A Philosopher's Blog

Colleges, Rape & Justice

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 23, 2014
Justice

Justice (Photo credit: donsutherland1)

A thoughtful and well-reasoned article on the college rape crisis by Michelle Goldberg was recently published by the Nation. Reading through the article caused me to reflect on the various issues, most especially the matter of the role of colleges in handling sexual assault and rape cases.

When a student is alleged to have assaulted or raped another student, the purported victim can report the matter to the police or bring the matter to the attention of the college (or both). For legal (and moral) reasons, colleges should not ignore such reports and so a college has to take some action.

While colleges vary, it is common practice for colleges to handle allegations of sexual assault and rape internally in a manner rather similar to academic misconduct hearings: a hearing is held with a panel composed of faculty members and administrators. Since the panel is not a court of law, it (presumably) does not have the authority to impose criminal or civil penalties as an actual court could. Rather, the panel typically decides whether or not the accused student should be subject to disciplinary action, with the highest penalty usually being expulsion. As might be imagined, there are some obvious problems with this approach.

The first is a practical problem: while many schools do have their own police forces, faculty and administrators are generally not trained to properly investigate and judge such matters. To use myself as an example, while I can teach classes, serve on committees and so on, the skills needed to conduct a detailed and proper forensic investigation of an alleged assault/rape is not in my professional toolkit. I am a philosophy professor, not a detective or CSI professional. I would, if I was assigned to such a panel, do my best—just as a detective somehow assigned to teach my class would presumably do her best.

There seem to be two main solutions to this problem. One, which seems the most sensible, would be for colleges to cede authority over these crimes to the actual legal system. That is, the role of the college would be to assist the purported victim in reporting the alleged crime to the police. Naturally, the college can also have an important role in providing support to the purported victim. There is, however, the concern that such crimes are not always properly addressed by the authorities.

The other would be for the college to ensure that those handling the incidents would be properly trained professionals. This could be done by hiring such professionals or by training existing faculty and administrators in how to handle such cases. This would run into the practical concern regarding cost (schools would, in effect, have to support their own “CSI” staff and detectives).

The second is also a practical problem with a moral component. A college has a vested interest in protecting its reputation and protecting itself legally and financially. In a practical sense, this leads to a conflict of interest that can influence the rulings of a panel. In a moral sense, this can lead to justice not being done in regards to finding the truth and ensuring that wrongdoers are punished and the innocents are not.

As before, there seem to be two solutions to the problem. One is to remove the handling of such cases from colleges. The other is to take steps to ensure that such internal panels act for the sake of justice rather than trying to protect the reputation of the college. I would say that the former option is the better choice.

The third is a moral problem with two aspects. One aspect is that purported victims sometimes report that a college’s handling of the situation is yet another violation—a traumatic and harmful experience rather than a professionally conducted act of justice. Obviously enough, subjecting someone to such an awful experience is morally incorrect. The second aspect is that alleged perpetrators sometimes report that the college’s handling of the situation is a kangaroo court devoid of due process. If such charges are true, they would certainly be cases of wrongdoing.

Once again, there would seem to be two solutions. One is to have such cases handled by the actual legal system. There is, however, the problem that it is not uncommon for purported victims to report poor handling of such cases—which is yet another matter of moral concern and a very serious problem. Some have even argued that colleges should continue to handle such cases because the actual legal system has failed the purported victims so badly. That is, colleges might be bad at this, but they are sometimes better than the legal system. This certainly points to a clear need to address the legal system—there is little sense in handing off the handling of such cases to a system that is no better.

The second is to rework the college system to try to ensure that the purported victims are treated with proper respect while also ensuring that the alleged perpetrators are given a fair hearing in accord with due process. This, needless to say, would prove challenging—but it is a challenge that must be met if colleges are to continue in this role. If the legal system is doing a poor job, then it would be even more important for colleges to revamp their systems.

The third problem is also a moral problem with legal aspects as well. As many critics of the current system have noted, there is the moral and legal concern with the basis for the college’s authority to handle such cases. As the usual example goes, colleges do not handle cases in which a student murders another student—that is a matter for the police. By analogy, the same should apply to sexual assault and rape—those are actual crimes. While a college does have academic authority over students as well as a degree of disciplinary authority, a college would certainly seem to lack the legal and moral sovereignty needed to claim authority over serious crimes (even if it had the resource and competence to run its own legal system). As such, it would seem that a college would overreach its authority in attempting to handle criminal cases such as sexual assault and rape. That said, there can still be a legitimate role for colleges to play in such matters.

