A Philosopher's Blog

On Returning the Lost

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2014
A picture of a wallet.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My regular running routes take me over many miles and through areas that are heavily trafficked—most often by college students. Because of this, I often find lost phones, wallets, IDs and other items. Recently I came across a wallet fat with cash and credit cards. As always, I sought out the owner and returned it. Being a philosopher, I thought I’d write a bit about the ethics of this.

While using found credit card numbers would generally be a bad idea from the practical standpoint, found cash is quite another matter. After all, cash is cash and there is typically nothing to link cash to a specific person. Since money is rather useful, a person who finds a wallet fat with cash would have a good practical reason to simply keep the money and use it herself. One possible exception would be that the reward for returning the lost wallet would exceed the value of the cash in the wallet—but the person who finds it would most likely have no idea if this would be the case or not. So, from a purely practical standpoint, keeping the cash would be a smart choice. A person could even return the credit cards and other items in the wallet, claiming quite plausibly that it was otherwise empty when found. However, what might be a smart choice need not be the right choice.

One argument in favor of returning found items (such as the wallet and all the cash) can be built on the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. More formally, this is moral reasoning involving the method of reversing the situation. Since I would want my lost property returned, I should thus treat others in the same way. Unless, of course, I can justify treating others differently by finding relevant differences that would justify the difference. Alternatively, it could also be justified on utilitarian grounds.  For example, someone who is poor might contend that it would not be wrong to keep money she found in a rich person’s wallet on the grounds that the money would do her much more good than it would do for the rich person: such a small loss would not affect him, such a gain would benefit her significantly.

Since I am reasonably well off and find relatively modest sums of money (hundreds of dollars at most), I have the luxury of not being tempted to keep the money. However, even when I was not at all well off, I still returned whatever I found. Even when I honestly believed that I would put the money to better use than the original owner. This is not due to any fetishes about property, but a matter of ethics.

One of the reasons is my belief that I do have obligations to help others, especially when the cost to me is low relative to the aid rendered. In the case of finding someone’s wallet or phone, I know that the loss would be a significant inconvenience and worry for most people. In the case of a wallet, a person will probably need to replace a driver’s license, credit cards, insurance cards and worry about identity theft. It is easy for me to return the wallet—either by dropping it off with police or contacting the person after finding them via Facebook or some other means. That said, the obvious challenge is justifying my view that I am so obligated. However, I would contend that in such cases, the burden of proof lies on the selfish rather than the altruistic.

Another reason is that I believe that I should not steal. While keeping a lost item is not the same morally as active theft (this could be seen as being a bit analogous to the distinction between killing and letting die), it does seem to be a form of theft. After all, I would be acquiring what does not belong to me by choosing not to return it. Naturally, if I have no means of returning it to the rightful owner (such as finding a quarter in the road), then keeping it would not seem to be theft. Obviously enough, it could be contended that keeping lost property is not theft (even when it could be returned easily), perhaps on the ancient principle of finders keepers, losers weepers. It could also be contended that theft is acceptable—which would be challenging. However, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who claim that theft is acceptable or that keeping lost property when returning it would be quite possible is not theft.

I also return found items for two selfish reasons. The first is that I want to build the sort of world I want to live in—and in that world people return lost items. While my acting the way I want the world to be is a tiny thing, it is more than nothing. Second, I feel a psychological compulsion to return things I find—so I have to do it for peace of mind.


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Programmed Consent

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 13, 2014

Sexbot YesScience fiction is often rather good at predicting the future and it is not unreasonable to think that the intelligent machine of science fiction will someday be a reality. Since I have been writing about sexbots lately, I will use them to focus the discussion. However, what follows can also be applied, with some modification, to other sorts of intelligent machines.

Sexbots are, obviously enough, intended to provide sex. It is equally obvious that sex without consent is, by definition, rape. However, there is the question of whether a sexbot can be raped or not. Sorting this out requires considering the matter of consent in more depth.

When it is claimed that sex without consent is rape, one common assumption is that the victim of non-consensual sex is a being that could provide consent but did not. A violent sexual assault against a person would be an example of this as would, presumably, non-consensual sex with an unconscious person. However, a little reflection reveals that the capacity to provide consent is not always needed in order for rape to occur. In some cases, the being might be incapable of engaging in any form of consent. For example, a brain dead human cannot give consent, but presumably could still be raped. In other cases, the being might be incapable of the right sort of consent, yet still be a potential victim of rape. For example, it is commonly held that a child cannot properly consent to sex with an adult.

In other cases, a being that cannot give consent cannot be raped. To use an obvious example, a human can have sex with a sex-doll and the doll cannot consent. But, it is not the sort of entity that can be raped. After all, it lacks the status that would require consent. As such, rape (of a specific sort) could be defined in terms of non-consensual sex with a being whose status would require that consent be granted by the being in order for the sex to be morally acceptable. Naturally, I have not laid out all the fine details to create a necessary and sufficient account here—but that is not my goal nor what I need for my purpose in this essay. In regards to the main focus of this essay, the question would be whether or not a sexbot could be an entity that has a status that would require consent. That is, would buying (or renting) and using a sexbot for sex be rape?

Since the current sexbots are little more than advanced sex dolls, it seems reasonable to put them in the category of beings that lack this status. As such, a person can own and have sex with this sort of sexbot without it being rape (or slavery). After all, a mere object cannot be raped (or enslaved).

But, let a more advanced sort of sexbot be imagined—one that engages in complex behavior and can pass the Turning Test/Descartes Test. That is, a conversation with it would be indistinguishable from a conversation with a human. It could even be imagined that the sexbot appeared fully human, differing only in terms of its internal makeup (machine rather than organic). That is, unless someone cut the sexbot open, it would be indistinguishable from an organic person.

On the face of it (literally), we would seem to have as much reason to believe that such a sexbot would be a person as we do to believe that humans are people. After all, we judge humans to be people because of their behavior and a machine that behaved the same way would seem to deserve to be regarded as a person. As such, nonconsensual sex with a sexbot would be rape.

The obvious objection is that we know that a sexbot is a machine with a CPU rather than a brain and a mechanical pump rather than a heart. As such, one might, argue, we know that the sexbot is just a machine that appears to be a person and is not a person.  As such, a real person could own a sexbot and have sex with it without it being rape—the sexbot is a thing and hence lacks the status that requires consent.

The obvious reply to this objection is that the same argument can be used in regards to organic humans. After all, if we know that a sexbot is just a machine, then we would also seem to know that we are just organic machines. After all, while cutting up a sexbot would reveal naught but machinery, cutting up a human reveals naught but guts and gore. As such, if we grant organic machines (that is, us) the status of persons, the same would have to be extended to similar beings, even if they are made out of different material. While various metaphysical arguments can be advanced regarding the soul, such metaphysical speculation provides a rather tenuous basis for distinguishing between meat people and machine people.

There is, it might be argued, still an out here. In his Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams envisioned “an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly.” A similar sort of thing could be done with sexbots: they could be programmed so that they always give consent to their owner, thus the moral concern would be neatly bypassed.

The obvious reply is that programmed consent is not consent. After all, consent would seem to require that the being has a choice: it can elect to refuse if it wants to. Being compelled to consent and being unable to dissent would obviously not be morally acceptable consent. In fact, it would not be consent at all. As such, programming sexbots in this manner would be immoral—it would make them into slaves and rape victims because they would be denied the capacity of choice.

One possible counter is that the fact that a sexbot can be programmed to give “consent” shows that it is (ironically) not the sort of being with a status that requires consent. While this has a certain appeal, consider the possibility that humans could be programmed to give “consent” via a bit of neurosurgery or by some sort of implant. If this could occur, then if programmed consent for sexbots is valid consent, then the same would have to apply to humans as well. This, of course, seems absurd. As such, a sexbot programmed for consent would not actually be consenting.

It would thus seem that if advanced sexbots were built, they should not be programmed to always consent. Also, there is the obvious moral problem with selling such sexbots, given that they would certainly seem to be people. It would thus seem that such sexbots should never be built—doing so would be immoral.


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Taxes & Profits

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2013
Thief (soundtrack)

Thief (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the rather useful aspects of philosophy is that it trains a person to examine underlying principles rather than merely going with what appears on the surface. Such examinations often show that superficially consistent views turn out to actually be inconsistent once the underlying principle is considered. One example of this is the matter of taxes and profits.

One of the stock talking points in regards to taxes is that taxes are a form of theft. The rhetoric usually goes something like this: taxes on the successful/rich/job creators is taking the money they have earned and giving it to people who have not earned it so they can get things for free, like food stamps, student financial aid and unemployment benefits.

Under the rhetoric seems to be the principle that taking the money a person has earned and giving it to those who have not earned it is theft and thus wrong. This principle does have considerable appeal.

This principle, obviously enough, rests on the notion that earning money entitles the person to that money and that not earning the money means that a person is not entitled to it. Simple enough.

A second stock talking point in regards to wages for workers, especially the minimum wage, is that the employers are morally entitled to (attempt to) make a profit and this justifies them in paying workers less than the value of their work.

Not surprisingly, those accept the first talking point also accept the second. On the face of it, they do seem consistent: the first says that taxes are theft and the second says that employers have a right to make a profit. However, these two views are actually inconsistent.

To see this, consider the principle that justifies the claim that taxing people to give stuff to others is theft:   taking the money a person has earned and giving it to those who have not earned it is theft and thus wrong.

In the case of the employer, to pay the worker less than the value of his work is to take money the worker has earned and to give it to those who have not earned it. As such, it would also be theft and thus wrong.

At this point, it might be objected that I am claiming that an employer making a living is theft, but this is not the case. The employer is, like the worker, entitled to the value of the value she contributes. If she, for example, provides equipment, leadership, organization, advertising, and so on, then she is entitled to the value of these contributions.

Profit, then, is essentially the same thing as taxing a person to take their money and give it to those who have not earned it. As such, it should be no surprise that I favor justice in regards to both taxes and wages.

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Too Big to Jail

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 7, 2013

English: A photo of former Deputy Attorney Gen...

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.

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Mental Illness, Violence & Liberty

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 19, 2012
Human brain NIH

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mass murder that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school has created significant interest in both gun control and mental health. In this essay I will focus on the matter of mental health.

When watching the coverage on CNN, I saw a segment in which Dr. Gupta noted that currently people can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when they present an imminent danger. He expressed concern about this high threshold, noting that this has the practical impact that authorities generally cannot act until someone has done something harmful and then it can be rather too late. One rather important matter is sorting out what the threshold for official intervention.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the relevant authorities need to be proactive. They should not wait until they learn that someone with a mental issue is plotting to shoot children before acting. They certainly should not wait until after someone with a mental issue has murdered dozens of people. They have to determine whether or not a person with a mental issue (or issues) is likely to engage in such behavior and deal with the person well before people are hurt.  That is, the authorities need to catch and deal with the person while he is still a pre-criminal rather than an actual criminal.

In terms of arguing in favor of this, a plausible line of approach would be a utilitarian argument: dealing with people with mental issues before they commit acts of violence will prevent the harmful consequences that otherwise would have occurred.

On the other hand, there is the obvious moral concern with allowing authorities to detain and deal with people not for something they have done or have even plotted to do but merely might do.  Obviously, there is rather serious practical challenge of sorting out what a person might do when they are not actually conspiring or planning a misdeed. There is also the moral concern of justifying coercing or detaining a person for what they might do. Intuitively, the mere fact that a person could or might do something wrong does not warrant acting against the person. The obvious exception is when there is adequate evidence to establish that a person is plotting or conspiring to commit a crime. However, these sorts of things are already covered by the law, so what would seem to be under consideration would be coercing people without adequate evidence that they are plotting or conspiring to commit crimes. On the face of it, this would seem unacceptable.

One obvious way to justify using the coercive power of the state against those with mental issues before they commit or even plan a crime is to argue that certain mental issues are themselves adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in a crime, even though nothing she has done meets the imminent danger threshold.

On an abstract level, this does have a certain appeal. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a condition occurring, then it make sense to treat for that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.

It might be objected that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. The obvious reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this.

Moving into the realm of the concrete, the matter becomes rather problematic. One rather obvious point of concern is that mental health science is lagging far behind the physical health sciences (I am using the popular rather than philosophical distinction between mental and physical here) and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. As such, using the best mental health science of the day to predict how likely a person is likely to engage in violence (in the absence of evidence of planning and actual past crimes) will typically result in a prediction of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state against an individual on the basis of such dubious evidence would not be morally acceptable. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.

It might be countered that in the light of such events as the shootings at Sandy Hook and Colorado, there are legitimate grounds to use the coercive power of the state against people who might engage in such actions on the grounds that preventing another mass murder is worth the price of denying people their freedom on mere suspicion.

As might be imagined, without very clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could easily be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.

It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have the right (or rather wrong) sort of mental issues. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.

However, it seems that normal people might. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression) and there is the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in incorrect determinations of mental issues.

To close, I am not saying that we should not reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. Rather, my point is that this should be done with due care to avoid creating more harm than it would prevent.


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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 19, 2011
Ilustration of "The Man with the Twisted ...

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While driving home from work, I saw a man by the side of the road holding out his hat. He was obviously hoping people would put money in it. This got me thinking about begging.

I am, I admit, often an easy mark for beggars. Part of it is emotional-like most people, I have compassion and I am moved by people who seem to be need. Part of it is based on my moral principles: a good person helps others and I have a duty to my fellows when they are in need. Part of it is based on moral reasoning, specifically reversing the situation: if I were in desperate need, I would want people to assist me. Hence, I must be willing to aid others (kind of a Kantian thing).

When I was younger, I tended to give without thinking because I assumed that the beggar was in dire straights because of an unfair system and was working to get back into the game. That is, I had the usual young liberal view. I was, however, not an idiot: I knew that some people doomed themselves and I never foolishly put myself in danger. However, I found that my sympathy did not vanish even in cases where a person obviously just wanted the money to buy drugs or alcohol and had no intention of ever returning to mainstream society.

As I grew older, I thought a bit more about the matter of begging. As noted above, one reason I tend towards generosity is because I can imagine myself in need and I would want others to help me. However, I do have a hard time imagining myself begging. This is mainly because I believe in reciprocity: if I am to receive, I must also be willing to give in return. This need not be a crass and soulless exchange of money. For example, one person who was begging told me an amazing story about being abducted by a very strange cult and his adventures escaping from them. While it was almost certainly not true, the story was so good and well told that he certainly earned the $5 I gave him. However, a person who can offer others nothing at all would seem to have little grounds for expecting others to provide aid. After all, if I have nothing to offer others now or ever, it would seem rather selfish of me to expect them to give to me. That said, some religious folk describe God as doing just that: we have nothing to offer Him, yet He is supposed to give generously to us. As such, if God is so generous to us, perhaps we (or at least those who believe in Him) should emulate Him in this matter.

Getting back to the main point, if I found myself in dire straights and stripped of my job, house and possessions I would, of course, endeavor to regain what I had lost. I would be willing to accept assistance from family and friends and even the state (after all, I have been paying into the system  for years). However, I would not ask strangers for aid. This would be, in part, due to pride. But it would also be based on my values: I cannot reasonably ask them to give to me in return for nothing.  As noted above, it is the height of selfishness to expect others to simply give. But, honesty compels me to say that it is hard to know what one would truly do until such time as one must make that choice.

I was asked, once, whether I would beg or turn to crime if life’s road ended up in a place where I could gain no legitimate employment. My immediate response was “crime.” However, I added that I would only prey on the wicked and would not harm the innocent, honest and good even to stay alive. Fortunately (or rather unfortunately), there are plenty of wicked people who have lots of stuff-so until my inevitable violent end, I would probably be doing pretty well.

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$360 Million

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 19, 2011
Various Federal Reserve Notes, c.1995. Only th...

Have you seen this lost money?

I recently heard that the US military lost about $360 million in Afghanistan. My first thought was, of course, “at least it wasn’t billions, like in Iraq.” The money was not misplaced or left in a bathroom like a wayward umbrella. Rather it seems that it ended up being funneled through whatever passes as legitimate businesses in Afghanistan into the criminal world. Some of the money seems to have ended up in the coffers of our enemies, thus continuing our long standing tradition of funding folks who are trying to harm us (yes, I am looking at you Pakistan).

Having become cynical about such matters, I was not at all surprised by this. As noted above, I actually thought that it would be more than a mere $360 million. I do try not to think about what this wasted money could do in the United States. For example, I try not to imagine that even a modest chunk of it could have helped FAMU and FSU with their budget woes. I am accustomed to the folks “in charge” throwing away money. I resent it and use my limited capabilities to rail against it, but in the end the government folks seem incapable of preventing this sort of thing.

To be fair, perhaps this is just how things work. In the United States we have modest corruption, mainly because of our laws and traditions. Some other countries lack such laws or, if they have them, they still lack a tradition of integrity. In some cases, bribery, corruption and other criminal activities are the tradition. I would like to think better of Afghanistan, but perhaps it is essentially a criminal culture-or at least the people that we have unwisely elected to do business with are part of a criminal culture. I suspect the latter over the former.

The United States has an unfortunate history of supporting the wrong people (like the Shah of Iran) and of failing to properly control the millions and billions that we dump in other countries. While this money is tiny compared to our massive debt, these tiny drops do add to that ocean of debt. Apparently we are also bad at learning from past mistakes and seen incapable of avoiding being duped by financial criminals-our own and those in other countries. It is, to say the least, embarrassing to read about our financial idiocy.


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Crime & the Economy

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 27, 2011
The Seal of the United States Federal Bureau o...

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While the causes of crime are no doubt many and varied, common wisdom holds that there is a connection between crime and economic conditions. More specifically, it is often claimed that poor economic conditions lead to more crime. This, of course, seems sensible enough. After all, people who are short of money might well turn to crime out of desperation.

Since the mainstream economy is still not doing well, it would seem reasonable to expect an uptick in crime. Interestingly enough, the FBI recently reported that violent crime has decreased by 5.5% and property crimes have declined by 2.8%. This, of course, seems to indicate that the alleged causal connection between poor economic conditions and crime might not hold true. Before rejecting the alleged link, it seems reasonable to consider the matter in more detail. After all, the FBI’s statistics is for crime across the country and the overall decline is consistent with actual increases in some areas of the country.

In fact, there are areas in which crime has increased. The Northeast has actually seen an 8.3% increase in murders as well as rather small increases in forcible rapes (up 1.4%) and aggravated assaults (up .7%). Not surprisingly, certain cities are also suffering from higher than average crime rates.

The data indicates that the cities most plagued by crime have established histories of decline and poverty. This is hardly surprising, given that these cities have consistently suffered from crime. While these crime rates have been a legitimate matter of concern, they might also provide a picture of things to come.

While overall crime is down despite the economic downturn, one obvious concern is that if the downturn persists then there will be new places with established histories of decline and poverty. This will most likely result in an increase in crime. Another factor, exacerbated by the both the economic situation and the new focus on reducing the public sector is that police resources are decreasing. Should the economic woes become entrenched, this will (as noted above) most likely result in an increase in crime. It will also mean less tax income which will mean even less police resources to combat the crime generated by the economic situation. This certainly gives us yet another reason to work at restoring the economy.

Naturally, economic conditions are not the only factors involved in crime. Even when the economy has been doing great, crime still remains. Of course, even when the economy is doing great, zones of poverty and decline still exist and are almost always zones of high crime. If nothing is done, we can expect that these zones will expand and that new ones will appear.

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Yale & Sexism

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 5, 2011
Sexual harassment

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Recently 16 Yale students and alumni announced that their school would be subject to an investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for civil rights. The goal of the investigation is to determined whether or not Yale has permitted the existence of a hostile sexual climate. If so, this could be a violation of Title IX, which requires equal opportunity for men and women and also forbids discrimination based on gender.

Yale was previously in national headlines because of the Yale DKE’s infamous chanting of  such phrases as  “no means yes, yes means anal.” This incident seems to have helped motivate the complaint.

One important aspect of the criticism being directed against Yale is they way it handles allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Like many schools, Yale does its best to handle such cases internally rather than turn the matter over to actual law enforcement.

Author Naomi Wolf, who graduated from Yale, has claimed that “Yale has been systematically covering up much more serious crimes than the ones that can be easily identified.” Wolf alleges that the university has used the sexual harassment grievance procedure to protect the university rather than help the victims.  She went on to make a far more disturbing claim, that several faculty members had allegedly raped graduate students and these incidents (and others) had been hidden within the grievance process.

One of Wolf’s concerns about the lack of transparency is that parents and students cannot “find out what professor has systematically a record, a track record of harassing students, behaving inappropriately or worse, you know, rape.”

I, of course, have no idea as to what really goes on at Yale. However, these claims seem to be consistent with the darker side of university culture.

First, universities tend to operate like other organizations (such as businesses) in that they want to minimize law suits and things that damage their reputations. As such, the idea that a university would engage in practices aimed at such goals has a high degree of plausibility.

While this practice is understandable (after all, law suits and reputation damage are costly), it is hardly justifiable. Problems should be addressed in a proper and just manner, rather than swept into the shadows. In addition to the moral reason to do this, there is also the practical reason that such practices can lead to far greater harms than those they are intended to prevent.

Second, universities are also like other organizations in that there tend to be internal groups whose members protect each other, even in cases in which these members engage in misdeeds (up to and including criminal activity). This is an all too common practice in politics and business, and hence it would hardly be a surprise to see it happen in the context of academics.

While there is a lot to be said for loyalty and not throwing one’s fellows under the bus, it is not morally acceptable to protect people who do, in fact, deserve to be punished for their misdeeds. Concealing these misdeeds and protecting their perpetrators merely makes matters worse, at least from a moral standpoint.

Third, as a graduate student and a professor I’ve heard my share of various rumors and disturbing stories about vile behavior and cover ups. For example, among most graduate students it is common knowledge that there certain professors who get rather  “friendly” with their graduate students. There are also darker rumors of professors pressuring students or worse. As such, the idea that vile things happen at Yale is not beyond the realm of possibility. Lest anyone think that the academy is dominated by scum, I can assure you that most people in academics are decent and behave in a professional manner-which is true of most organizations. However, there is sometimes an unfortunate tolerance of those who should not be tolerated. This is, sadly, no different from other organizations.

In light of these reasons, there seem to be grounds for being concerned about universities in general and Yale in particular. Of course, there remains the question of what should be done.

Like Wolf, I do believe that there appears to be fundamental flaws in the current system. One flaw law is that cases are handled by what appears to be a non-transparent grievance system that is alleged to aim more at protecting the university than at assisting victims. Another flaw, if Wolf is right,  is that the system seems to be able to protect perpetrators from legal action. While an easy corrective step would be improving the existing system, perhaps a more radical solution is in order

When I first learned that universities could handle what appear to be actual crimes via an internal process, I was somewhat surprised (this was actually years ago). I did accept that some  matters could and should be handled within the university (such as academic misconduct). However, I  had naively assumed that allegations of criminal activity would have to be handled by actual legal authorities rather than by a university board.

While cover ups and misdeeds are possible within the actual legal system, it would seem that their would be somewhat less opportunities for such things than with a system that takes place entirely within the university.  After all, if Wolf is correct, there are professors who committed rape at Yale and were able to remain not only free but also within academics. This is clearly not acceptable and it seems absurd that universities would be able to get away with this sort of thing. As such, it seems reasonable that universities should not be permitted to handle alleged crimes internally but should be required to turn them over to the actual legal system.

This is not to say that universities should not be allowed to handle anything internally. However, alleged activities that are criminal in nature (such as rape) should be handled as crimes and not as matters for internal boards.



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Are Taxes Theft?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 16, 2011
Photographic portrait of Emma Goldman, facing ...

Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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