—at least to those unaware of my headputer.

What would be needed, then, would be a chip (or whatever) that would actually make a change within the person herself, altering intelligence rather than merely closing the interface gap. This sort of modification does raise various concerns.

One obvious practical concern is whether or not this is even possible. That is, while it make sense to install a computer into the body that the person uses via an internal interface, the idea of dissolving the distinction between the user and the technology seems rather more questionable. It might be replied that this does not really matter. However, the obvious reply is that it does. After all, plugging my phone and PC into my body still keeps the distinction between the user and the machine in place. Whether the computer is on my desk or in my body, I am still using it and it is still not me. After all, I do not use me. I am me. As such, my abilities remain the same—it is just a tool that I am using. In order for cybertech to make me more intelligent, it would need to change the person I am—not just change how I interface with my tools. Perhaps the user-tool gap can be bridged. If so, this would have numerous interesting implications for philosophy.

Another concern is more philosophical. If a way is found to actually create a chip (or whatever) that becomes part of the person (and not just a tool that resides in the body), then what sort of effect would this have on the person in regards to his personhood? Would Chipped Sally be the same person as Sally, or would there be a new person? Suppose that Sally is chipped, then de-chipped? I am confident that armies of arguments can be marshalled on the various sides of this matter. There are also the moral questions about making such alterations to people.

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Man(ning) & Woman

A TransGender-Symbol Plain3

A TransGender-Symbol Plain3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a somewhat unusual turn of events, Private Bradley Manning claims that he identifies himself (or herself) as a woman named Chelsea Manning.  He has also expressed the desire to undergo gender re-assignment, beginning with hormone therapy. Given that I hold to a rather broad conception of liberty, I believe that Manning has the right to change his gender and that this is morally acceptable. In fact, if physically being a man is problematic for him, then he certainly should take steps to make his physicality match his conception of his identity. His body, his choice.

One rather obvious obstacle that Manning faces is a lengthy prison term for his role in leaking secrets to WikiLeaks. Being in prison, he most likely will lack the funds needed to pay for hormone therapy. Even if he had the funds, there is also the matter of whether or not the Army would provide such services. As it stands, the Army apparently does not provide such services.

Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, has asserted that if the state fails to provide Manning with the therapy, then he will try to force it to do so. Interestingly, Manning’s case is not unique. In Virginia, a prison refused to allow a prisoner to undergo gender reassignment surgery. In Massachusetts, a federal judge ordered the state to pay for a convicted murder’s sex change operation. These matters obviously raise some philosophical concerns.

As noted above, I believe that an individual should be free to change his or her sex. I base this on the principle that what concerns only the person is a matter in which the individual should have complete authority. So, if Manning wishes to change his sex to match his claimed gender, he should be allowed to do so. This is something I see as a negative liberty—that is, no one has the right to prevent Manning from exercising his liberty in this matter. However, I do not see this a positive liberty—that is, no one else has an obligation to provide Manning with the means of exercising this freedom. As such, if Manning has the funds to pay for the process, then the Army should allow him to do so. The same would also apply to civilian prisoners.

One obvious concern is that prisons are sex-segregated. As such a person who has a sex change would complicate matters. Obviously, a person with a sex change should not be kept locked up with those of his or her previous sex. However, there might be legitimate concerns about locking up the person with members of his/her new sex in terms of safety. However, it seems likely that such matters could be addressed with minimal problems. As such, as long as the prisoner can pay for her own operation, then this should be allowed.

The next point of concern is the matter of whether or not the state should pay for hormone therapy and sex-change operations. On the face of it, the answer would seem to be an obvious “no.” However, it does seem worth considering the matter a bit further.

