Tag Archives: business

The Sharing Economy I: Regulation

Airbnb logo

Airbnb logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rising success of companies such as Airbnd and Uber have created considerable interest in what has been called the sharing economy. The core idea behind the sharing economy is an old one: people provide goods and services as individuals rather than acting as employees or businesses. One classic example of this is paying a neighborhood kid who mows lawns or babysits. Another classic example is paying a friend’s gas money for a ride to the airport. The new version of the sharing economy does make some changes to the traditional model. The fundamental difference is that the old sharing economy was typically an informal word-of-mouth system while the new sharing economy is organized by companies. As an example of the old sharing economy, your neighbor might have told you about the teenager she hired to babysit her kids or to mow her lawn (back in the day when this was an accepted practice). As an example of the new sharing economy, you might use the Uber app to get a chipper soccer mom to give you a ride to the airport in her mini-van. Unlike the old sharing economy in which your neighbor (probably) did not take a cut for connecting you to a sitter or mower, the companies that connect people get a cut of the proceeds—which can be justified by the services they provide.

The new sharing economy has received considerable praise, mainly due to the fact that it makes it easier for people to make money in what are still challenging economic times. For example, a person who would be hard pressed to get a job as a professional cabbie can easily drive for Uber. However, it has also drawn considerable criticism.

As might be suspected, some of the most vocal critics of the sharing economy are the people whose livelihoods and profits are threatened by this economy. For example, Uber’s conflicts with taxi services routinely make the news. Some people dismiss these criticisms as the usual lamentations of obsolete industries while others regard the criticisms as having legitimacy. In any case, there is certainly considerable controversy regarding this new sharing economy.

One point of concern is regulation. As it now stands, the sharing economy is exploiting the loopholes that exist in the informal economy (which is regulated far less than the formal economy). For example, professional cab drivers are subject to a fairly extensive set of regulations (and expenses, such as insurance costs) while an Uber driver is not. As another example, the hotel industry is regulated while services like Airbnb currently lack such regulations regarding things such as safety and handicap access.

Some proponents of the free market might praise the limited (or nonexistent) regulation and this praise might have some merit—after all, it has long been contended that regulation impedes profits. However, there are at least two legitimate concerns here.

One is, obviously enough, the matter of fairness. If taxi drivers and hotels are subject to strict regulations that also involve additional costs, then it hardly seems fair that companies like Uber and Aibnd can offer the same services while evading these regulations. One obvious option is to impose them on the sharing economy. Another obvious option is to reduce regulations on the traditional economy. In any case, fairness would seem to require comparable regulation.

The second is the matter of safety and other concerns of the public good. While some regulations might be seen as burdensome, others clearly exist to protect the public from legitimate harms. For example, hotels are held to certain standards of cleanliness and safety. As another example, taxi companies are subject to regulations aimed at protecting the public. If the new sharing economy puts people at risk in similar ways, then it seems reasonable to impose comparable regulations on the sharing economy. After all, whether you are getting a hotel room or going through Airbnb, you should have a reasonable expectation that you will not perish in a fire due to safety issues.

It might be countered that the new sharing economy should still fall under the standards of the old sharing economy. For example, if I ask a friend to take me to the airport and she has an awful car and is a terrible driver, it is hardly the business of the state to regulate my choice (although the state would have the right to address any actual traffic violations). As another example, if I crash on someone’s couch for the night, it is hardly the business of the state to make sure that the couch is properly cleaned and that the house is suitable (although it would need to be up to code).

While this does have some appeal, there are two main arguments against this approach. The first is that the informal economy is largely unregulated because it is just that—informal. Once a company like Uber or Airbnd gets into the picture, the economy has become formalized—there is now a central company that is organizing things. This allows a practical means of regulating what is now commercial activity. The second is the matter of scale. When the informal economy is relatively small, the cost and difficulty of regulating for the public good can be prohibitive. For example, policing neighborhood babysitters or people who give the occasional ride to friends and get gas money for doing so would impose a high cost for a little return in public good. However, when an aspect of the informal economy gets organized by a company and greatly expands in size, then there is more at stake and hence paying the cost of regulating for the public good becomes viable. For example, regulating people occasionally giving friends or associates rides is one thing (a silly thing), but regulating large numbers of people driving vehicles for Uber is quite another matter.