While a college certainly should not have the authority to impose criminal (or even civil) punishments on students (that is, a college should not be able to maintain jails or conduct executions), a college does have some legitimate authority over students. To be specific, a college has a (hopefully) clearly defined sphere of authority based on the agreement between the student and the institution, as spelled out in the rules and policies of the college. The college does also have the legitimate authority to impose certain penalties within a fairly limited sphere. The outer limit of these penalties is, of course, expulsion from the university.

Such authority is intended to allow colleges to have some degree of control over student behavior—after all, without the capacity to punish, authority does not amount to much. There is also presumably the purpose of maintaining a safe and non-threatening learning environment. This is what justifies punishing students who disrupt this environment. In some cases, maintaining this environment can require expelling students.

Because of this legitimate function, a college can justly claim the right to hold a hearing for a student accused of sexual assault or rape. However, this should not be in place of a criminal trial. Rather, it should be in addition to the criminal trial. The purpose of the college hearing would be to determine whether the alleged perpetrator should be, in addition to whatever punishment imposed by the legal system, subject to discipline by the college.

While it might be tempting to insist that an alleged perpetrator who is found innocent by a court of law should also be exempt from college discipline, it must be remembered that the requirements of a criminal court are supposed to be very rigorous, with an assumption of innocence and a standard of proof set at beyond a reasonable doubt.

It can be argued that the standard of proof for a college disciplinary hearing should be lower than that of a criminal court (as civil courts have a lower standard of proof). After all, the standard should be higher when a person might spend years in jail as opposed to being disciplined by a college. For example, an incident might be such that it seems reasonable to believe that something wrong occurred, yet the evidence is simply not enough to establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In such a case, an alleged perpetrator might avoid jail yet perhaps be justly expelled from college.

If this view is accepted, then there are the practical and moral problems of determining the standards of evidence and the appropriate punishments. At this time, many colleges accept a very weak standard—that of “more likely than not.” That is, if the panel members (who are, as noted above, usually not trained in such matters) believe that it is more likely that the alleged perpetrator committed the misdeed than did not, then the person is guilty. As might be imagined, some critics of this standard regard it as far too weak and in stark contrast with the usual principle that it is better for the guilty to go unpunished than for the innocent to be unjustly punished.

In regards to the punishments, there is also considerable controversy. It could be argued that even the worst punishment that a college can offer (most likely expulsion) would still not be enough. While this might be true, it would not be a good reason to grant colleges more power to punish—after all, if the punishments were sufficiently severe, then the standards would need to be equally high. It can also be contended that some punishments, such as expulsion, would be too harsh given the weak standard.

It must be noted that sorting out the standard and the punishments is distinct from the issue of whether or not a college has legitimate authority to discipline students accused of sexual assault or rape. I certainly hold that a college has the authority to impose disciplinary action even on a student found not guilty by a criminal court—much as a civil court can impose a penalty on someone found not guilty by a criminal court. However, I have not given sufficient thought to the standard to be used and the punishments that would be just. It might be the case that the punishment should be linked to the standard—that is, the weaker the standard, the weaker the punishment.

It can also be argued that there is behavior that is not covered by the law but can be justly covered by a college’s policies. For example, cheating on tests is usually not a criminal offense, but it does provide grounds for discipline in a college setting. Likewise, some sexual or sex-related behavior might not be considered criminal, yet still be legitimately regarded as problematic enough to warrant discipline from a college. That is, the behavior is perhaps not technically illegal, but not tolerable behavior for a student. To use an analogy, some colleges have dress-codes that forbid attire that would not violate the usual laws relating to public indecency.

To close, my considered position is that colleges should obviously not be handling criminal cases—these should be turned over to the police and the actual legal system. However, colleges can legitimately hold hearings on allegations of sexual assault or rape and subject students to disciplinary action up to and including expulsion. There are, however, important practical and moral considerations that must be addressed and these include:

 

  • Ensuring the competence and impartiality of the college panel members conducting the investigation and hearing.
  • Ensuring that the standard of proof adopted (such as “more likely than not”) is just.
  • Ensuring that the punishments are just.
  • Ensuring that the applications of the standards and punishments are just.
  • Ensuring that both the alleged perpetrator and purported victim are treated with respect and get due process.

 

If these considerations can be properly addressed, then such a system can be legitimately regarded as just—at least within the specific context.

 

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Justice, or Lack Thereof

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 12, 2010

Charles Ferguson’s recent My Turn article in Newsweek reveals an unfortunate truth about justice in America: the large corporations seem to enjoy an immunity to it.

As he points out, this immunity does not come cheaply-the companies spend at a rate of up to 100 to 1 when defending themselves against charges. While this spending could be seen as part of the “punishment” for such misdeeds, the money seems to be well spent in terms of what the corporations are able to avoid. Companies, I suspect, see this as a business expense-merely a cost of doing business as they wish.

However, this should not be the case. Justice should not be a question of one’s ability to simply buy a defense. Rather, justice should be a matter of punishing misdeeds in a fair manner. That is, at least in theory, what justice is supposed to be about.

Of course, companies generally do not get away completely. As Ferguson points out, while there is little (if anything) in regards to criminal prosecution, companies are sometimes compelled to pay fines.

However, there seem to be two serious problems with the way the fines work. The first is that the fines are generally tiny compared to the gains acquired from the fined misdeeds. As such, the fines fail here on two grounds in regards to just punishment. One failing is that the fines are not proportional to the offense in that they are not severe enough. The other failing is that there relatively small size means that they have little or no deterrent value. After all, if a company can make a huge profit and only have to pay a tiny fine, there is little practical reason to not engage in such activities. After all, it makes little sense to stop doing something when the profits far exceed the cost.

The second problem is that the laws are applied inconsistently. When individual commit the same crimes as a corporation, the individuals are typically subject to criminal prosecution. In Ferguson’s example, an American citizen received a sentence of 2.5 years for the same sort of crime that resulted only in fines for corporations. Interestingly, the corporations did not admit to any wrongdoing-nor were they apparently required to do so.

They paying of minor fines seems, if Ferguson is correct, to be the only punishment that corporations receive when they commit fraud, assist in tax evasion, bribe, and engage in money laundering.  This sort of inconsistency in punishment is clearly unfair and unjust.

It might be replied that corporations do pay large fines-sometimes in the millions of dollars. However, the seriousness of a fine is relative to the wealth of the corporation and to the profit it made while engaging in the activity that resulted in the fine. Also, a fine seems to be less serious that jail time (but this can be debated).

Interestingly, while Obama has been accused of being anti-business and a socialist, corporations are still enjoying their own special justice. Despite tough words from Obama and Holder, no one has been charged with any crimes for their roles in the financial disaster and the most that has been done is that a few fines have been levied.

Of course, the pattern of small fines is also continuing. Obviously enough, if the corporate folks need not fear criminal prosecution and know that the fines will be tiny compared to their profits, then they have no prudential reason to change their behavior. This explains why they have not done so and why they next disaster is merely a matter of time.

Ferguson concludes by suggesting that the government use the same methods in pursuing financial crime as it does against traditional organized crime. Given that some corporations seem to actually be organized crime, this seems like an excellent idea.

Of course, the politicians are often beholden to the corporations for the money they need to get elected, so it seems unlikely that any positive action will be taken. Obama might style himself a reformer, but he is no Teddy Roosevelt.

Of course, people do not make it easy for those who would bring justice to the companies. After all, the folks who serve these companies are clever enough to make any attempt to rein in misdeeds as a threat to American values and a danger to the economy. It must be a wonderful thing to be so well protected from justice by the illusion of virtue.

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Human

Posted in Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on August 2, 2010
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Sharon Begley recently wrote an interesting article, “What’s Really Human?” In this piece, she presents her concern that American psychologists have been making hasty generalizations over the years. To be more specific, she is concerned that such researchers have been extending the results gleaned from studies of undergraduates at American universities to the entire human race. For example, findings about what college students think about self image are extended to all of humanity.

She notes that some researchers have begun to question this approach and have contended that American undergraduates are not adequate representatives of the entire human race in terms of psychology.

In one example, she considers the optical illusion involving two line segments. Although the segments have the same length, one has arrows  on the ends pointing outward and the other has the arrows pointing inward. To most American undergraduates, the one with the inward pointing arrows looks longer.  But when the San of the Kalahari, African hunter-gatherers, look at the lines, they judge them to be the same length. This is taken to reflect the differing conditions.

This result is, of course, hardly surprising. After all, people who live in different conditions will tend to have different perceptual skill sets.

Begley’s second example involves the “ultimatum game” that is typical of the tests that are intended to reveal truths about human nature via games played with money. The gist of the game is that there are two players, A and B. In this game, the experimenter gives player A $10. A then must decide how much to offer B. If B accepts the deal, they both get the money. If B rejects the deal, both leave empty handed.

When undergraduates in the States play, player A will typically offer $4-5 while those playing B will most often refuse anything below $3. This is taken as evidence that humans have evolved a sense of justice that leads us to make fair offers and also to punish unfair ones-even when doing so means a loss. According to the theorists, humans do this because we evolved in small tribal societies and social cohesion and preventing freeloaders (or free riders as they are sometimes called) from getting away with their freeloading.

As Begley points out, when “people from small, nonindustrial societies, such as the Hadza foragers of Tanzania, offer about $2.50 to the other player—who accepts it. A “universal” sense of fairness and willingness to punish injustice may instead be a vestige of living in WEIRD, market economies.”

While this does provide some evidence for Begley’s view, it does seem rather weak. The difference between the Americans and the Hadza does not seem to be one of kind (that is, Americans are motived by fairness and the Hadza are not). Rather, it seems plausible to see this is terms of quantity. After all, Americans refuse anything below $3 while the Hazda’s refusal level seems to be only 50 cents less. This difference could be explained in terms not of culture but of relative affluence. After all, to a typical American undergrad, it is no big deal to forgo $3. However, someone who has far less (as is probably the case with the Hazda) would probably be willing to settle for less. To use an analogy, imagine playing a comparable game using food instead of money. If I had recently eaten and knew I had a meal waiting at home, I would be more inclined to punish a small offer than accept it. After all, I have nothing to lose by doing so and would gain the satisfaction of denying my “opponent” her prize. However, if we were both very hungry and I knew that my cupboards were bare, then I would be much more inclined to accept a smaller offer on the principle that some food is better than none.

Naturally, cultural factors could also play a role in determining what is fair or not. After all, if A is given the money, B might regard this as A’s property and that A is being generous in sharing anything. This would show that culture is a factor, but this is hardly a shock. The idea of a universal human nature is quite consistent with it being modified by specific conditions. After all, individual behavior is modified by such conditions. To use an obvious example, my level of generosity depends on the specifics of the situation such as the who, why, when and so on.

There is also the broader question of whether such money games actually reveal truths about justice and fairness. This topic goes beyond the scope of this brief essay, however.

Begley finishes her article by noting that “the list of universals-that-aren’t kept growing.” That is, allegedly universal ways of thinking and behaving have been found to not be so universal after all.

This shows that contemporary psychology is discovering what Herodotus noted thousands of years ago, namely that “custom is king” and what the Sophists argued for, namely relativism. Later thinkers, such as Locke and other empiricists, were also critical of the idea of universal (specifically innate) ideas. In contrast, thinkers such as Descartes and Leibniz argued for the idea of universal (specifically innate) ideas.

I am not claiming that these thinkers are right (or wrong), but it certainly interesting to see that these alleged “new discoveries” are actually very, very old news. What seems to be happening in this cutting edge psychology is a return to the rationalist and empiricist battles over the innate content of the mind (or lack thereof).

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Ring of Gyges: A Case for Injustice

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2009

It is my position that the life of injustice is preferable to the life of justice. In support of this claim I will show that the material goods are what truly matter in life and that injustice provides the best means of reaching said goods.

In his work Utilitarianism[i] J.S. Mill presents the well-known argument that the way to prove that something is desirable is to show that people desire it. If Mill is correct, then it should follow that a way to prove that something is preferable is to show that people prefer it.  It is my contention that people prefer material goods and that they are thus preferable.

In support of my claim I offer the following support. First, if you ask people what they want, the most common answers, at least in my experience, involve material things-money, jobs, power, cars and so on. Of course, this is based on my experience, which might be unusual. Hence, there is a need for a broader base of evidence. This brings me to a second category of evidence-the media.

A quick glance at the leading magazines of today clearly shows what people prefer. Business magazines, such as Business Week, extort the value of wealth and success in business. Celebrity magazines, such as People glory in the fame and wealth of the stars. Turning to television, channels such as VH1 and MTV show the houses, cars, fame and wealth of celebrities and, of course, these things are all held up as being of great value. Many of the music videos, a defining art form of the 21st century, present the glory of wealth, fame and power. