Monthly Archives: October 2013

Spying, Ethics & Prudence

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

All up in your biz. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was recently revealed that the NSA had been tapping the phones of world leaders, such as Germany’s Chancellor Merkel. Naturally enough, these leaders expressed shock and outrage at this practice. Equally naturally, experts on espionage have tended to note that this shock and outrage is mere theater—such leaders surely knew that they were being spied on. After all, they themselves head up countries with robust espionage systems that no doubt spy on everything they can spy on.

While not an expert on espionage, I have noted the various revelations over the years involving close allies spying on and stealing secrets from each other. As such, I was not shocked by the fact that the NSA had been spying on everyone they could spy on. In addition to having learned the lesson of history, I also accept the reality of the principle of Totally in Everyone’s Business. This is the principle that all states endeavor to get totally into everyone’s business to the degree that their capabilities allow. Or, put another way, states endeavor to spy as much as they possibly can. The main limiting factors on the totality include such factors as technology, competence, money, and human resources. Ethics and law are generally not limiting factors—as history clearly shows. Since I was aware that the NSA had the capacity to spy on American citizens and world leaders alike, I inferred that they were doing so.

There is also the fact that snooping, like cocaine, is addictive and it requires ever more to satisfy that desire. In general, people do like to snoop and once they get a taste of snooping, they often want more. As with any addiction, people can quickly become reckless and a bit irrational. This could be called the principle of addictive snooping. So, once the NSA snoops got to snooping, they really wanted to expand that snooping.

Another factor is the fact that folks in power tend to be a bit paranoid. Since they are usually up to something, they tend to believe that other people are also up to something. Hence, they tend to believe they need to keep an eye on these people—be they fellow citizens, foreign citizens or allied leaders.

As noted above, such espionage is generally not limited by ethics or law (although countries like the United States will go through the most insane legal gymnastics to give such things a coat of legal paint). Recently I was listening to bit on NPR about the spying and one of the commentators noted that in espionage it is a matter of prudence rather than morality. This stuck with me because I had recently been teaching Kant’s ethics and Kant makes a clear distinction between acting from prudence (what is “smart”) and acting from duty (what is right). In the case of espionage, the idea is the usual consequentialist calculation: is the potential for gain worth the risk? In the case of spying on allies, it is a matter of sorting out the likely damage from the revelation and the potential gains from such spying. In the case of established allies like Germany, it seems reasonable to take the harm to exceed the potential for gain. Then again, given the history of Germany perhaps keeping a close eye on everything might not be such a bad idea.

The notion that espionage is about prudence rather than ethics is part of a common notion that ethics is a luxury that cannot be afforded in the context of matters of great importance. This seems to rest on the assumption that ethics is for easy and safe matters. This is, of course, somewhat ironic given that it is in the hard and unsafe matters that ethics is most needed. It is rather like saying that safety gear is for the safe climbing situations and one should just go naked when the climbing gets really dangerous.

Of course, it can be countered that such matters as international espionage deal with things that are so serious and that the stakes are so high that one cannot be handcuffed by the restraints of ethics. By analogy, this would be like trying to fight with one hand tied behind your back. People also make the same argument when it comes to things like torture and assassination: we have to do these things to be safe and ethics must be set aside so we can preserve what is of value.

There are two obvious problems here. One is the usual concern that if we set aside our ethical values, then we have already destroyed what is of value. The second is the fact that judging what is of value and what should be done in its defense are matters of ethics. As such, this would be like saying that one must throw away his tape measure so that he might properly measure the board he is about to cut. However, his tape measure is just what he needs in order to make the proper cut. Likewise, to make decisions about such things as spying, torture and assassination we need our ethical values. To say they must be set aside is itself a moral judgment: it is the judgment that we should do wrong to achieve some end and pretend that we are not really doing what is wrong—just what is in our interest or expedient.

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Memo to the future from Bertrand Russell

Just got sent this and will listen to the whole thing on the commute home —  the link will take you to Youtube.  If I’ve messed up the link, the future bit starts at 26 minutes, 30 seconds.

Should Killer Robots be Banned?

The Terminator.

The Terminator. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can’t say that civilization don’t advance, however, for in every war they kill you in a new way.