One area that is going to be a matter of considerable controversy is that of discrimination. If Bob does not want to share a ride with a white colleague or give a handicapped associate a lift, then that is Bob’s right.  After all, a citizen has every right to be biased. But, it gets rather more complicated if Bob is driving for Uber—after all, discrimination does harm to the public and the public might have a stake in preventing Uber Bob from discriminating. Similary, if Bob does not want his Latino friend crashing on his couch because he thinks Latinos are thieves, that is Bob’s right (the right of being a jerk to one’s friends). But, if Bob is renting out a room through Airbnd, then this could be a matter of legitimate public concern.

It might be countered that people “freedriving” or “freerenting” for the sharing companies still retain the right to discriminate since they are acting as individuals, albeit under the auspices of a company. That does have considerable appeal, especially since the people driving or renting are not actually employees of these companies. The company is just assisting people to exchange services and, it could be claimed, is no more accountable than a newspaper that has a “for sale” or “help wanted” section. Obviously enough, companies are generally going to want to avoid being associated with discrimination and hence they will probably engage in some degree of self-policing to avoid PR nightmares (or will do so if they are sensible or ethical). However, there is clearly an important issue here regarding whether or not laws against discrimination should be applicable to individuals who are involved with the sharing economy companies. The somewhat fuzzy status of those providing services does create a legitimate problem. As noted above, on one hand they are still just individuals using the service to connect to others. On the other hand, this service does seem to bring them into more of a formal business situation which is subject to such laws.

 

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The Cost of Litter

English: Littering in Stockholm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Men, Women, Business & Ethics

Journal of Business Ethics

Journal of Business Ethics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Ethics, Charity and Overhead

Curing the Charitable Curse

Curing the Charitable Curse (Photo credit: jurvetson)

While heading home after a race, I caught a segment on the radio discussing Dan Pallotta’s view of the moral assessment of charities and the notion that our moral intuitions regarding charities are erroneous. Pallotta’s main criticism is that people err in regarding frugality as being equivalent to being moral. So, for example, a charitable event with 5% overhead is regarded as morally superior to one with 70% overhead. This is an error, as he sees it, because what should be focused on is the accomplishments. If, for example, the event with the 5% overhead only raised $100 for charity and the event with 70% overhead raised a million dollars, then the second event would obviously have accomplished a great deal more. Naturally, it is being assumed that the overhead is for legitimate expenses such as salaries, advertising and such.

While I lack Pallotta’s experience and expertise in regards to running charities, I do think it is well worth while to consider some of the ethical issues that his discussion raised.

One interesting aspect of this matter, as noted by Pallotta, is that there do seem to be two sets of standards in regards to non-profits and for-profits. In the case of for-profit entities, generous compensation for top talent is often regarded as acceptable and even necessary. In the case on non-profits, generous compensation for the top talent is often regarded as wrong—those people should be willing to accept less compensation because they are supposed to be working for charity. In the case of for-profits, it is recognized that running a business involves considerable overhead and hence even relatively small profit margins are regarded as acceptable. In the case of non-profits overhead costs are generally regarded as being automatically bad and are only grudgingly accepted. As such, while a for-profit business is assessed by how well it does in accomplishing goals (how much profit is generated) a non-profit is often assessed in terms of the percentage of overhead.

Following Pallotta, it can be argued that this model is mistaken. If, one might say, charitable non-profits are going to be as successful as the top businesses, then this view must be abandoned. A key part of this, and one that Pallotta stresses, is that non-profits need to switch to the compensation philosophy of the for-profits. That is, they need to generously compensate the top talent. Another part of this is that non-profits and those who support them must change their views of overhead costs—these costs must not be regarded as being automatically bad but rather seen as necessary expenditures in order to accomplish the goals in question.

While this approach does have appeal, the rather large compensation for top talent in the for-profit sector is itself subject to moral criticism.  So, it is worth noting that while the idea of large compensation for the top talent at charitable non-profits is seen as morally wrong, the high compensation of talent in the for-profit sector is regarded by some as merely being less bad.

There is, of course the stock argument that high compensation is needed to actually get the top talent. After all, if charitable non-profits want to get the best people, then they will need to get closer to the compensation offered in the for-profit realm. If, for example, Sally can get $5 million in compensation as a top executive for a corporation and only $80,000 in compensation as an executive for a charity, then it is obvious where Sally should go.

While this does have appeal, there is still the question of whether the compensation is actually just or not. If the top compensation in the for-profit realm is unjustly large, then making the top compensation in the charitable realm comparably unjust would hardly seem to be an ethical thing to do.

That said, a reasonable rejoinder is that is does make sense to offer better pay in order to attract top talent to work on charitable causes. That is, our money should back our professed moral values.  It also does make sense to use the market to address certain problems, but it is obviously not going to help with problems that the market system creates itself—which could be one of the important ironies of this approach to charitable organizations.

An obvious point of concern is that the arguments in favor of accepting high overhead for charitable non-profits could be used as a clever sort of moral cover. That is, they could be sued to allow alleged charities to monetize charitable causes as for-profit companies now monetize natural resources and human labor. The obvious counter to this concern is that this approach could yield more effective results than the existing model. So, one might argue, if the price of a charity finally finding a cure for a disease is that the charity operate like a for-profit business, then it is worth the price.

This is a point well worth considering. As Pallotta has argued, charitable organizations often fail to address the problems they were created to solve. If changing our moral assessment of how charitable non-profits should operate could play a significant role in solving some of these problems, then this approach could be the correct approach. However, if this approach is actually a mere moral cloak to allow profiteering off charitable causes, then this approach would seem to be wrong.

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Ethics & 3D Printing

English: Example of replication of a real obje...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the hype, 3D printers are going to change the world in many positive ways. For example, home 3D printers will allow people to create replacement parts when something breaks. As another example, home 3D printers will allow anyone (with the money) to create their own objects (although much of this will be plastic junk). As a third example, the fact that 3D printers are almost universal machines (that is, they can theoretically make almost anything) will allow cheaper manufacturing. Not surprisingly, there is also a dark side to 3D printing.

One obvious point of moral concern is that such printers can allow people to print their own weapons and use these to harm people. While the first printed gun is not much of a weapon (it essentially a plastic “zip gun”), it did show that guns can be printed using the current technology. As the technology improves, it seems reasonable to believe that much better weapons could be printed, thus allowing the usual suspects (criminals, terrorists, and so on) to secretly print up their own weapons.

While this is a concern, people can and do already make their own weapons. While these weapons are usually fairly crude, they can be quite deadly—as the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 showed. As such, 3D printing would not seem to significantly increase this sort of threat.

People can also get the metalworking tools needed to make more sophisticated weapons, although these are rather expensive and require skill to operate. Because of this, 3D printing might present an actual threat—a person does not need any special skills to print up a gun, although a printer capable of making an effective gun would probably be rather expensive.

Overall, until the printer technology is cheap and effective enough to print effective guns (that is, comparable to manufactured firearms), they will not present a significant threat. As such, there seems to be (as of now) little moral reason to be worried about this sort of use of 3D printing.

Another matter of obvious moral concern is that 3D printers will allow people to easily and secretly duplicate patented and copyrighted objects. Using a currently available home 3D printer, a person could print up copies of toys, miniatures (for games like D&D), parts and so on. Thus, 3D printing will allow people to do with objects what they have been doing with music, movies and software, namely engaging in piracy.

“Solid piracy” or “3D piracy” does differ from digital piracy in at least one key respect. In the case of printing an object, a person is not stealing the physical object that the manufacturer made. For example, if I were to print a copy of a copyrighted dragon (or gargoyle) miniature for my Pathfinder game, this is rather different from me going to the local gaming store and shoplifting that miniature.

On the one hand, this does seem to be a meaningful difference: by printing the dragon, I am not actually stealing the object. After all, no one is deprived of the object. As such, copying and printing a patented or copyrighted object would not be theft in the usual sense of stealing an actual object. Similar arguments have, of course, been given as to why pirating software, movies and music is not theft.

On the other hand, this does still seem to be theft. While I am not guilty of stealing the matter that makes up my dragon (assuming I did not steal that) I did steal the design of the dragon. For something like a plastic dragon miniature, the matter that makes it up is not the valuable component. Rather, to go with Aristotle, it is the form of the matter. In this case, the form of an imaginary dragon.

This sort of theft of design is nothing new—people have been stealing designs and producing their own objects for quite some time. What is different about 3D printing is that it makes such theft of form very easy. Sticking with my dragon example, before 3D printing it would have been very difficult for me to steal the dragon design/form: I would have had to create a mold of the dragon, melted down the plastic to make it and so on. It would, obviously, be cheaper and easier to just buy the dragon. However, 3D printing would allow me to easily copy the dragon. While there would be the cost of the printer (and perhaps a 3D scanner) and the materials, if I did enough copying and the material was cheap enough, it would also be cheaper to steal the dragon design than buy the dragon.

However, it would still be theft—I would be using the design owned by someone else without providing just compensation and this would be just as wrong as stealing a movie, software or music. Of course, there are those who contend that copying movies, software or music is not theft and they would presumably hold the same view about solid/3D piracy.

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Water & Food

Česky: Pitná voda - kohoutek Español: Agua potable

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since most of the earth’s surface is covered in water it no doubt seems odd to be worried about the availability of water. Of course, this seems less odd when one considers that much of this liquid bounty is too salty for humans to drink or use in most forms of agriculture. When pollution and distribution (people have an irrational propensity to build cities where water is scarce) are taken into account, then the grounds for worry become clear.

While people normally think of water in terms of something we drink, 92% of our water usage as a species is due to agriculture. Plants and animals need water directly, but water is also used for other purposes in the industry. For example, the feed given to animals requires water. In addition to the direct use of water, water is also “consumed” (that is, removed from being useful to humans) by contamination from agriculture. The chemicals and waste of agriculture often ends up in rivers and other bodies of water, rendering it unusable or at least harmful.

Looking just at the direct water costs, the creation of animal “products” imposes the highest water costs per kilo-calorie (kcal). Growing edible roots and cereals requires .5 quarts per kcal, making these foods very water efficient. Fruits are rather more costly, requiring 2.2 quarts per kcal. For meat product, pork is relatively efficient, requiring 2.3 quarts per kcal. Beef is by far the least efficient, using 10.8 quarts per kcal. As might be imagined, the use of water raises both practical and moral concerns.

One obvious practical concern is working out how to efficiently handle water resources as the population increases. Adding to the difficulty of this matter is the fact that economic improvements in developing countries will most likely lead to a significant increase in the desire for meat, especially beef. Given the water cost of meat the agriculture industry will be hard pressed to meet such increased demand especially if the water supply is under even greater strain.

As might be imagined, there are various practical solutions to the technical problems of water. For example, more efficient agriculture would enable more food to be grown using less water. As another example, the development of cheaper means of purifying water of salt or pollutants would help. Obviously enough if the world eschewed meat in favor of plants, then that would have a significant impact on water usage.

The main moral concern is one of distribution. That is, using moral values to determine how the available water will be used and who will benefit from its use. As noted above, the growing of meat and other animal products is water intensive relative to growing plants. While there are practical grounds to moving away from animal agriculture, the decision to do so (or not do so) is a matter of ethics. After all, decisions about who is entitled to the water resources and how these resources should be distributed are moral decisions. If, for example, it is decided that water resources will be allocated to the beef industry, then this means that less water will be available to grow more water efficient foods, thus potentially reducing the food supply while also creating food that is relatively expensive for the consumer.

As the population grows, the moral concerns will become even more serious. After all, it is certainly worth considering that the demand on water resources will eventually be high enough that choosing between growing beef and raising more water efficient crops will be a choice between providing the more affluent few with a luxury food and providing the less affluent many with the food they need to survive.

An obvious counter to this is that we have always managed to find a solution to such problems in the past and hence we will surely find one (or more) in the future. After all, the population doomsdays predicted in the past all turned out to be in error.

While this response has considerable appeal, it is worth noting that there must be a point at which our ability to solve the water problem reaches its limit. After all, the supply of water on the earth is finite and even if we were to use the water with incredible efficiency there would be a point at which the available fresh water could not support a population of a certain size. Naturally, this can be countered by reducing population size—but determining whether we should do this or not and the details of the reduction would involve moral choices.

It is also worth noting that there are many practical (rather than theoretical) problems that could prevent us from adequately solving the water problem. The droughts that affected the United States in 2012 had an impact on food production and if these droughts become more common, then the matter of distributing water resources will become even more pressing. There are also the political considerations, such as political entities controlling the distribution of water to serve their own ends. Even the United States has political conflicts over water distribution and these will probably only worsen as the population increase and water distribution changes as the climate changes.

As a final point, it is worth noting that water is a resource that is almost endlessly reusable. Unlike oil, our use of water generally does not destroy the water. For example, when we drink water we are not digesting it into hydrogen and oxygen to provide energy—rather we use it to hydrate our tissues, remove waste and so on. Roughly put, the water that goes in eventually comes back out. Of course, the water that we use does become contaminated and this contamination can render the water useless to us. For example, while urine is mostly water it is rather unsuitable for drinking. As another example, water that is contaminated with chemicals, feces or radiation is useless for many purposes. Fortunately, we can purify water (although this can be rather costly) and purification also occurs naturally. Unfortunately, we have been rather busy damaging many of the natural purification systems and even more busy contaminating water. Also unfortunate is the fact that being “pro-environment” (favoring the preservation of natural purification systems and being in favor of limiting water pollution) is often cast in a negative light and dismissed by mockery and hyperbole. However, there are very practical economic reasons for preserving and restoring the natural purification systems, not the least of which is that nature does for free what would cost a fortune to do artificially. These same reasons apply to avoiding water contamination as much as possible. After all, cleaning water is generally more costly than avoiding polluting it. For example, keeping feces contaminated runoff from agriculture out of the water supply is certainly cheaper than removing the contamination.

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How Much is Me?

Usain Bolt winning the 100 m final 2008 Olympics

Back in my undergraduate days I was a participant in a faculty-student debate about artificial intelligence. While almost all of the details of the debate have long since faded from my non-artificial mind, I still recall one exchange very vividly. The professor on the opposing side said that I believed in free will because I wanted to take credit for my successes. Being filled with the pride of youth, I replied with something to the effect of “of course, they are my successes.” I also recall showing some small wisdom by adding something like “my failures are also mine.” This was probably my first real attempt at reflecting on the extent to which I was responsible for my successes and failures. Naturally, this also got me thinking about success and failure in general and not just the specifics of my own victories and defeats.

Not surprisingly, I have thought about this matter over the years, often in the context of teaching. To use a small example, I have noticed that students who do well say things like “I earned an A” while students who do poorly typically say things like “the professor failed me.” At the start of each semester, at least one student will ask me if I fail students. My reply, which I make with a smile, is always “No. People fail themselves. I merely record the failure.” I follow that by saying that students have every chance to succeed and that I will do my best to ensure that they get the grade they earn. As might be imagined, being a teacher does tend to get a person thinking about who is responsible for the success and failures of students.

The matter of responsibility in regards to success (and failure) obviously extends far beyond the classroom. Thanks to a July, 2012 speech by President Obama, this matter became the focus in the political battle between Democrats and Republicans. The key part of Obama’s speech  is as follows:  “…Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.… If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

While some Republicans decided to interpret Obama as claiming that business owners owe all their success to others (especially the state), the most plausible interpretation is that Obama is claiming that people who are successful in business owe some of their success to others, including the state.

Mitt Romney, who was very critical of what he claims Obama meant, actually presented a very similar view about success back in 2002: “You Olympians, however, know you didn’t get here solely on your own power. For most of you, loving parents, sisters or brothers encouraged your hopes. Coaches guided, communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them. We’ve already cheered the Olympians, let’s also cheer the parents, coaches and communities.”

As with Obama, the most plausible interpretation of Romney’s remarks is that he is claiming that the athletes who made it to the Olympics owe some of their success to others.

These claims about success in business and sports seem to be intuitively plausible. Obviously, people do not appear as grown, educated adults ex nihilo via the power of their own will. Less obviously, but still rather obviously, business owners do not create their business out of nothing. To use a silly example, a business owner obviously does not invent the currency used to conduct business. In the case of Olympic athletes, they obviously do not just appear on the starting line with no support or assistance from others.

Outside of the reasoning damaging sphere of political rhetoric, the idea that people owe some or even much of their success to others (and perhaps even to the state) certainly seems intuitively plausible—at least enough so that anyone who claims to be entirely self-created would shoulder the burden of proof.  In any case, I would infer that anyone who can engage in such an act of self-creation would easily handle something as trivial as providing evidence of his/her amazing origin.

Assuming that I am right about this matter, the interesting question is not “do people owe some of their success (and failures) to others?” but “to what extent do people owe their success (and failures) to others?” Making this discussion manageable does require certain assumptions that can, of course, be challenged. I will be assuming that people have meaningful agency and that the universe is not strictly deterministic or entirely random. To illustrate this, I will use the example of a prize drawing after a 5K race. For those not familiar with such events, some races feature the usual earned awards (what the runners get for running well) as well as a prize drawing. One common way to do this is for the race director to pull out a runner’s race number from a bag. Interestingly, people often applaud as loudly when people win the (hopefully) random prize as they do for people who earn (hopefully) a trophy.

In a deterministic universe it makes little sense to speak of meaningful success or failure. To use my analogy, if I “win” the prize because it is determined that I will win (that is, it is rigged) then I have hardly succeeded and the others have hardly failed—there is no victory, there is no defeat.

The same holds true for a completely random universe. To use an analogy, if I “win” the prize because my number is pulled by pure chance, I have not succeeded and the others have not failed. Things have just happened by chance.

Success and failure, then, would thus seem to assume that the agent has a meaningful role in the outcome. Going back to the analogy, while I would not have succeeded by “winning” either a fixed or random drawing, I could succeed by winning a trophy in the 5K via my efforts. Naturally, the nature of this agency in even something as apparently straightforward as a 5K race is something of a mystery. However, for the sake of the discussion that will follow in additional essays, I must make this assumption of mysterious agency. After all, I want to think I earned all those trophies and I am obligated to accept the disgrace of my failures.

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Contraception, Once Again

English: Picture Of Ortho Tri-Cyclen oral cont...

Could this get you fired?

While wars rage on and the economy continues to limp along for the working class, considerable attention is still focused on contraception. On the one hand, this can be seen as a mere distraction from what should be regarded as more important matters. On the other hand, it can be regarded as a fundamental struggle over rights.

One key conservative talking point regarding contraception coverage is that the real issue is whether or not the state has the right to require health insurance providers to cover contraception. This, of course, falls under the more general issues of whether or not the state has the right to compel health insurance providers to cover anything at all. Naturally, this falls under the very general topic of the legitimate limit of the state’s compulsive powers.

Since I just wrapped up discussing John Locke in my Modern Philosophy class, my inclination is to say that the state’s legitimate purpose is the good of the people and it is limited in what it should do on the basis of the rights to life, liberty and property. As might be imagined, this general guide is not very helpful in this matter. After all, it can be effectively argued that compelling such coverage would be for the good of the people and it can also be effectively argued that doing so would be an imposition on the liberty of the providers.  As in most such cases, my inclination is to take the stock approach of weighing the good of the imposition against the badness of said imposition. For example, some people argue that the state should have the right to use its compulsive power to ensure that a person can only marry one other person (at a time) and that the other person must be of the opposite sex. In supporting such a view, the usual argument (apart from the appeals to religion and tradition) is that same sex marriage and polygamy are harmful to society. As such, the liberty to marry as one pleases must be taken away using the compulsive power of the state. Interestingly, many of the folks who are opposed to compelling  contraceptive coverage are in favor of using the compulsive power of the state in the domain of marriage. As such, they apparently do not have a principled objection against the state compelling people in regards to their moral beliefs. Rather, their view seems to be that as long as the state is compelling the right people, then such compulsion is fine. Of course, a person can be against contraception coverage and not be against, for example, the state using is compulsory power to impose a specific moral view in regards to marriage. In fact, one way to argue against the compulsion of contraceptive coverage is to argue against state compulsion in all matters other than those that involve harming others. So, for example, a person could be consistently against the state compelling a specific religious/ethical view of marriage and against the state compelling the coverage of contraception.

In regards to the matter of coverage, I am willing to accept (and in fact insist on) the principle that the burden of the proof is on the state in regards to compelling such coverage. That is, it is up to the state to show that such coverage should be compelled by law. This is a general principle that I accept, mainly on the assumption that there is a presumption in favor of liberty.

One standard way to argue for the legitimacy of state compulsion is to show that something is harmful (generally to others rather than just to oneself) and thus the state, under its legitimate role as protector of the life, liberty and property of the citizens, has the right to compel. This approach seems quite reasonable and is used to justify such things as the state compelling people to not murder, rape, or steal. As should be clear, this approach does not justify compelling coverage. After all, it is not preventing someone from wrongfully inflicting harm on another. Of course, this is a rather minimalist view of the state and one that only the most ardent libertarians seem to hold.

Another standard way to argue for the legitimacy of state compulsion is to show that compelling it creates a public good that warrants the imposition on liberty. For example, drafting people in times of war can be justified on the grounds that the public good requires such service. As another example, the compelled  paying of taxes to provide for roads, police, defense, fire departments, schools, bridges, and so on is justified on the grounds that this serves the general welfare and the common good. John Locke argues for the state using its power to serve the general good and, of course, American government is supposed to have a legitimate role in providing for the general welfare. In general, it seems fair to say that the idea that the state should compel people to act for the general good only seems odd when it is proposed that the state compel something that a person does not like (like contraceptive coverage). When the state is compelling people to do what someone wants, it generally seems perfectly reasonable to that person. However, it would be rather nice for folks to have a consistent general principle regarding under what conditions the state can compel (other than “in cases in which the state is doing what I want”).

As with all conflicts between liberty and the general good, one key part of the dispute is whether or not the imposition on liberty is warranted by the gain to the public good. For example, compelling me to pay my taxes is warranted by the fact that my contribution is needed for the general good.

In the case of contraceptive coverage, the argument rests on the assumption that preventative care should be covered (this is already a matter of law, but naturally can be challenged on moral grounds) for the general good. If this assumption is accepted, then the question that remains is factual: should contraception be considered preventative care? The experts at the bipartisan  Institute of Medicine have claimed that this is the case. Given their expertise, I am inclined to accept their opinion over that of non-experts. As such, it would seem that contraception should thus be covered.

Of course, it can be countered that the coverage preventative care should not be compelled by the state and that the insurance providers should be free to cover or not cover what they wish.

This does, of course, have a certain appeal. No doubt folks in all industries feel imposed on by the state compelling them in regards to what they can do or not do. For example, those in the food industry probably are not thrilled that the state imposes restrictions on what they can sell as meat and that they are required to divulge the contents of their products to the consumers. However, these compulsions are justified by an appeal to the common good. Likewise, the imposition of contraceptive coverage can be warranted on similar grounds. After all, such coverage is claimed to have numerous benefits for the people covered as well as the general public (such as lowering the number of unwanted pregnancies and all that entails).

It might be countered that the coverage of contraception violates the ethics of some employers (such as the Catholic Church) and thus contraceptive coverage is a very special case. In fact, Arizona is considering a bill that would seem to allow employers to fire employees for using contraception. In these cases, the argument is that this is a matter of religious liberty. As I have argued at length in other posts about this, I will not repeat my arguments here. I will, however, add that these cases are not clear cases of a cruel state imposing on the liberty a hapless church, insurance company or employer. Rather, there is also the rather important matter of the liberty of the employees and their rights.

There is, of course, a stock view that employees have no right to expect their employers to respect their rights or liberties as the state is supposed to respect them. On this view, our rights and liberties exist relative to the state and not relative to employers. However, I am inclined to follow Locke here and take the view that our rights are not merely against the state, but also against each other. As such, it is just as wrong for my employer to compel me in ways that violate my rights and liberty as it is for the state. At the very least, if the state lacks the right to compel them to provide coverage because they disagree, then they would seem to lack the right to compel their employees to conform to the ethics of their employer.

It might be countered that such rights are only for the powerful (churches and employers) and that the weaker folks (such as employees) must take it or leave it. That is, an employee who wants to work has to be willing to accept the moral imposition of his employer in this matter while his employer has a perfect right to not be imposed on in such a way by the state. If the employee doesn’t like that her employer  refuses to include coverage of contraception in the health care benefits, she can just go and find another job. If she cannot, then she will have to accept being unemployed or she must conform to the religion/morality of her employer.  This, of course, seems to be rather wrong. After all, it seems rather absurd to justify an imposition on liberty on the basis of an appeal to liberty. Of course, this is nothing new: in the pre-Civil War South people routinely argued that forcing the southern states to give up enslaving people would be a violation of their liberties.

In light of the above discussion, mandating the coverage of contraceptives does seem to be morally acceptable.

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