Pausing in her grazing, a mother mammoth casts a wary eye for signs of danger to herself and her offspring. Hidden from her view, a saber-toothed cat assesses his chances of getting a meal…or getting stomped. The cat is startled by movement behind it and whirls about to confront a vehicle full of people. Digital photos are snapped, then uploaded to Facebook. “Damn tourists”, thinks the cat, as it saunters away.
While this scene is not yet a reality, there are people who hope to make it so through de-extinction. De-extinction is the restoration of a species that has been lost to extinction. The most famous fictional example is Jurassic Park: dinosaurs are restored and made the central focus of an amusement park. There have been real-life attempts at restoring lost species, but these have focused on species that went extinct far more recently than the dinosaurs.
There are various ways in which a species can be restored. The best known (thanks to the movies) is genetic restoration: the genes of the species are recovered and used to recreate the species. For example, recovered mastodon DNA could be implanted into an “emptied” elephant egg and the egg could then be implanted into a female elephant. If the process succeeded, the surrogate mother would give birth to an actual mastodon.
A somewhat less known method is “trait” or “appearance” restoration. In this method, an extinct species is recreated by selectively modifying an existing species until it looks like the extinct species. For example, an extinct species of pigeons could be “restored” in this manner. One rather obvious question about this method is whether or not such a restoration should be considered an actual de-extinction. To use the obvious analogy, if after my death someone is modified to look like me, then I have not been restored to life. Likewise, creating a species that looks (and acts) like the extinct species does not seem to really restore the species. Rather, a rather clever imposter has been created.
In additional to the practical concerns of the science and technology of de-extinction, there are also moral concerns. Not surprisingly, many of these concerns involve he potential consequences of de-extinction.
One matter of concern is that the de-extinction of a species could actually have negative consequences for other species or the environment. A restored species could become an invasive and harmful species (directly or indirectly), which would be rather bad and has been shown by existing invasive species that have been transported by humans into new environments. In the case of de-extinction, humans would be re-created rather than transporting-but the effect could be quite similar.
It can be replied that the impact of a species could be sorted out ahead of time, especially if the species went extinct fairly recently. The counter to this reply is to point out that people have made rather serious mistakes when importing species and that it is not unreasonable to believe that people could make comparable mistakes.
Another matter of concern that a species could be restored despite there not being a viable habitat for it. This sort of irresponsible de-extinction might occur for a variety of reasons, perhaps to provide a novelty attraction for a zoo or park. This sort of treatment of an animal would certainly seem to be wrong because of the exploitation of the species. The reply to this is the same that is given when species that are close to extinction are kept in zoos or parks: such an existence is better than no existence. This does have a certain appeal, but it could be contended that restoring an animal to keep it in a zoo is relevantly different from endeavoring to preserve an existing species. It could also be contended that the zoo preservation of endangered species is wrong, hence the restoration of an extinct species to serve as a zoo exhibit would also be wrong.
One common argument against re-extinction is that it would be expensive and it would thus take money away from conservation efforts that would yield more results for the money. While I cannot predict the exact cost of restoring a mastodon, it seems safe to predict that it would be extremely expensive. This money could, one might argue, be better spent in protecting elephants.
While such cost arguments have considerable appeal, they often suffer from an obvious defect. This defect is that the argument fails to take into account the fact that there is not just one pool of money that is allocated to this matter. That is, money spent on restoring a species need not come from the money that would otherwise be spent on preserving existing species.
While it could be argued that money spent on de-extinction would be better spent elsewhere, it could very well be the case that the money spent on de-extinction would not, in fact, be spent on anything better. To use an obvious example, a wealthy celebrity might not care much about the plight of the snail darter, but he might be willing to spend millions of dollars to get a saber-toothed cat. To use another example, an investor might not be interested in spending money to save elephants, but she might be very interested in funding a Mammoth Park featuring restored mammoths and other charismatic but extinct species that people would pay to see. Interestingly, this sort of funding could itself raise moral concerns. That is, bringing back the mammoths so some investors can make a fortune on Mammoth Park might strike some as morally dubious.
Laying aside the moral concerns connected to why we should not engage in de-extinction, there is also to matter of why we should (morally) do this. In the case of natural extinctions, it would seem that we would not have a moral reason to restore a species. After all, humans were not responsible for its demise. Naturally, we might have pragmatic (to create Mammoth Park) or scientific reasons to restore such a species.
In the case of human caused extinctions, a case can be made that we should undo the (alleged) wrong that we did. This line of reasoning has the most appeal. After all, if we were responsible for the death of a species and we could restore this species, then it would seem that we should do so. To use the obvious analogy, if I kill someone (by accident or by intent) and then I get the means to restore the person, then I should do so (unless, of course, killing the person was the right thing to do).
In any case, I am waiting for my dire wolf-husky crossbreed.
Roughly put, profit (or loss) is the difference between what it costs to sell a product/service and what is received for that product/service. For example, if it costs me $1 to make and transport a widget to the purchaser and the widget sells for $5, then I would make a profit of $4 on each widget sold. Naturally, the overall profit of my widget business would be a more complex matter involving total costs, total income and so on. But the basic idea is profit is what one gets when the cost is lower than what is received for the product/service.