-Will Rogers

 

Humans have been using machines to kill each other for centuries and these machines have become ever more advanced and lethal. In more recent decades there has been considerable focus on developing autonomous weapons. That is, weapons that can locate and engage the enemy on their own without being directly controlled by human beings. The crude seeking torpedoes of World War II are an example of an early version of such a killer machine. Once fired, the torpedo would be guided by acoustic sensors to its target and then explode—it was a crude, suicidal mechanical shark. Of course, this weapon had very limited autonomy since humans decided when to fire it and at what target.

Thanks to advances in technology, far greater autonomy is now possible. One peaceful example of this is the famous self-driving cars. While some see them as privacy killing robots, they are not designed to harm people—quite the opposite, in fact. However, it is easy to see how the technology used to guide a car safely around people, animals and other vehicles could be used to guide an armed machine to its targets.

Not surprisingly, some people are rather concerned about the possibility of killer robots, or with less hyperbole, autonomous weapon systems. Recently there has been a push to ban such weapons by international treaty. While people are no doubt afraid of killer machines roaming about due to science fiction stories and movies, there are legitimate moral, legal and practical grounds for such a ban.

One concern is that while autonomous weapons might be capable of seeking out and engaging targets, they would lack the capability to make the legal and moral decisions needed to operate within the rules of war. As a specific example, there is the concern that a killer robot will not be able to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants as reliably as a human being. As such, autonomous weapon systems could be far more likely than human combatants to kill noncombatants due to improper classification.

One obvious reply is that while there are missions in which the ability to make such distinctions would be important, there are others where it would not be required on the part of the autonomous weapon. If a robot infantry unit were engaged in combat within a populated city, then it would certainly need to be able to make such a distinction. However, just a human bomber crew sent on a mission to destroy a factory would not be required to make such distinctions, an autonomous bomber would not need to have this ability. As such, this concern only has merit in cases in which such distinctions must be made and could be reasonably made by a human in the same situation. Thus, a sweeping ban on autonomous weapons would not be warranted by this concern.

A second obvious reply is that this is a technical problem that could be solved to a degree that would make an autonomous weapon at least as reliable as an average human soldier in making the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. It seems likely that this could be done given that the objective is a human level of reliability. After all, humans in combat do make mistakes in this matter so the bar is not terribly high.  As such, banning such weapons would seem to be premature—it would need to be shown that such weapons could not make this distinction as well as an average human in the same situation.

A second concern is based on the view that the decision to kill should be made by a human being and not by a machine. Such a view could be based on an abstract view about the moral right to make killing decisions or perhaps on the view that humans would be more merciful than machines.

One obvious reply is that autonomous weapons are still just weapons. Human leaders will, presumably, decide when they are deployed and give them their missions. This is analogous to a human firing a seeking missile—the weapon tracks and destroys the intended target, but the decision that someone should die was made by a human. Presumably humans would be designing the decision making software for the machines and they could program in a form of digital mercy—if desired.

There is, of course, the science fiction concern that the killer machines will become completely autonomous and fight their own wars (as in Terminator and “Second Variety”). The concern about rogue systems is worth considering, but is certainly a tenuous basis for a ban on autonomous weapons.

Another obvious reply is that while a machine would probably lack mercy, they would also lack anger and hate. As such, they might actually be less awful about killing than humans.

A third concern is based on the fact that autonomous machines are just machines without will or choice (which might also be true of humans). As such, wicked or irresponsible leaders could acquire autonomous weapons that will simply do what they are ordered to do, even if that involves slaughtering children.

The obvious, but depressing, reply to this is that such leaders seem to never want for people to do bidding, however awful that bidding might be. Even a cursory look at the history of war and terrorism shows that this is a terrible truth. As such, autonomous weapons do not seem to pose a special danger in this regard: anyone who could get an army of killer robots would almost certainly be able to get an army of killer humans.

There is, of course, a legitimate concern that autonomous weapons could be hacked and used by terrorists or other bad people. However, this would be the same as such people getting access to non-autonomous weapons and using them to hurt and kill people.

In general, the moral motivation of the people who oppose autonomous weapons is laudable. They presumable wish to cut down on death and suffering. However, this goal seems to be better served by the development of autonomous weapons. Some reasons for this are as follows.

First, since autonomous weapons are not crewed, their damage or destruction will not result in harm or death to people. If a manned fighter plane is destroyed, that is likely to result in harm or death to a person. However, if a robot fighter plane is shot down, no one dies. If both sides are using autonomous weapons, then the causality count would presumably be lower than in a conflict where the weapons are all manned. To use an analogy, automating war could be analogous to automating dangerous factory work.

Second, autonomous weapons can advance the existing trend in precision weapons. Just as “dumb” bombs that were dropped in massive raids gave way to laser guided bombs, autonomous weapons could provide an even greater level of precision. This would be, in part, due to the fact that there is no human crew at risk and hence the safety of the crew would no longer be a concern. For example, rather than having a manned aircraft drop a missile on target while jetting by at a high altitude, an autonomous craft could approach the target closely at a lower speed in order to ensure that the missile hits the right target.

Thus, while the proposal to ban such weapons is no doubt motivated by the best of intentions, the ban itself would not be morally justified.

 

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Thinkingfilm: announcement of new group-blog on film-philosophy

Colleagues; check out my new blogsite, http://thinkingfilmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/
This is a site for serious film-as-philosophy type stuff. I think a lot of you will like it.

[See also my earlier post there: http://thinkingfilmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/avatar-transformed-cinema.html]

If you have comments, probably better to leave them there than here.

Death of Norman Geras

I’m sad to hear from various sources of the death of Norman Geras, whom I knew for his excellent and provocative normblog – which now includes an announcement of his death by his daughter, Jenny Geras. She indicates that the blog and all its archives will remain online.

The Day After

Official photographic portrait of US President...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the Republicans, the initial motivation for the shutdown came from their desire to prevent the damage they alleged will be inflicted by Obamacare. It is thus rather ironic that their shutdown, as a matter of fact, cost the United States about $24 billion and slowed growth. It also harmed the government employees who were furloughed and the other Americans who were impacted directly by the shutdown. Naturally, it also impacted how we are perceived by the rest of the world. As such, the Republican strategy to protect America seems to have the exact opposite effect. Thus it is no wonder that while the majority of the public disapproves of the way the situation was handled, the Republicans are bearing the brunt of this disapproval.

One counter is to endeavor to lay the blame on the Democrats. Fox, for example, did its best to spin the story so that the Democrats were morally accountable for the shutdown. This does raise an interesting question about responsibility (and perceived responsibility).

In terms of the facts, the Republicans initially insisted that, on the pain of putting the government on the path to shutdown, Obamacare be delayed or defunded. Obama and the Democrats noted that Obamacare is a law and that it had been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. As such, they refused to negotiate the matter. Given that Obama had yielded in the past, the Republicans probably expected that he would yield once more. However, he did not and the shutdown went on until the brink of the default.

The facts would seem to show that the Republicans bear the moral blame for the shutdown. After all, the law was passed and upheld in accord with the constitutional process. That is, it was done by the proper rules. The Republicans partially shut down the government and threatened to take the country into default if they did not get what they wanted. Obviously enough, this sort of thing is not in accord with constitutional process. That is, the Republicans were not acting in accord with the proper rules and the Democrats refused to give in to them.

To use an analogy I have used before, this is like having the Red Sox beat the Yankees in a legitimate game and then having the Yankees threaten to burn down the stadium if the Red Sox refuse to negotiate the outcome of the game. If the Yankees then set the stadium on fire, it is not the fault of the Red Sox-they are under no obligation to yield to the unwarranted demands of the Yankees. The Yankees bear full blame for the burning of the stadium. As such, the Republicans bear the blame for the shutdown and the damage it caused. As a general rule, if someone threatens to do harm to others if he does not get what he wants, then the responsibility for the harm he inflicts rests on him and not on those who refuse to give him what he has no right to demand by means of a threat.

It could be countered that Obamacare is so bad, “the worst thing in our country since slavery”, that the Republicans were in the right to inflict such harms in order to try to stop it. It could even be argued that by passing such a wicked and destructive law the Democrats are to blame-the Republicans had to take such extreme measures in order to try to save America.

This, obviously enough, rests on establishing that the law is so wicked and destructive that such extreme measures are warranted. It would also involve showing that the damage done by the Republican strategy is outweighed by the harms that the strategy was supposed to prevent. This would most likely involve a utilitarian assessment of the harms and benefits.

The damage done by the Republican strategy is known: $24 billion in 16 days. Obamacare would certainly have to deal some serious damage in order to match that, but perhaps it can be shown that this will be the case. As it stands, there are only guesses about what the impact of Obamacare will be. There is plenty of rhetoric and hyperbole, but little in the way of disinterested, rational analysis. However, it does seem reasonable to believe that Obamacare will not be the worst thing since slavery (let alone as bad as slavery) and that it will not destroy America. After all, its main impacts will be that people without insurance will need to get some (or pay a small fine) and that large employers will need to provide insurance (or pay a small fine) or evade the law by cutting employee hours. Even if the worst case scenario is considered, it will hardly match the hyperbole. As such, Obamacare does not seem bad enough to warrant the Republican strategy.

To be fair, the Republicans might honestly believe that Obamacare is as bad as they claim. That is, they believe their own hyperbole and rhetoric. If this is true, they could be morally excused to the degree that they followed their informed consciences. However, if they are operating from willful ignorance or do not really believe their own hyperbole, then they would have behaved wrongly—both in their hyperbole and their actions based on this.

In any case, most Americans do blame the Republicans and this is one of the political impacts of the shutdown. Whether this has an effect on the upcoming elections remains to be seen—as many pundits have noted, voters often have a short memory. As with the alleged damage of Obamacare, we will have to wait and see.

As a final point, one ironic effect of the shutdown is that it gave the Democrats an amazing distraction from the real problems with the implementation of Obamacare. One legitimate concern is the fact that employers get a one year delay in implementing Obamacare while individuals have been denied this same option. This, on the face of it, is unfair and the main “defense” of this has been the use of the red herring and smokescreen, as I noted in an earlier essay. While the Republicans did initially want to delay Obamacare for a year, they handled this poorly and instead decided to go with hyperbole and a shutdown. What could have been a potential win for them turned into what seems to be a major loss. A second legitimate concern is the problems plaguing the sign up and implementation of Obamacare. While there were some attempts to raise criticism about these serious problems, the shutdown dominated the center ring of the political circus. Thus, what could have been a reasonable criticism of Obamacare was drowned out by the Republicans themselves. In the Game of Obamacare, you win or you die. The Republicans did not win.

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The End Time & Government

Michele Bachmann

Michele Bachmann (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Michelle Bachmann seems to have claimed that Obama’s support of the Syrian rebels is a sign of the End Times:

“[President Barack Obama’s support of Syrian rebels] happened and as of today the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists, now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end times history. […] And so when we see up is down and right is called wrong, when this is happening, we were told this; that these days would be as the days of Noah. We are seeing that in our time. Yes it gives us fear in some respects because we want the retirement that our parents enjoyed. Well they will, if they know Jesus Christ.”

While Bachmann’s political star seems to be falling, she is apparently still an influential figure and popular with many Tea Party members. As such, it seems worthwhile to address her claims.

Her first claim is a factual matter about the mundane world: she asserts that Obama is “willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists.” This claim is easy enough to disprove. Despite some pressure (including some from Republicans) to arm the rebels, the administration has taken a very limited approach: rebels that have been determined to not be terrorists will be supported with defensive aid rather than provided with offensive weaponry. Thus, Bachmann (who is occasionally has problems with facts) is wrong on two counts. First, Obama is not sending arms (taken as offensive weapons). Second, he is not sending anything to terrorists.

Now, it could be objected that means of defense are arms, under a broad definition of “arms.” Interestingly, as I learned in the 1980s when the debate topic for a year was arms sales, “arms” can be defined very broadly indeed. If Bachmann defines “arms” broadly enough to include defensive aid, then Obama would be sending arms. However, this is rather a different matter than if Obama were sending offensive weapons, such as the Stinger missiles we provided to the mujahedeen when they were fighting the Russians.

It could also be objected that Obama is sending arms to terrorists. This could be done by claiming that he knows that what he sends to Syria could end up being taken from the intended recipients by terrorists. This is a reasonable point of concern, but it seems clear from her words that she does not mean this.

It could also be done by claiming that Obama is lying and he is, in fact, sending the aid to actual terrorists. Alternatively, it could be claimed that he is sending the aid to non-terrorists, but intends for the terrorists to take it.  While this is possible (Presidents have lied about supplying arms in the past), actual proof would be needed to show that he is doing this with will, knowledge and intent. That is, it would have to be established that Obama knows the people who he is sending the aid to are terrorists and/or that he intends for terrorists to receive these arms. Given the seriousness of the claim, this would require equally serious report. Bachmann does not seem to provide any actual evidence for her accusation, hence there is little reason to place confidence in her claim.

While politicians tend to have a “special” relationship with the truth, Bachmann seems to have an extra-special relationship.

Her second claim is a factual matter about the supernatural world: she seems to be claiming that Obama’s alleged funding of terrorists is a sign of the End Times. While I am not a scholar of the end of the world (despite authoring a fictional version of the End Time), what she is claiming does not seem to be accurate. That is, there seems to be no reference to something adequately similar to Obama funding terrorists as a sign of the End Time. But perhaps Bachmann has access to some special information that has been denied to others.

While predictions that the End Time is near are common, it does seem to be bad theology to make such predictions in the context of Christianity. After all,  the official epistemic line seems to be that no one but God knows when this time will come: “But of that day and that hour knows no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” As such, any speculation that something is or is not a sign of the End Time would be rather problematic. If the bible is correct about this, Bachmann should not make such a claim–she cannot possibly know that something is a sign of the End Times or not, since no one can know (other than God) when it will occur.

It could be replied that the bible is wrong about this matter and Bachman can know that she has seen a sign and that the End Times are thus approaching. The obvious reply is that if the bible is wrong about this, then it could be wrong about other things–such as there being an End Time at all.

Interestingly, her view of the coming End Time might help explain her positive view of the government shut down. When asked about the shutdown, she said “It’s exactly what we wanted, and we got it.” While Bachmann has not (as of this writing) claimed that this is also a sign of the End Times, her view that the End Times are approaching would certainly provide an explanation for her lack of concern. After all, if the End Time is fast approaching, then the time of government here on earth is fast approaching its end. Bachmann does seem to think it is on its way.

Weirdly, she also seems to think that Jesus will handle our retirement–which is presumably a reason we will not need the government. She says, “Yes it gives us fear in some respects because we want the retirement that our parents enjoyed. Well they will, if they know Jesus Christ.” This seems to be saying that people who believe the End Time is coming, such as herself, will worry that they will not be able to enjoy their retirement. This seems oddly reasonable: after all, the End Time would certainly clash with the sort of non-end-of-the-world retirement our parents enjoyed. But, oddly enough, she thinks that people who know Jesus will be able to have that retirement, apparently with Jesus providing the benefits rather than the state.

As might be imagined, the fact that Bachmann is an influential figure who apparently has some influence on politics is terrifying enough to itself be a sign of the End Time.

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On Having Less Government

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my college days, I embraced the philosophy of anarchism. As I saw it then, the state was the main cause of human suffering through oppression, war, violation of natural rights and its other ills. While individual criminals and small criminal groups could do bad things, they could not match the capacity for evil of the full state. Despite the wildness of youth, I mainly accepted the relative mildness of Thoreau’s anarchism. I did not advocate violence and hope that social change could come about by evolution rather than bloody revolution. I also did not drink the Marxist Kool Aid—I saw it as just another dubious religion with a problematic metaphysics.

While much of my commitment to anarchism was philosophical, honesty compels me to admit that some (or perhaps most) came from my rebellious nature and the insolence of youth. Since I did not like being bossed around by authorities (which I discerned to often be immoral and more often incompetent), anarchism provided a nice theoretical framework for my youthful rejection of authority. Oddly enough, I was not a chaotic individual: even then, I was a person of strict discipline (thanks, perhaps, to running) and very orderly. As such, I was not against order, but against immoral, irrational and ineffective authority.

Because of my youthful experimentation with anarchism, I have considerable sympathy for the Tea Party folks and the Republican politicians who honestly believe that “the government that governs least, governs best.” Those that are merely trying to hang on to the Tea stained tiger, well, they get no sympathy from me.

When these folks cry out that taxes are too high, that the state regulates too much, and that the state is violating our rights, I feel that old spark of anarchism flare up in my soul. However, when I look at the facts of what they are complaining about, that spark typically dies. As a former anarchist, I cannot get outraged that people are not allowed to pollute the environment as much as they would like. I cannot get mad that there have been some feeble attempts to put in regulations regarding what wrecked the economy. I also certainly do not see passing restrictive laws regarding women’s reproductive rights as “small government.”

That said, I do like the idea of smaller government—in the same sense that I like the idea of keeping myself lean. As a runner, I know that extra pounds of fat slow me down. As someone who knows a bit about health, I know that extra pounds of fat are unhealthy. By analogy, the same can be said to be true of the state: having unnecessary spending, programs and agencies makes the government larger, more expensive and more intrusive than it needs to be. This fat should be trimmed away.

The trimming should, of course, not slice into the necessary parts—the vital organs, the muscles and the bones. To simply cut away at the government for the sake of making it small would be analogous to starving oneself (or cutting) just to get smaller, without any consideration of what impact it would have on health. Obviously, that would be both unwise and dangerous.

In the case of the body, it is fairly clear what is essential and when damage starts to occur. In the case of the government, there is considerable debate over what is essential and what should be sliced away. This is hardly surprising: the body is a matter of objective anatomy and physiology without political ideology at play. In the case of government, ideology and values are in conflict and one person’s essential program is another’s fat. That said, it is still possible to rationally assess programs, policies and such. Sadly, reason now cries herself to sleep each night: her sister, persuasion, gets all the dates now.

Thanks to the Republican’s government shutdown, the United States is getting a small taste of what smaller government is like. In an interesting coincidence, about the same time I learned that Michelle Bachmann was excited about the shutdown and saw it as achieving exactly what she wanted, I was reading an article in National Geographic about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Much like the United States, the DRC enjoys incredible natural wealth—it has valuable mineral resources that are critical to modern electronics. Unfortunately for the people, they have a government that seems to be little more than a corrupt shadow of a proper state. While the government of the DRC is a long way from the condition of the United States’ government, it does provide an example of what it is like to have a small government that does not interfere much (because it cannot) in such matters as “business” and the environment. The DRC is, to be blunt, close to hell on earth.

The situation in the DRC does provide us with a cautionary example of what can happen when the government is too weak and too small. I am not claiming that the United States will quickly descend into the situation of the DRC, but this sort of small government hell should be considered by those who believe in the small government heaven.

In my own case, it is exactly these sorts of real world situations that helped lead me away from anarchism. Though I still believe that governments can be rather evil and that government should be limited in the scope of its interference, I also believe that the state has an important role in maintaining order, safety and rights. The challenge is, obviously enough, a matter of balance: avoiding the excess that leads to totalitarianism while also avoiding the deficiency that leads to chaos.

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Adjuncts & Walmart Workers

A recently renovated Walmart store in Clinton,...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The September, 2013 issue of the NEA Higher Education Advocate featured an infographic comparing working at Walmart with working as an adjunct/contingent faculty member.  Having worked as an adjunct, I can attest to the accuracy of the claims regarding the adjunct experience.

In the usual order of things, a college degree provides a higher earning potential. This is not, however, true for the typical adjuncts. In the United States, a retail cashier makes an average of $9.13 an hour, resulting in a yearly income of $20,410. By way of comparison, Goldman Sachs’ health  coverage for a higher end employee (such as Ted Cruz’s wife) amounts to almost twice that amount. An adjunct who is working 40 hours a week will make on average $16,200 a year (which is $7.78 per hour). Running a cash register sometimes requires a high school degree, but not always. Being an adjunct typically requires having a graduate degree and many of them have doctorates. I did and I made $16,000 my first year as an adjunct. That was teaching four classes a semester for two semesters. Adjuncts generally do not get any benefits, although some of them do get insurance coverage—as graduate students. I had health insurance as a graduate student (at a very low rate) but not as an adjunct—fortunately I had no serious injuries and only minor illnesses during my insurance free time. If I had had my quadriceps tendon tear when I was an adjunct, it would have cost me almost $12,000—leaving me only $4,000 for the year (less after taxes).

The typical workers for corporations like Walmart tend to be no better off—they do not get much (or any) benefits and hence often do not have health care coverage. It might be wondered how people survive on such low wages and with no benefits. In some cases, people simply do without. When I was an adjunct, I did not have a car, I bought only what food I could afford, I lived in a one bedroom apartment and did all I could to live frugally. I do admit that I splurged on luxuries like running shoes and race entry fees. Fortunately, I did make some extra money writing—which helped support my gaming hobby.