In general, prisoners tend to lack financial resources to pay for their own medical treatment. After all, a typical prisoner will not have a significant source of legal income nor adequate savings to cover major medical expenses. Since letting a prisoner suffer or die simply because she lacks the means to pay for treatment would be wrong (the state has responsibility for those it incarcerates), it certainly seems acceptable for the state to pay for legitimate medical care for prisoners. As such, if a prisoner needs an appendix removed, it seems right for the state to take care of this rather than let the prisoner die. However, if a prisoner is displayed with her breast size and wants implants, then this is hardly a legitimate medical need and hence the state would not be obligated to pay for such surgery—even if the person’s self-image involved large breasts and the person was very upset about not having said breasts. Thus, the general principle would be that the state should provide legitimate and necessary medical care but is not obligated to provide all medical services that prisoners might want.

Assuming that the above is acceptable, the remaining question is whether or not hormone therapy and sex-change surgery are medically necessary procedures (on par with removing an infected appendix) or if they are not (on par with breast implants).

On the face of it, a person who believes that his gender does not match his physical sex is not in a dangerous medical situation. Being a man or a woman is not, it would certainly seem, a life or health threatening situation. Using the example of Private Manning, he will not become ill or die if he remains a man. As such, the state would seem to have no obligation to foot the bill for sex-change operations any more than it is obligated to pay for breast implants or tummy tucks. After all, one’s body not matching one’s self-image is not a serious medical condition.

However, it can be argued that such a situation is a legitimate and serious medical condition. That is, the person’s mental health depends on a sex-change as much as a person’s physical health might depend on having an infected appendix removed. As such, the state should pay for such procedures.

The obvious counter is that if the state is obligated to ensure that prisoners are not suffering from factors that would negatively impact their mental health, then it would seem to follow that the prisoners should not be in prison. After all, prison is intended to be a place of punishment and that is supposed to cause mental duress.

Another obvious counter is that a person who believes their gender does not match her physical sex might be suffering some duress, but it seems odd to claim that this suffering creates a medically necessary situation. That is, that the person must have her sex changed in order to be in good enough health to serve her punishment sentence in prison.

I will freely admit that I do not know the extent of the suffering a person who believes that her sex does not match her gender might experience. If it is the case that this is a medically serious situation that creates a medical necessity on par with other conditions that the state treats, then the state should treat that condition. However, this does not seem to be the case. Thus, while a person has every right to change his sex, there seems to be no legitimate reason why the state should pay the bill for a prisoner to get a sex-change.

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Minimum Wage IV: The Value of Work

Forex Money for Exchange in Currency Bank

Forex Money for Exchange in Currency Bank (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Some folks labor for minimum wage (or less) while a very few receive millions per year in compensation for their work. Many people are somewhere in between. However much a person makes, there is still the question of whether she is earning what she deserves or not.

This question falls, obviously enough, within the realm of moral philosophy and, more specifically, the subset of moral philosophy that is economics. After all, this is a matter of value and a matter of what a person should be paid.

On the face of it, the easiest and seemingly most sensible approach would be to answer the question by determining what value the person contributes and set that as the compensation the person deserves. To use a simple example, to determine the value added by a Big Burger employee to a Big Burger would involve subtracting out all the other contributions to the value of the burger, ranging from advertising costs to raw material costs. Naturally, the cost of managing the person would also be subtracted out. Since Big Burger employees are paid hourly wages and work with more than just burgers, the deserved wage would involve some estimations and calculations involving the average productivity of the worker. Other situations (such as those of salaried workers or self-employed people) would require appropriate modifications, but the basic idea would remain the same in that a person would presumably deserve to earn compensation based on the value she adds.

This would certainly seem to be a fair approach. If a person is paid more than the value of his work, then he would seem to be engaged in theft. If a person is paid less than the value of his work, then he would seem to be the victim of theft. Naturally, there can be obvious exceptions. For example, a person might help out a friend or charity by doing work at a rate far lower than she actually deserves without it being theft. As another example, a person might decide to help someone out by paying him more than his work is actually worth. This would be charity rather than theft.