As a general rule, just as Trix is for kids, profit is for employers and not employees. In fact, the stock criticisms of profit tend to focus on the fact that making a profit often involves paying workers less than the value they produce. So, on the face of it, it seems like the idea of a worker making a profit is a non-starter. After all, the worker gets paid (hopefully) and the mechanism of a profit does not seem to figure in here. However, it seems interesting (though perhaps totally misguided) to consider the matter of a worker making a profit (as a worker, not in another role).
As noted above, profit occurs (crudely put) when the seller makes more for a sale than the sale costs her. One way to look at this is that the value paid by the purchaser exceeds the value of what is sold. In the case of a worker, it would seem that a profit-like situation would arise when a worker is paid more than the value of her work. That is, I would make something profit-like if I were paid more than I was worth. The gap between the value of my work and what I receive for it would be my “profit.”
In either case, it would seem that making a profit generally entails that someone is getting exploited. After all, if all those involved in producing the product got their just share of the value of the product, there would be no surplus left to provide the profit, unless the customer pays more than the value of the product. Likewise, if the worker is paid more than the value of her work, it would seem that she is exploiting the employer.
It can be countered that profit can arise without exploitation. One way for this to occur involves what could be called relative/subjective (or perceived) value. For example, if it costs me $1 to make a widget and I sell it for $5, yet the customer values it at $5 (or more), then it could be claimed the customer is not being exploited. After all, as she sees it she is getting her money’s worth. However, it would also need to be the case that the workers involved in producing, transporting and selling my widget also regard themselves as properly compensated. Likewise, if a worker values her work less than the employer values it, then it could be claimed that the employer is not being exploited. For example, if I valued my time at $30 an hour, but I was paid $50 an hour and my employer valued my time at at least $50 an hour, then I would not be exploiting my employer. Or, perhaps more accurately, she would not regard me as exploiting her.
The response to this is to contend that a person can be wrong about being exploited. In the case of a worker, he might regard his pay per widget as fair, but might be mistaken. One obvious cause could be ignorance: the worker is unaware of the value her labor adds to the product and if she were aware of this, she would change her mind about the fairness of her pay. Likewise for an employer: she might believe she is getting her money’s worth (or better) but be wrong about this because I am so very clever about appearing to be worth more than I am actually worth. Naturally, it could be insisted that in matters of money all value is relative/subjective (or perceived) and that the idea of some sort of objective foundation for claims about exploitation is fundamentally mistaken. If so, this would also entail that the idea of some sort of objective foundation for claims about fair or just profits would also be fundamentally mistaken. Presumably it would come down to whoever had the most power defining what is called “just” and what is called “unjust.” In this case, it would seem most sensible for each party to endeavor to get as much as he can and to get it labeled as “fair” and “just.” That is, the employer should endeavor to get as much for as little pay as possible from employees and employees should endeavor to get as much as possible for as little work as possible from the employer. That is, in a profit focused system everyone should try to exploit everyone else while contending that they are being fair.
In some states, the police are allowed to gather DNA samples upon making an arrest-even before the person is actually charged (let alone convicted). As might be guessed, this has raised concerns from those who are concerned about privacy issues. However, there are those who regard the collection of DNA as a good idea and one that can help ensure that the guilty are punished and the innocent are set free.
One argument in favor of allowing the police to take DNA samples upon arresting a person is that the DNA information can be used in whatever investigation that might follow. Of course, the obvious counter to this is that the sample need not be taken upon arrest to be used in the investigation or trial. That is, the police can wait until the person is actually charged with a crime that legitimately involves a need for DNA evidence.
Another argument in favor of allowing the police to take DNA samples upon arresting a person is that this adds to the database of DNA. Even if the person arrested is not charged or found to be innocent, the DNA information will remain and it might prove useful in a later investigation. Not surprisingly, this same argument is used to argue in favor of mandating that everyone be included in the DNA database. Such a national DNA registry would be a great boon to police. For example, a person picked up for a traffic violation could be checked against the database and it could be found that he is a wanted serial rapist. Without the DNA information, the serial rapist would have been free to continue his crimes.
As might be imagined, the arguments in favor of such DNA sampling and database creation are countered with arguments against them.
One of the main arguments against taking DNA samples from a person who has been merely arrested is based on the claim that the police need a proper warrant to obtain evidence. Just as an officer cannot go through my computer or house without a warrant, she cannot go through my DNA. The main counter to this is that the police do take fingerprints and this practice is on a solid legal foundation. The debate then becomes one of analogy: is DNA more like fingerprints or more like the content of a person’s house or computer? The answer to this depends a great deal on the sort of data gained from the DNA sample.
If the DNA sampling merely provided data comparable to that provided by fingerprints (that is, just identifying the person), then a fairly solid case can be made that DNA sampling of this sort would be just as legally solid as fingerprinting. However, if the DNA sampling provides more data, then it would seem to be more analogous to going through a person’s home and thus simply grabbing a DNA sample upon an arrest would seem to be on par with going though a person’s house just because she had been arrested.
Obviously enough, a DNA sample does potentially provide a vast amount of information about a person. However, the amount of information revealed would depend on the sort of testing used on the DNA. Thus, a key part of the matter would focus on how the DNA was used (and what was done with the actual samples).
Another argument against DNA sampling is the potential for the misuse of the information gathered. Obviously, there is the concern that the information revealed by the DNA will be misused by the police. For example, DNA samples are now used to make family matches and innocent relatives of criminals can find themselves targeted by the police. As as another example, DNA identifications are not as reliable as people generally believe. This raises the concern that too much reliance will be placed on such evidence. For folks who worry about the government having a registry of firearms, the idea of collecting such DNA information should be utterly terrifying. There is also the concern that the data will be misused by those outside of the police forces. That is, that the data will become available to other parts of the government and perhaps even those in the private sector. For example, the DNA data gathered by the police could become available to insurance companies.
The gathering of DNA evidence is now fairly common and it continues to grow more common. One reason for this is that the companies that profit from DNA testing have effective lobbies that work rather hard to ensure that there will be a large market for their products. This, like the for-profit prisons, also raises concerns. After all, when such profits are involved, the public good is often ignored.
Information about the United States’ Prism program was leaked by Edward Snowden to the Washington Post and the Guardian. Some people are casting Snowden as a traitor while others are lauding him as a hero. Some are presenting him as motivated by pure narcissism.
People have a tendency to present their actions in the most favorable light, so it is hardly surprising that Snowden claims that his motivation was ethical in nature:
The N.S.A. has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your e-mails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your e-mails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.
I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.
If Snowden is being honest about his motivation, then a case can be made that he acted rightly. That is, he acted in accord with his moral conscience. While he might have been in error, it is unreasonable to fault a person who acts in this manner-at least if the person’s moral conscience is properly informed. While ignorance can be an excuse, willful ignorance or unwarranted ignorance do not provide a moral excuse.
In the case of Snowden, it would be unreasonable to claim that he was ignorant of the general business of the NSA. It is a matter of general knowledge that the NSA is in the business of gathering information domestically. It is also a matter of general knowledge that since 9/11 domestic spying has been a rather flexible sort of matter. As such, Snowden should have not been morally shocked that the NSA engaged in such activities.
It could be replied that while Snowden should have been aware of the general business of the NSA, he was initially unaware of the extent of Prism. This does have considerable plausibility-the Prism program was (before the leak) top secret and hence Snowden would almost certainly not have known the details about it prior to his employment. As such, Snowden could plausible claim ignorance in this matter. It could also be replied that Snowden changed his mind over time.
Even if Snowden acted from a moral motivation, there is still the question of whether or not his actions were well considered. After all, a person could act from his conscience, but the actions could be poorly considered. In the case of Snowden and the NSA, Snowden elected to expose a program that he knew was legal and this certainly complicates matters. After all, it is one thing to leak information about illegal activities and quite another to leak information about legal activities.
The obvious reply to this is that what is legal is not the same as what is ethical (except for those who accept legalism). As such, the legal Prism program could be unethical. Assuming that a citizen should expose the moral misdeeds of the state, if the Prism program is immoral, then Snowden could have acted rightly in exposing the secrets.
Obviously enough, a rather important matter is whether or not Snowden had good grounds on which to believe that Prism is an immoral program. But this is a matter for another time.
Getting back to the main issue, the Guardian and the Post did not publish most of the information that Snowden leaked to them-they decided that it should not be made public. A case could be made that Snowden’s leak was somewhat irresponsible in that he leaked far more than was needed to expose misdeeds and this excessive leaking could thus be regarded as unethical. It could also be taken as evidence that he was not motivated by moral reasons but by some other factors. Then again, it could be argued that he just engaged in poor decision making in this regard.
It is also worth considering that Snowden apparently went straight to leaking rather than attempting to address his concerns through legal and proper channels. After all, there are mechanisms in place for such matters. However, it could be replied that Snowden believed that this was not a viable option. The Obama administration, despite is professed support for whistleblowers and transparency, has been rather non-transparent and has established a reputation as being rather harsh on whistleblowers. There is also the question of who Snowden could have gone to in order to address his concerns-as noted above, everything being done was legal and had the blessing of all the relevant authorities. So, if he believed that all the folks in the government were involved in this and accepted it as legal, he could hardly be expected to take his concerns to them.
It is also worth noting that Snowden fled the United States to Hong Kong. When asked about this, he said that “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” Given that Hong Kong is now controlled by China (which certainly does not have a commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent), this raises some concerns. It could be the case that Snowden really believes that Hong Kong is a bastion of free speech and will protect him from the United States or perhaps he is acting pragmatically and seeking protection from a power that can stand up to the United States. In any case, there is the obvious concern that China now has easy access to Snowden and the secrets he stole from the NSA. It is also worth considering that Snowden’s motivations were not ethical but practical, namely that he was motivated from gain. His future actions will help address this matter.
In general terms, Snowden does bring up the old issue of the conflict of the conscience of the individual with the orders of the state. Assuming, of course, that Snowden truly acted from his conscience. I do not, obviously enough, know the answer to this. However, I do believe that the Prism program is morally dubious (at best) and while it went through all the secret legal processes, I do think a good case can be made that the program violated constitutional rights. But, I will leave this issue to the constitutional lawyers.