This approach can work for a person who has no dependents, can get by without a vehicle, and has no health issues. However, those who cannot do the obvious: they turn to the state for aid. In the case of Walmart, the taxpayers provide support to their employees. For example, in the state of Wisconsin Walmart employees cost the taxpayers $9.8 million a year in Medicaid benefits alone. Adjuncts would also often qualify for state support. Out of Yankee pride, I did not avail myself of any such aid—I could survive on what I was making, albeit at a relatively low quality of life in Western terms. However, many people do not have the luxury of pride—they need to care for their families or address health issues.

As might be imagined, these low salaries and lack of benefits are a point of concern. Laying aside concerns about fairness of wages (which actually should not be done), there is the fact that the low pay of many workers is subsidized by the taxpayers. That is, the taxpayers pick up the difference between what the employers pay and what people need to survive. As I have argued before, this is a form of corporate and university socialism: the state support allows schools and corporations to pay low wages and thus generate greater profits. Or, in the case of non-profit schools, funnel the money elsewhere—most likely to administration and things like bonuses for the university president. For example, the previous president of my university was guaranteed a yearly bonus that that was about twice the average yearly adjunct salary.

Obamacare is supposed to, in some degree, shift the burden of health care costs from the taxpayer to the employer. The idea is that larger employers will need to provide health care benefits to full time employees or pay a fine. This, as might be imagined, has caused some people to threaten dire consequences. To be specific, some employers, including universities, have stated that they will reduce employee hours so that they fall just under the line for full time employment. Some have even threatened to fire people on the grounds that they cannot afford to pay.

One stock counter to the idea that employers should provide such benefits is that the state has no right to impose such costs on businesses, especially when doing so will cause businesses to fire people and cut their hours. This does have some appeal. However, there is still the question of who will provide the workers with the resources they need to survive.

One view is that the employers have an obligation to provide a living wage to those who do their job and do it competently. Few would argue that an employer is obligated to just hand people money for not working or doing terrible work—after all, a person who can earn his way should do so. As might be imagined, many employers (including universities) would rather not do this. After all, increasing wages to an actual living wage would cut into profits. In the case of universities, such increases would mean cuts in other areas of the budget (but surely not presidential bonuses).

Another view is that private citizens or organizations of private citizens (such as church groups) have the obligation to provide assistance to others via charity. That is, individuals should voluntarily subsidize the employers by providing the employees with the resources they need to survive, such as food. Of course, if private citizens have this obligation, it would seem that the employers (being citizens as well) would also have this obligation. One clever way around this is to contend that corporations are people, just not the sort of people who have moral obligations. Obviously, people do provide such support—but it would certainly be a challenge for private citizens to adequately support all the working people whose wages are not adequate.

A third view is that the state has the obligation to provide the resources for people to survive. This is, for the most part, the current situation. However, since the state gets most of its income from the citizens, this is effectively having private citizens subsidizing the employers, only with the state organizing the charity. Once again, if the state is obligated to do this, this merely comes down to the citizens having this obligation.

A fourth option is that no one has an obligation to provide people with the resources they need to survive, even when those people are actually working full time and generating enough value to allow their employer to pay them living wages. One might make references to the morality nullifying powers of the free-market: while people might have moral obligations, these do not hold in economic relations. One might also reject the idea that people have any such moral obligations to others at all: people must make it on their own or perish, unless someone freely decides to provide assistance.

Overall, it comes down to the question of what, if anything, people owe to each other. My own view is that the market does not nullify morality and that we do have obligations to each other. These obligations include an obligation to not allow other people to suffer or die simply because others are unwilling to pay them a fair, living wage. To head off the usual attacks, I am not claiming that able and competent people should simply be handed resources earned by the toil of others for doing nothing. Rather, my view is about fair wages and ethical behavior. This is why I am against both just handing people stuff for nothing and for people profiting off the labor of others. Both are cases of people who are getting the value of others’ work and not earning the value themselves.

 

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Is Work a Blessing?

English: Photograph from the records of the Na...

English: Photograph from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While watching news clips about the debate over cutting the SNAP program (more commonly known as food stamps), I saw Florida Republican Steve Southerland say “work is a blessing.” As he sees it, there should be a work requirement for people to be eligible for food stamps. This claim is certainly an interesting one.

In the United States, there is an entire mythology devoted to the notion of the blessings and value of work. The largest roots dig deep into the stereotypes of the Puritans: dour white folks dressed in penguin colors who scorned play and lived to work and pray. Or so the myths go. The mythology of Calvinism also contributed to this notion: the idea that people are pre-destined for heaven or hell—though the final destination could be discerned, perhaps, from the worldly success of the individual.

Interestingly, the mythology of work seems to have begun with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. On a not unreasonable interpretation of the text, God punishes man with a curse that will require him to work to survive: “Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life.” On this view, work is not a blessing, but a curse.

The mythology of capitalism, at least that which is distinct from the mythology of religion, also praises hard work and would seem to cast it as a blessing. This makes sense: the capitalist needs the workers to work hard for him so that they generate his profits. For the capitalist, the work of others is indeed a blessing. For him. Not surprisingly, those critical of the excesses of capitalism have contended that such work is not a blessing for the workers—especially children and those that toil in horrible conditions for pittances.

While Southerland simply threw out the claim that work is a blessing, presumably he has not given this matter considerable thought—at least in terms of properly defining work and sorting out what sorts of work (if any) are a blessing. There is also the question of what a blessing is. Perhaps he means that in today’s economic system, it is a blessing to be able to find a decent job. If so, I would agree that he is right. However, his intent seems to be that working itself has a special sort of value.

I would agree that working can have extrinsic value. After all, work is mainly aimed at achieving some end and usually there are other ends beyond that. For example, a person might work to assemble iPads in order to get money in order to buy food and pay the rent so as to avoid starving or dying of exposure. That, I suppose, could be seen as a rough sort of blessing. However, this sort of work seems to lack intrinsic value. That is, it is not something valuable in and of itself. After all, we do such work only because the alternative is worse. Few, if any, people would work most jobs if necessity and need did not drive them to do so, like a whip drives a mule.

I will even agree that work can be good for a person. After all, people seem to grow bored and discontent when they do not have appealing work to perform. Also, as my mother was fond of saying in my childhood, work can build character. She is obviously right—I turned out to be quite a character. However, not all work is of the sort that is good for a person. Working a crushing and demeaning job is work, yet obviously not a blessing for the person. Unless, of course, the alternative is worse.

I even accept that it is good for a person to earn his daily bread, at least when that earning is not destroying the person. After all, it is a matter of integrity to not simply receive but to earn. And even more so to give to those who are in need. Of course, I think a person could have the same or more integrity by living a life of value—and these need not be a life of what would be considered work. Which returns me to the matter of sorting out what is meant by “work.”

People use “work” in many ways, ranging from the toiling of slaves in the field to the creative acts of a free artist to running around a track (speed work). As such, the usual usage slams and jams together horrible things and pleasant things, torments and joys, evils and goods. As such, it is rather hard to say that work is blessing, given the incredible scope of the term. I would agree that some things that are called work are a blessing. I regard working out as a blessing—it is a gift indeed. I also regard much of my work, mainly teaching and writing, as blessings. However, this might be because, in a way, I do not see these things as work.

After all, work seems to be what is done from necessity in order to achieve some practical end (like not dying of starvation). What is done from choice because of the value of the activity itself seems to be another matter. Looked at this way, a workout is both a necessity and a valued choice: I need to do running work because it is necessary to be a runner. But, I also value running in and of itself—it is a choice I make for the sake of what I am choosing, not just to achieve some other end.

One of the grotesque failings of our civilization is that so many people have to engage in work of the onerous sort: grinding away the hours just to survive and seeing little value in what they do. Those who benefit from this often believe that this is a good thing for them, but they hold to a deranged set of values in which the accumulation of profit is seen as the highest good.

I am, obviously enough, borrowing heavily from Aristotle: the life of wealth and accumulation of wealth is not the proper function of man. Rather, it is the life of virtue and excellence. Sadly, as Wollstonecraft noted, wealth and property are valued more than virtue and poverty is regarded as a worse vice than wickedness.

Work, then, is not really a blessing. At best, it is necessity.

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