On the idea that a person should earn what she deserves, then the idea of minimum wage would seem to not apply in a meaningful way. After all, the minimum wage and the maximum wage would be the same in this case, namely the value of the person’s contribution. Thus, perhaps the law should be that people must be paid what their work is worth. In some cases, a fair wage would be less than the current minimum wage. But, in most cases it would certainly be higher.

An obvious problem with this is the difficulty of determining the value of a person’s work. One aspect of the problem is practical, namely sorting out all the costs involved and determining what the person in fact contributes in regards to value. This is mainly an accounting problem, presumably solvable with a spread sheet. The second aspect of the problem is were value theory really enters the picture, namely sorting out the matter of assessing worth. That is, determining what should go into those cells on the spreadsheet. For example, what value does a CEO or university president actually contribute via their leadership? As another example, what is the real value an artist adds to the paint and canvas she is selling for $45,000? This area is, to say the least, a bit fuzzy. There is also the fact that people would tend to overvalue the value of their own work and generally undervalue the work being done for them.

The minimum wage could, then, be seen as a rather weak guard against work being grotesquely undervalued. By setting a minimum, this means that people will (in general) at least get some of the value of their work. However, it certainly leaves considerable room for greatly underpaying workers relative to what their work is actually worth.

The stock counter is that such matters get sorted out by “market forces.” That is, people whose work is more valuable can command better wages while people whose work is less valuable will command lower wages.

The obvious reply to this counter is that the alleged market forces tend to result in most people being underpaid and some people being compensated far beyond their actual contributions, even accepting the fuzziness of value. In fact, the underpaying of most is what is needed for the few to have such generous compensation. After all, if people were paid based on the value of their work, then there would be no fair way to profit off this work. For example, if Bob contributes $50 of value per hour to my widgets, I would need to steal from Bob to make a profit off his labor.  As another example, if a CEO contributes $100,000 in value to the company, but is compensated with $10 million, then he is stealing the value generated by others.

It might be said that this is all fair because people agree to this system of value. However, this does not seem to be the case: people seem to agree to it in the same way that people agree to a dictatorship: they just go along because the people on the top and those who support them have the power to hurt them.

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Portraits of Philosophers

thumb_Quine

Bolinger’s Quine, done Salvador Dali style.

Renee Bolinger (USC) has painted portraits of some great philosophers.

I found them completely charming. Especially (see right).

Minimum Wage III: Theft & Value

Thief II: The Metal Age

Thief II: The Metal Age (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine Sam has pulled up to the drive through window at Big Burger and rather than pay the full price for his order, he tosses a handful of change into the window, grabs the bag from the distracted Burger minion and zips away on his moped. This would, of course, be regarded as theft and the police would arrest Sam for his hamburgerlary.  The prevention and punishment of theft is generally regarded as a legitimate function of the state and few people regard this as a form of oppression or an overreach by Big Brother. If Sam protested that as an agent of the invisible hand he had paid what he regarded as the fair market value of the burger, then it would seem likely that this would have no effect.  After all, he is supposed to pay the full value of the burger.

Now, imagine that Big Burger makes part of its profits by paying its workers rather less than the value they contribute to the raw materials. Big Burger would seem to be stealing from its employees in roughly the same manner as Sam. That is, Big Burger is paying them less than the full value of their labor.

The Burger Boss would naturally reply that the situation is different: Sam is robbing Big Burger because there is no agreement between him and Big Burger for Sam to pay less than the value of the burger. However, the employees of Big Burger agree to accept less than the value of their work and thus it is not theft.

The Burger Boss might then bemoan the fact that there is a limit to how low he can pay his Burger minions, namely the minimum wage. Surely, he might say between tears, he is being cruelly oppressed by the state by this imposition on his free choice.

Someone with socialist leanings might respond by saying that the minimum wage would seem to be aimed at preventing employers from stealing (too much) from employees. The idea is that they are forced to pay at least a minimum for work done. This, it might be claimed, is similar to what the law does for Big Burger: just as Sam cannot pay less than the price of the burger without being a thief, Big Burger cannot pay less than a minimum wage without being a thief (or a bigger thief).

Burger Boss could weep that this is unfair, that his workers should be paid less because they produce less value than the minimum wage. This, it must be admitted, is potentially a fair point. After all, if it is accepted that a person should be paid based on the value he contributes (which is so often claimed when defending the top salaries of the “top talent”), then a person who actually did produce less value in his work than the minimum wage would be effectively robbing his employer.

However, if the principle of paying a person what he is worth holds true for paying a person less, then the same principle would need to hold when it entails that a person should be paid more. Interestingly, the “top talent” and their ardent supporters seem to fully embrace this principle when it comes to generous compensation for the top people, such as CEOs. However, their grasp of this principle seems to fail when they examine the pay at the opposite end of the hierarchy. But, to be fair, it can be rather hard to see things that are so far away from a person’s own location. In any case, it seems to be capitalism when the people at the top are paid what they are (allegedly) worth, but socialism when the people at the bottom ask to be paid closer to what they are worth.

Getting back to the minimum wage, it seems that people who are paid the minimum wage generally contribute more value than they are paid.  To use a specific example, McDonald’s enjoyed billions in profits last year. This would seem to indicate that even if the CEO is truly magic with money, the workers are creating considerably more value than they are being paid. If this was not the case, then the corporation would not have this sort of profit. Unless, of course, it can be shown that the bulk of the profit was created by other means—which seems unlikely. As such, it would seem that in many cases the minimum wage is actually considerably lower than the value generated by the workers.

As noted above, theft from businesses is illegal and the state uses its coercive power to prevent or punish such thefts. This is seen as a legitimate function of the state. What a minimum wage does is a similar thing—workers can only be legally robbed so much. That is, they have to be paid at least a minimum wage, even if that wage is significantly lower than the value of what the worker contributes.

This seems problematic. After all, it would be like allowing people to only steal so much. Imagine of people were allowed to steal from businesses, but could only steal so much. This would be a “maximum theft” rule, which would be somewhat analogous to a minimum wage. That is, both rules would set something of a limit on how much could be taken without compensation.

While the state does not allow a maximum theft rule, just as the state needs to protect employers from what is regarded as theft, so the state has to protect workers from what would also be theft.

Burger Boss might argue that employment exists in a special realm, distinct from that of all other human relations. So, while stealing from someone (especially a corporation) would be wrong, it is fine in the case of stealing value from an employ.

The usual argument is that employers do not owe the workers a job and they can thus pay as they wish within the working of the free market. On the one hand, this could be seen as true: Big Burger does not owe Sally a job and it could be said that Big Burger does not owe Sally a fair wage that is proportional to the value she contributes.

However, this would seem to suggest that Sally does not owe Big Burger and presumably does not owe Big Burger a fair price—so if Big Burger can work a way to pay Sally less than her work is worth, Sally would seem to have the same right to get a Big Burger for less than its value. While Burger Boss would regard Sally as a thief, Sally would certainly think the same of Big Burger.

This could be seen as the free market: every party is trying to get one over on everyone else. However, when this takes place in a more general setting, it is seen as approaching the state of war rather than being what is expected of civil society. As such, it would seem that if it would be wrong for Sally to steal from Big Burger it is wrong for Big Burger to steal from Sally.

The stock counter is that Sally chooses to work for Big Burger and thus consents to hand over her value for less than it is worth. Now, if this were a free and un-coerced choice, then that would be fine. However, this is clearly not the case: Big Burger tends to have the coercive edge over those who work for it.

 

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Did Peter Unger just get it wrong?

In his renowned book, Living High and Letting Die, Peter Unger asks us to consider the following scenario:

The Envelope. In your mailbox, there’s something from UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. But, you throw the material in your trash basket, including the convenient return envelope provided, you send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have had you sent in the requested $100.

Unger says about this scenario that “almost everyone reacts that your conduct isn’t even wrong at all”. In an endnote, he clarifies that this judgment about how people react is based on having asked “many students, colleagues and friends for their intuitive moral assessments”.

Thing is, I have evidence that he’s just completely wrong about how people tend to react to this scenario. As part of my The Envelope and the Vintage Sedan interactive activity (at the Philosophy Experiments web site), I ask the same question (tweaked so that the amount requested is $200, rather than $100, to allow for the effects of inflation).

So far some 3000 people have completed the activity, and the data is showing that more than 40% think that you would be doing something wrong if you simply ignored the request for money (though it falls to 39% if you control for order effects).

Does this matter? Well, in a couple of senses, yes it does matter. First, it’s a cautionary tale that really you shouldn’t just make things up as you go along. If you’re making a large claim about how people respond to a particular moral scenario, then you’ve got to do better than just asking your mates what they think (this is the case even if it turns out the data I’ve generated is flawed). And second, a large part of Unger’s book is devoted to explaining why our (supposed) intuition that there is nothing wrong in the envelope case is misplaced. His arguments remain relevant, but the rationale for them is undermined if it turns out that a large percentage of people already think there is something wrong.

In another sense, though, it’s not so important: it’s still the case that more people than not think there is no wrongdoing in ignoring the request for a donation; and it’s also true that there is an average difference between how people respond to the envelope case and how they respond to some of the other analogous cases that Unger considers (you can test this for yourself by working through the activity on the Philosophy Experiments web site).

Against warranted deference

There are two popular ways of responding to criticism you dislike. One is to smile serenely and say, “You’re entitled to your opinion.” This utterance often produces the sense that all parties are faultless in their disagreement, and that no-one is rationally obligated to defer to anyone else. Another is deny that your critic is has any entitlement to their opinion since they are in the wrong social position to make a justifiable assertion about some matters of fact (either because they occupy a position of relative privilege or a position of relative deprivation). Strong versions of this approach teach us that it is rational to defer to people just by looking at their social position.

A third, more plausible view is that if we want to make for productive debate, then we should talk about what it generally takes to get along. e.g., perhaps we should obey norms of respect and kindness towards each other, even when we disagree (else run the risk of descending into babel). But even this can’t be right, since mere disagreement with someone when it comes to their vital projects (that is, the things they identify with) shall always count as disrespect. If someone has adopted a belief in young earth creationism as a vital life project, and I offer a decisive challenge to that view, and they do not regard this as disrespectful, then they have not understood what has been said. (I cannot say “I disrespect your belief, but respect you,” when I full well understand that the belief is something that the person has adopted as a volitional necessity.) Hence, while it is good to be kind and respectful, and I may even have a peculiar kind of duty to be kind and respectful to the extent that it is within my powers and purposes. But people who have adopted vital life projects of that kind have no right to demand respect from me insofar as I offer a challenge to their beliefs, and hence to them as practical agents. Hence the norm of respectfulness can’t guide us, since it is unreasonable to defer in such cases. At least on a surface level, it looks like we have to have a theory of warranted deference in order to explain how that is.

For what it’s worth, I have experience with combative politics, both in the form of the politics of a radically democratic academic union and as a participant/observer of the online skeptic community. These experiences have given me ample — and sometimes, intimate — reasons to believe that these norms have the effect of trivializing debate. I think that productive debate on serious issues is an important thing, and when done right it is both the friend and ally of morality and equity (albeit almost always the enemy of expedient decision making, as reflected amusingly in the title of Francesca Polletta’s linked monograph).

***

A few months ago, one of TPM’s bloggers developed a theory which he referred to as a theory of warranted deference. The aim of the theory was to state the general conditions when we are justified in believing that we are rationally obligated to defer to others. The central point of the original article was to argue that our rational norms ought to be governed by the principle of dignity. By the principle of dignity, the author meant the following Kant-inspired maxim: “Always treat your interlocutor as being worthy of consideration, and expect to be treated in the same way.” One might add that treating someone as worthy of consideration also entails treating them as worthy of compassion.

Without belaboring the details, the upshot of the theory is that you are rational in believing that you have a [general] obligation to defer to the opinions of a group as a whole only when you’re trying to understand the terms of their vocabulary. And one important term that the group gets to define for themselves is the membership of the group itself. According to the theory, you have to defer to the group as a whole when you’re trying to figure out who counts as an insider.

Here’s an example. Suppose Bob is a non-physicist. Bob understands the word ‘physicist’ to mean someone who has a positive relationship to the study of physics. Now Bob is introduced to Joe, who is a brilliant amateur who does physics, and who self-identifies as a physicist. The question is: what is Joe, and how can Bob tell? Well, the approach from dignity tells us that Bob is not well-placed to say that Joe is a physicist. Instead, the theory tells us that Bob should defer to the community of physicists to decide what Joe is and what to call him.

***

I wrote that essay. In subsequent months, a colleague suggested to me that the theory is subject to a mature and crippling challenge. It now seems to me that the reach of the theory has exceeded its grasp.

If you assume, as I did, that any theory of warranted deference must also provide guidance on when you ought to defer on moral grounds, then the theory forces you to consider the dignity of immoral persons. e.g., if a restaurant refuses to serve potential customers who are of a certain ethnicity, then the theory says that the potential customer is rationally obligated to defer to the will of the restaurant.

But actually, it seems more plausible to say that nobody is rationally obligated to defer to the restaurant, for the following reason. If there is some sense in which you are compelled to defer in that situation, it is only because you’re compelled to do so on non-moral grounds. In that situation, it is obvious that there are no moral obligations to defer to the restaurant owners on the relevant issue; if anything, there are moral obligations to defy them on that issue, and one cannot defer to someone on something when they are in a state of defiance on that issue. Finally, if you think that moral duties provide overriding reasons for action in this case, then any deference to the restaurant is unwarranted.

Unfortunately, the principle of dignity tells you the opposite. Hence, the principle of dignity can be irrational. And hence, it is not a good candidate as a general theory of rational deference.

So perhaps, as some commenters (e.g., Ron Murphy) have suggested, the whole project is misguided.

It now occurs to me that instead of trying to lay out the conditions where people are warranted to defer, I ought to have been thinking about the conditions under which it is unwarranted to do so. It seems that the cases I find most interesting all deal with unwarranted deference: we are not warranted in deferring to Joe about who counts as a physicist, and the Young Earth Creationist is not warranted in demanding that I defer to them about Creationism.

Minimum Wage II: Freedom & Coercion

As I noted in my previous essay on minimum wage, one stock argument against minimum wage is based on liberty and rights.

Money

Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

The basic idea behind this line of reasoning is that an employer should have the right to set wages and that the state is wrong to use its coercive power to compel a minimum wage. A rather key assumption here is that such coercion is wrong. This assumption should be kept in mind for what follows.

Those who oppose increasing (or even having) a minimum wage often like to appeal to the notion of the free market of employment. The basic idea is that businesses should be free to offer pay as they see fit. Workers can then consider the pay being offered by each employer and refuse to work for a low-paying employer and instead elect to work for one who pays more. For example, if Big Burger is paying $7.25 an hour and this is not to Sally’s liking, she can keep walking past Big Burger and find a job with better pay—perhaps the CEO position at Big Burger for $7.25 million a year.

Naturally, Sally will face some reasonable limits here—there will be jobs that she is not qualified for. For example, if Sally is fresh out of college with a degree in chemical engineering, she will not be able to get work as a lawyer or doctor. But, it is often claimed, she is free to find any job she is qualified for via the workings of the free market.

Alternatively, Sally can create her own business (Sally’s Sandwiches perhaps) and endeavor to get the income she desires. Naturally, Sally will also face limits here based on her abilities. She will also face the obstacles put in place by the government, or so the narrative goes. However, Sally is supposed to have a shot at being the next billionaire—or so the stories go.

On this view, the situation is rather rosy: Sally and her fellows are free to seek their desired employment and potential employees are free to offer what they wish, with no coercion being used against anyone. Alas, the government tinkers with this beautiful scenario of freedom by compelling employers to (generally) pay a minimum wage. Such coercion, as noted above, is assumed to be wrong: the powerful state is pushing around the weaker businesses and leaving them no choice in regards to the lowest wage they can legally pay.

While this tale is appealing to certain folks, it is not just the state that has coercive power. In the case of jobs, the employers often enjoy considerable coercive power. Going back to the example of Sally, it is true that she is free to walk on past Big Burger and other places that are paying the lowest wages. However, it would seem that she only has a meaningful freedom if there are other jobs available that pay better. Otherwise her freedom is a matter of wo

rking for the lowest wage or not working at all.

It could be replied that she is still free—after all, there would seem to be no coercion or compulsion at play here: she can take the job or not. If Sally is financially independent or is supported by someone else (such as her parents), then she would not be coerced—she would not need the job and is thus free to accept or reject employment as she desires. However, if Sally actually needs a job to pay for food, shelter and other necessities, then she would seem to be in a situation that involves coercion.

The obvious counter is that she is not being coerced by Big Burger or their fellows. After all, they did not create a world in which people need to purchase the basic necessities in order to survive. And, one might add, Sally could avail herself of welfare—at least until her benefits run out. Even then, there is always private charity. Sally could even attempt to create her own business, although this would be difficult and she would likely be competing against well established and well-connected corporations.  As such, Sally is still free and Big Burger is merely offering her one choice among many. So, since Sally can chose to be unemployed, it would seem to follow that she is not being coerced by Big Burger or their fellows.

If Sally elects to take the job, then she has chosen to accept the low pay and is thus not coerced in this scenario either. After all, it is her choice.

Interestingly, Sally’s scenario is analogous to that of the employer that is required to pay minimum wage. An employer is free to decide to not pay minimum wage. This could be done by deciding not to hire anyone, by deciding to not have a business or by deciding to simply pay below that wage. A business could also decide to leave and go somewhere that has no minimum wage—just as Sally could move away from an area in search of a job. So, employers are as free as Sally—they have choices, although there may be no good ones.

It might be countered that the employer is not free—there would clearly seem to be compulsion at play here. However, those who enforce the law could say that they did not create a world in which people have to pay a minimum wage any more than Big Burger created a world in which people have to pay for necessities.

So, since a business owner can chose to not pay minimum wage, it would be the case that she is not coerced. As with Sally, if a business owner elects to pay minimum wage, then she has chosen this and thus is not coerced. After all, it is her choice. Just as it was Sally’s choice to accept or not accept a low paying job despite it being the only sort of job available.

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Minimum Wage I: Arguments Against

Minimum Wage In Paraguay, one simple figure

Minimum Wage In Paraguay, one simple figure (Photo credit: WageIndicator – Paulien Osse)

The United States government, like many other government, sets a minimum wage. This is the lowest (with some exceptions) that an employee can be paid per hour. There is considerable debate regarding the minimum wage ranging from disputes over the exact amount of the wage to arguments over whether there should be a minimum wage at all.

Some arguments over the minimum wage are grounded in concerns about economic facts. For example, there is some dispute about the economic impact of the minimum wage. Some contend that increasing it would increase inflation (which would presumably be bad) while some claim that increasing it would boost the economy by increasing spending. In terms of what should be done, these disputes fall nicely within the realm of consequentialism. That is, settling them involves sorting out the facts about the consequences. There would also be some moral aspects to the matter as well, such as sorting out the positive values and negative values based on who they impact and how.

Other arguments about the minimum wage are more ideological in nature and have minimum (or no) connection to matters of economic facts. These arguments tend to be philosophically interesting because of the strong connection to matters of morality.

One argument against the minimum wage is based on the notion that it causes a culture of dependency that interferes with the mobility of labor. The idea, at least as presented in various talking points in the more conservative media, is that a higher (or any) minimum wage would encourage people to simply stick with the minimum wage job rather than moving upwards in the economic hierarchy.

On the one hand, this has a certain appeal. If a person believes that she is earning enough and making a comfortable living, then she might very well be content to remain at that job.

On the other hand, there seem to be some rather obvious problems with this argument. First, unless the minimum wage were increased dramatically, it seems unlikely that anyone would be able to make a comfortable living on such a wage. It also seems unlikely that most people would be content to simply stop at the minimum wage job and refuse opportunities for better employment. People generally stick with minimum wage jobs because they cannot find a better job not because they think they are making quite enough. I would not claim that it is impossible for a person to live what he thinks is a comfortable life on minimum wage nor that a person might be content to just stick with such a job. However, such a person would be an unusual exception rather than one among a vast crowd.

Second, this sort of reasoning seems to be based on the problematic principle that it is necessary to pay people poorly in order to motivate them to move up the economic hierarchy. One problem with this principle is that it would warrant paying people poorly all the way up the economic ladder so as to allegedly motivate them. After all, if people are content to coast at minimum wage, then they would surely be willing to coast if the pay was better. This would thus seem to entail that only the topmost position in a hierarchy should not pay poorly since there would be nothing above that position and hence no need to motivate a person to move beyond it. Interestingly, this does seem to match the nature of CEO salaries—it is common for the CEO to make many times what lesser employees make. Since the number of topmost positions is rather limited, this would seem to be rather unfair. In fact, if this principle is pushed, it would seem to point towards having one position in total that has good pay—thus motivating everyone to attempt to get that one position.

Another problem with this principle is that it seems to be untrue. As a matter of fact, people do attempt to get higher paying jobs when they are available, even if their pay is not poor. People mostly seem to stick with a minimum wage job or a lower paying job because they cannot find one that pays better (there are, of course, other reasons).

As a final point, the idea that paying people to do work creates a culture of dependency seems to indicate the view that the workers are mooching or sponging off the employer. This is, obviously enough, absurd: the worker is getting paid for work done which is the exact opposite of mooching.

A second ideological argument is based on the notion of liberty and rights. The idea is that employers are having their liberty (or rights) violated by being forced by the state to pay a minimum wage.

This line of reasoning does have a certain appeal. After all, people (and corporations are the best sort of people) have rights to liberty and property. If the state tells employers that they must pay a certain wage, the employers are being denied their right to liberty via the coercive power of the state.

There are at least two obvious responses to this line of reasoning. The first is that workers are also people and hence would also have rights, including property rights to their labor. These rights can be used to argue for a minimum wage (or more)—after all, theft of labor would seem to still be theft.  The second is that being part of a society involves, as Locke and Hobbes argued, giving up some rights. While some employers would like the liberty to pay whatever they wanted (which might be nothing—slavery was and is rather popular), it makes sense that such complete freedom would not be consistent with society. Having a civil society, as Hobbes argued, does require the coercive power of the state. As such, the fact that the state is imposing on the liberty of the employer does not automatically entail that this coercion is wrong. The stale also imposes on the liberties of those who would like to steal and kill and these impositions are hardly wrong.

The obvious reply is to contend that while the state has a legitimate right to limit some liberties, this right does not extend to coercing job creators into paying at least a minimum wage. This cannot, of course, be simply assumed—what is needed is an argument that employers should have the liberty to pay as they please. Even if such a liberty is assumed, surely it would have at least some limit. At the very least, it would seem that an employer has to pay more than nothing. Then again, some might like to see slavery put back on the table. There is much more to be said about minimum wage and more essays will follow.

 

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