Revelations of the United States government’s Prism Program have brought the matter of privacy into the spotlight. While it should be no surprise that the United State’s government is scooping up vast quantities of information from communication systems ranging from phones to the internet, the scope and nature of the collection has disturbed many people.
Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has defended Prism on two main grounds. The first is that the program is legal. That is, it went through all the proper secret processes in the dark places of the government. But, of course, mere legality does not make something right. There is also the legitimate worry that this legal program actually violates Constitutional rights.
I do no have any doubts that the program is legal-I am confident that it was properly guided through the dark caverns under the public government and legally set loose upon the world. As far as the Constitutionality, I am not fully re-assured by the assurances that the data scooped up by Prism is being used in strict accordance to the Constitution.
The second is the usual line that it is necessary for national security. The idea is that certain rights need to be infringed upon in order to make us safer. This approach does have its appeal. This is because the limitation of rights can, in fact, make us safer. For example, limiting the right of people to sell contaminated food does make us safer. As another example, limiting the right to own certain weapons (like chemical weapons and grenades) does make us safer. As such, I do not reject the “it makes us safer” argument out of hand.
When considering this justification, there are two main concerns. The first is whether or not the limitation of the rights in question actually makes us safer. After all, while limiting a right can make us safer, this is not always the case. It would, of course, be a bad idea to restrict a right when doing so has no benefit. In the case of Prism, what would be needed would be proof that the program actually made us safer. This might include evidence of foiled plots and arrests of terrorists that resulted specifically from Prism. Naturally, I do not really expect such information to be forthcoming since the effectiveness of the program is no doubt a matter of national security and thus secret. However, I will consider the possibility that Prism did yield some positive results that could be used to justify what are claimed to be privacy violations.
The second concern is whether or not the safety gained is worth the cost resulting from the limitation (or violation of) the right in question. For example, we would be safer if each person had a tracking chip implanted into his body. If a person knows that her location is always known, then she would be less likely to engage in misdeeds and far easier to catch if she chose to act badly anyways. However, such implantation and tracking would seem to be an excessive violation of the right to privacy and hence would not seem to be worth the cost. In the case of Prism, a key question is whether or not the (alleged) gain in security is worth the cost paid in terms of the limitation or violation of rights.
The Obama administration has been quick to claim that the data gathered does not violate the right to privacy of the people that matter. If this is true, then perhaps the security gained is worth the price. However, there is the reasonable concern that this is not the case and it is certainly worrisome when the state engages in such massive data scooping.
Back during the bailout, the phrase “too big to fail” was used to refer to corporations that were regarded as too important to the economy to allow them to fail. To prevent these failures (or so it was claimed) public funds were deployed. While it seems blindingly obvious that a multitude of misdeeds lay behind the meltdown, the federal government has not engaged in a single prosecution. More recently, Holder’s Department of Justice decided not to prosecute HSBC despite the fact that they had apparently been engaged in rather serious money laundering. This created a new phrase, “too big to jail.”
Interestingly, the legal trail of “too big to jail” can be traced back to a 1999 memo by Eric Holder entitled “Bringing Criminal Charges Against Corporations.” While the memo does not assert that executives cannot be prosecuted, it does provide an excellent escape hatch for big corporations. To be specific, Holder contends that the state should consider “collateral consequences” when making decisions about prosecuting corporate crimes. Holder seems to still hold to the principles of the memo and while Obama has been attacked as being an anti-business socialist, the Department of Justice has been extremely gentle in its response to white collar crimes committed by the top folks in big corporations.
On the one hand, the idea of considering consequences does make sense from a utilitarian standpoint. If, for example, prosecution would create more harm than good, then it could make excellent moral sense not to prosecute. However, there is is the utilitarian concern that the practice of allowing corporate criminals to avoid prosecution on this principle would do harm to the legal system as a whole by undermining public faith in its justice. On the other hand, the idea that people (and corporations are legal people) can avoid prosecution because applying the law to them would result in collateral consequences seems rather contrary to the idea that no one is above the law. While I do believe that justice can involve considering the consequences, justice also seems to require consistency in the law-and allowing corporate criminals a special out seems to be unfair and inconsistent.
In 1999 Holder also advanced the notion of deferred prosecution for corporations. Under this principle, corporate defendants can be given what amounts to amnesty in return for a fine (usually small relative to corporate earnings), reforms and cooperation. This principle is connected to the principle about consequences in that a plausible reason for allowing this deferred prosecution is to keep a corporation going-and thus keep people employed. During the Arthur Anderson incident, the state brought criminal charges against the company and this resulted in the loss of about 28,000 jobs when the company failed.
On the one hand, this principle does have appeal. After all, prosecution could result in the destruction of a corporation and this could harm people who are actually innocent of wrongdoing. Deferred prosecution would, in theory, allow the problems to be addressed while avoiding the destruction of the corporation. On the other hand, there is the obvious concern that prosecution might be “deferred” forever. Even if the deferment is not eternal, there is the concern that the punishment will not be serious enough to deter future behavior. So far, the fines that have been paid by corporations tend to be small relative to their yearly profits and it seems unlikely that such punishments will have a significant deterrence value. After all, if a corporation can make massive profits doing illegal things like money laundering and then pay what is, to them, a moderate fine, then there is little incentive to avoid such illegal activities. To use an analogy, if I took up robbing banks and my punishment was that I had to pay a fine equal to a modest percentage of my stolen money, then I would have little incentive to stop robbing banks. As might be guessed, this is a problem.
Overall, the principles of considering collateral consequences and allowing deferred prosecution are not without merit, at least on the surface. However, while the application of these principles might result in short term goods (like preserving corporate jobs), they seem likely to create long term evils-namely a situation in which corporations are ever more likely to engage in misdeeds because they know that the punishments will be fairly minimal. However, the overall consequences of this will be rather bad, such as companies destroying themselves and the economy. Too big to fail and too big to jail are bad ideas and it is far past the time that the approach to corporations be changed.
The cost of college has increased considerably since I was a student. Back then, college was expensive but it was still possible for students of modest means to go to a good school and graduate with a modest amount of debt. That is, in fact, what I did. Now that I am a professor, things are different: college is far more expensive (even factoring in inflation) and students are often burdened with crushing debt. In some cases this debt is due to poor decision making on the part of the student. In many cases it is due to a combination of the high cost of college and poor economic times.
Not surprisingly, some have suggested that the public higher education system follow the model of the K-12 education system. To be specific, it has been suggested that college should be free. While this certainly would initially appeal to parents and students, it is rather important to consider what is meant by “free” here.
In one sense, K-12 public education is free. That is, the students are not charged to attend school and the parents do not receive specific bills from the schools. In another sense, K-12 education is not free. After all, someone has to pay for the buildings, buses, salaries and so on. Those someones are, of course, people like me and (most likely) people like you. We pay for the schools through various taxes and various other means. As such, the free education is not really free. Rather, what “free” means in this context is that the cost is shifted from the students and parents to the whole population of people who pay the taxes and such used to fund the schools. That is, we have what some folks would regard as the socialization of education. While there has been an increased push towards privatization of education via voucher proposals and such, few have advocated removing the public funding of public education. The usual concern has been about where the public money is funneled. However, we have generally had a collective agreement that public funding of K-12 education is a public good worth funding, albeit in rather unequal ways.
Following the K-12 model, free public college would be free in one sense and not free in another. That is, the students and parents would not be specifically billed by the schools and thus the education would be free. However, someone would have to pay for all the campuses, salaries and so on and those someones would, once again, be people like me and (most likely) you.
The main benefit of shifting to “free” public higher education, is that the shift in cost from the students/parents would presumably allow more people to attend college and would, obviously, allow them to graduate without any debt (at least from the cost of education). While there is considerable debate about the value of college education (and whether or not everyone should go to college) it does seem reasonable to think that a college degree is generally a plus. Also, it would certainly be advantageous for students to graduate without facing the burden of education debt (although they would still face non-academic debt).
The most obvious concern about “free” public education is that funding it would obviously require replacing the income that was once generated by students/parents paying for school. This would most likely mean that the cost would be largely spread across the general population of taxpayers. That is, while parents and students would pay less than before, everyone would have to pay more to allow for “free” college. Also worth considering is the fact that making college free would increase college enrollment, thus increasing the cost to the taxpayers relative to the current system (which does include some funding of public colleges/universities).
One moral concern is whether or not this shift in costs would be fair to people who did not attend college or send their children to college. However, the arguments in favor of “free” K-12 education could be modified a bit and pressed into service here. Likewise, arguments against “free” K-12 education could be modified a bit and used to argue against this. Naturally, new arguments could be forged against “free” college education because of the differences between college education and K-12 education.
Since I greatly value education and think that it is a public good, I would tend to favor “free” college n the same grounds that I favor “free” K-12 education. I would, of course, have to accept the need to put my money where my values are and be willing to pay more to allow “free” college, even though my college days are long past and I have no children. However, I obviously do not speak for everyone and the question of whether the public good generated by “free” college education would be worth the cost to the public.
Returning to the practical matter of cost, one way that the decrease in revenue would be addressed is by (ironically) reducing (or at least not increasing) enrollment. After all, rather than generating extra income each student would generate only extra cost. While this approach would help offset the lost income, there would need to be a system of rationing education. Currently, education is distributed primarily based on wealth (and to a much lesser extent merit). That is, the ability to pay is the main selecting factor for who goes to college. When the cost of school is taken out of the matter, then another selection system will be needed, especially when “free” college would probably entail that many more people would want to go to college. While the system used might be fair and just, this seems unlikely-especially because of what already occurs in the K-12 system. In any case, making college “free” would thus not seem to broaden the access to college. Unless, of course, college is made “free” and the loss of income is not countered by reducing or maintaining enrollment.
If college were made “free” and enrollment was not reduced or kept the same, then schools would obviously need to grow enough to handle the influx of students. This would seem to have two possible results. The first is that the citizens would need to pay more for this growth. This would raise, once again, the question of whether the increased cost would be worth the gain (if any) for the general good. The other is that resources would need to be spread ever thinner. For example, my typical class might go from 35 students to 140 (or 350) as demand surged. Or, of course, both would probably happen: people would pay more while resources are spread even thinner. Naturally, online classes could help with this, but there would still be questions about the quality of such massive education systems.
It is worth noting that even if public education was free, then private colleges and universities would still not be free. While this might initially hurt them (why pay to go to Marietta College when the University of Maine is free?), if public education becomes rationed or diluted, then private schools could still do quite well. After all, people with adequate money sometimes chose private K-12 education over the “free” public education. There is also the fact that, for example, an expensive degree from Harvard would be worth far more than a “free” degree from a public school and thus paying for education could still be a good investment.
While “free” college” is an idea worth considering, it must always be remembered that “free” just means that the cost is shifted, not that there is no cost.
With the ever increasing cost of college education there is ever more reason to consider whether or not college is worth it. While much of this assessment can be in terms of income, there is also the academic question of whether or not students actually benefit intellectually from college.
The 2011 study Academically Adrift showed that a significant percentage of students received little or no benefit from college, which is obviously a matter of considerable concern. Not surprisingly, there have been additional studies aimed at assessing this matter. Of special concern to me is the claim that a new study shows that students do improve in critical thinking skills. While this study can be questioned, I will attest to the fact that the weight of evidence shows that American college students are generally weak at critical thinking. This is hardly shocking given that most people are weak at critical thinking.
My university, like so many others, has engaged in a concerted effort to enhance the critical thinking skills of students. However, there are reasonable concerns regarding the methodology used in such attempts. There is also the concern as to whether or not it is even possible, in practical terms, to significantly enhance the critical thinking skills of college students over the span of the two or four (or more) degree. While I am something of an expert at critical thinking (I mean actual critical thinking, not the stuff that sprung up so people could profit from being “critical thinking” experts), my optimism in this matter is somewhat weak. This is because I have given due consideration to the practical problem of this matter and have been teaching this subject for over two decades.
As with any form of education, it is wise to begin by considering the general qualities of human beings. For example, if humans are naturally good, then teaching virtue would be easier. In the case at hand, the question would be whether or not humans (in general) are naturally good at critical thinking.
While Aristotle famously regarded humans as rational animals, he also noted that most people are not swayed by arguments or fine ideals. Rather, they are dominated by their emotions and must be ruled by pain. While I will not comment on ruling with pain, I will note that Aristotle’s view about human rationality has been borne out by experience. To fast forward to now, experts speak of the various cognitive biases and emotional factors that impede human rationality. This matches my own experience and I am confident that it matches that of others. To misquote Lincoln, some people are irrational all the time and all the people are irrational some of the time. As such, trying to transform people into competent critical thinkers will generally be very difficult, perhaps as hard as making people virtuous.
In addition to the biological foundation, there is also the matter of preparation. For most students, their first exposure to a substantial course or even coverage of critical thinking occurs in college. It seems unlikely that students who have gone almost two decades without proper training in critical thinking will be significantly altered by college. One obvious solution, taken from Aristotle, is to begin proper training in critical thinking at an early age.
Another matter of serious concern is the fact that students are exposed to influences that discourage critical thinking and actually provide irrational influences. One example of this is the domain of politics. Political discourse tends to be, at best rhetoric, and typically involves the use of a wide range of fallacies such as the straw man, scare tactics and ad hominems of all varieties. For those who are ill-prepared in critical thinking, exposure to these influences can have a very detrimental effect and they can be led far away from reason. I would call for politicians to cease this behavior, but they seem devoted to the tools of irrationality. There is a certain irony in politicians who exploit and encourage poor reasoning being among those lamenting the weak critical thinking skills of students and endeavoring to blame colleges for the problems they themselves have helped create.
Another example of this is the domain of entertainment. As Plato argued in the Republic, exposure to corrupting influences can corrupt. While the usual arguments about corruption from entertainment focus on violence and sexuality, it is also important to consider the impact of certain amusements upon the reasoning skills of students. Television, which has long been said to “rot the brain”, certainly seems to shovel forth fare that is hardly contributing to good reasoning. While I would not suggest censorship, I would encourage students to discriminate and steer clear of shows that seem likely to have a corrosive impact on reasoning. While it might be an overstatement to claim that entertainment can corrode reason, it does seem sensible to note that much of it contributes nothing positive to a person’s mind.
A third example of this is advertising. As with politics, advertising is the domain of persuasion. While good reasoning can persuade, it is (for most people) the weakest tool of persuasion. As such, advertisers flood us with ads employing what they regard as effective tools of persuasion. These typically involve various rhetorical devices and also the use of fallacies. Sadly, the bad logic of fallacies is generally far more persuasive than good reasoning. Students are generally exposed to significant amounts of advertising (they no doubt spend more time exposed to ads than critical thinking) and it makes sense that this exposure would impact them in detrimental ways, at least if they are not already equipped to properly assess such ads with critical thinking skills.
A final example is, of course, everyday life. Students will typically be exposed to significant amounts of poor reasoning and this will have a significant influence on them. Students will also learn what the politicians and advertisers know: the tools of irrational persuasion will serve them better in our society than the tools of reason.
Given these anti-critical thinking influences, it is something of a wonder that students develop any critical thinking skills.
The May 2013 issue of the NEA Higher Education Advocate featured “Working to the Rule in Maine” by Ronald J. Mosley, Jr. In his article, Mosley notes that the last time the faculty in Maine’s public higher education received a raise was four years ago. He also adds that the faculty have been working two years without a contract and that mediation and negotiation with the administration have failed. Oddly enough, this situation is not the result of a financial crisis: there have been three consecutive years of the highest annual surpluses in Maine history. Mosley’s claims match those of my father, who just retired from the system this month.
As Mosley points out in his article, faculty have traditionally voluntarily engaged in service activities and often do so beyond what is actually expected (or contracted). While it might be tempting to some to dismiss this service as valueless, faculty often contribute a great deal to their school and the community. In terms of schools, faculty often engage in service that is essential to the operation of the university and to the students, yet is not compensated. To use a concrete example, I am currently contracted at 20% to teach one summer class. That is all my Assignment of Responsibility (AOR) specifies. As such, I have no contractual obligation to do anything beyond that class. However, students still need advising in the summer and I have administrative tasks that need to be completed, such as serving on a critical accreditation committee and handling the various matters required to run the philosophy & religion program. In terms of the community, faculty also provide services to the professional and general community. To use one concrete example, I serve as an (unpaid) referee for professional journals and engage in other (unpaid) community service activities. These extra services, then are often rather important.
In normal conditions (although what is normal now seems to be rather abnormal) faculty willingly engage in such extra efforts “for the good of the_____” (insert “students”, “school”, “community” and so on as needed). There is also the fact that in better times, faculty are treated with some degree of respect and are reasonably well compensated and thus morale (and generosity) can be good.
However, as Mosley points out, conditions are not normal (or there is a “new normal”): while the cost of living increases yearly, there are few (or no) raises to even match this increase-thus faculty are effectively paid less each year. There is also the fact that faculty are expected to do more each year. While Mosley does not mention this, the new obsession with assessment has added to faculty workloads and there seems to be a general trend in shifting more administrative burdens to faculty (while, bizarrely, the number of administrators and their salaries increase). For example, I served on nine committees and ran a program review last year-all on top of my usual duties. As a final point, there is also the feeling that faculty are less (or not) respected. Such things rob faculty of motivation and income and this is certainly not good for the faculty, the schools or the students.
In response to the situation in Maine, Mosley has proposed that the faculty work to the rule. By this he means that the faculty should conscientiously complete the requirements of their contracts, but do not go beyond them. He does note that each faculty member should decide whether s/he will go beyond what is contracted. After all, students depend directly and indirectly on much of the “free” work done by faculty and many faculty members will want to work beyond the rule to avoid hurting the students. I suspect that some administrators count on this and perhaps cynically hold students “hostage” to get faculty to do uncompensated work. After all, most faculty will not refuse to advise students in the summer even if the summer contract includes no assigned advising duties.
Not surprisingly, I agree with Mosley (and not just because we are both Mainers). As a general rule, a contract is a contract and thus defines the obligations of the parties involved. While it might be nice of one or both parties to go beyond the contract, this is obviously not obligatory for either party. That is, just as the university is not obligated to drop some extra cash in my account just because it would be “for the good of Mike”, I am not obligated to put in extra hours “for the good of ___” when it is not in my AOR.
The usual counter to this view is that there are things that need to be done (such as advising or meeting the requirements for accreditation) that go beyond what is spelled out in the AOR. The rational counter to this is that things that need to be done should be added to the AOR and properly compensated. After all, if something is important enough to be done it would seem to be important enough to actually pay someone to do. If it is not important enough to pay someone to do it, then it would seem to be not worth doing.
As another point, it is worth reversing the situation. If a faculty member shirked his duties, it would be fair and just of the school to reduce his compensation, fire him or otherwise respond to such a failure to act in accord with the contract. But this would entail that the reverse is true: if the school decides to push the faculty member beyond the contract, then due compensation should be expected.
One way universities “get around” this is by having vaguely defined obligations for salaried faculty. Various other techniques are also used. For example, at my university the typical faculty member teaches four classes each semester. Each class counts as 20% of her work, thus leaving 20% for other duties. This 20% seems to be infinitely divisible-that is, no matter how many things are added to the 20%, it is always 20%. In the 2012-2013 academic year, my 20% included being the facilitator for the philosophy & religion unit, running the department web pages, advising, publishing, professional service, running the seven year program review and being a member of 9 committees. Another faculty member might have her 20% consist of much less than my 20%, while another faculty member might (God forbid) have even more jammed in there.
Until recently, schools have been able to rely on the willingness of faculty to engage in extra work. While some of this was done in order to earn tenure, much of it was done out of a sense of obligation to the students and school and, perhaps, from a sense of being a valued member of a worthy community. However, this willingness seems to be eroding in the face of administrative decisions and attitudes. Interestingly, we might see the academy become rather like a business with each party sticking tenaciously to its contracted obligations and refusing to do more for the general good, since this notion has no place in the business model being exalted these days. Well, except as a tool used to milk free work from unwary faculty and staff.
The current narrative is that the Obama administration is floundering in three major scandals: Benghazi, IRS TPT (Tea Party Targeting), and the DOJ’s AP incident. I agree with Socrates’ view that the “gadflies” have a duty to keep the “horse” that is the state from falling into laziness and corruption. But, of course, I also agree with Socrates’ view that we should better ourselves rather than endeavoring to tear others down with deceits. As such, I believe it is rather important to find and properly consider the truth in these matters.
During the first four years of Obama’s administration, those who wished to attack Obama had to generally rely on made up and often absurd attacks, such as the infamous Birther and Secret Muslim movements. Obama was also charged with being a socialist, a communist, a tyrant and so on. However, these charges only seemed to stick within certain minds-those who wished to believe the worst of the president regardless of the evidence. Interestingly, real problems such as drone assassinations, the grotesque disparities in wealth, the endemic problems in the VA, and so on were largely ignored by most folks on the left and the right. Someone more cynical than I might suspect that the pundits and politicians work to focus public rage in what they regard as safe channels.
The start of the second term saw what the folks at Fox probably regarded as a gift from on high, given that they had been desperately flogging Benghazi with little effect: two scandals that might actually have some substance. Interestingly, even the “liberal” media jumped onto the scandal bandwagon. However, the question remains as to whether or not there is any true substance behind these alleged scandals.
Again, someone more cynical than I might suggest that the pundits and politicians are focused primarily on scoring political points against Obama rather than operating from a desire for justice and ethical government. After all, some of the conservative pundits who are expressing outrage at Obama are the same people who embraced contrary views when their favorites engaged in worse misdeeds. Peggy Noonan is, of course, one of the outstanding examples: when it came to Iran-Contra, she claimed that Reagan did not know and was failed by his people. In the case of Obama, she contends that the President is fully accountable. Such blatant inconsistencies nicely reveal the truth of the matter. Naturally, folks on the left do the same thing: many of those who railed against Bush give Obama a pass on the same matters, presumably because he is their guy and Bush was not. But, left or right, such inconsistency is intellectually and morally wrong.
Someone far more cynical than I might even spin a tale of conspiracy-that outrage is generated, managed and directed so as to divert attention from real problems. After all, if the media and the people are in a froth over the IRS or the DOJ, then they have little outrage to spare for such matters as the pathetic state of our infrastructure or the fact that congress engages in legal insider trading. But, to get back to the main subject, I turn to the IRS scandal.
On the face of it, the IRS scandal is being sold as the IRS specifically targeting conservative groups. The flames of the scandal certainly have been fanned by the fact that Lerner pleaded the Fifth before Congress. While she might have been reacting out of fear because of the inflammatory rhetoric, this sort of thing is rather like when Romney refused to release his tax information: it leads people to believe that the damage that could be done by whatever is being hidden is far worse than the damage done by trying to hide it. However, let us go with the facts that are actually available.
One key part of the narrative is that the IRS only targeted conservative groups. However, the numbers show that this is not the case: only 70 of the 300 groups looked at were tea party organizations. There is also the fact that the IRS is required to determine whether or not those applying for tax-exemption are “social welfare” groups or are engaged in the sort of political activity that is forbidden to such groups. As such, the IRS was actually looking for exactly what the law required. As far as why they flagged the 300 rather than everyone, this seems to be a practical matter: the IRS was apparently faced with a flood of documents.
Another part of the narrative is that the IRS harmed those targeted for this review. However, the tax exempt status is not actually contingent on the IRS approving it: such groups can operate with that status even before official approval. Somewhat ironically, the only groups denied this status were three progressive groups: Emerge Nevada, Emerge Maine, and Emerge Massachusetts. The reason they were denied approval was because they were created to support Democrats, a violation of the law. The IRS commissioner at the time was a Bush appointee.
The facts would seem to reveal that there is not much here in the way of a scandal. The IRS and the administration can, however, be dinged for their poor handling of the matter. The Obama administration does have a poor track record of addressing the “scandling” from the right. Most infamously, they threw Shirley Sherrod to the wolves without even bothering to check on the facts. As such, I would say that one true scandal of the administration is how it handles allegations of scandals.
Interestingly, some conservatives are still trying to turn Benghazi into a scandal, and ABC News’ Jonathan Karl apparently engaged in fabrication, only to be exposed by CNN. There real scandal here would seem to be on the part of those who are trying to make Benghazi into a scandal.
It might be countered that the Obama administration is so bad (perhaps a socialist, communist, Muslim tyranny) that all of these tactics are justified. That, for example, it is acceptable to manufacture a scandal so as to undercut Obama’s support (and pave the way to the White House in 2016). The easy and obvious reply to this is that if the Obama administration is truly as bad as claimed, then there would be no need to manufacture scandals. One would merely need to provide evidence of the badness and that should suffice.
I do actually think that there is considerable badness. However, this badness is of the sort that neither party wishes to expose or bring to attention of the public. Thus, we generally get a war of manufactured scandals while the real problems remain festering in the shadows.
There can, of course, be real scandals. However, what is to be rationally expected is actual objective evidence from credible sources supporting the key claims as well as a rational value assessment regarding the seriousness of the scandal. For example, the DOJ AP scandal might be a real problem-if so, a presentation of the actual facts and a rational evaluation of the wrongdoing should reveal the scandal. These rational standards are generally ignored in favor of partisan interests and the desire to keep the eyes of America looking a certain way.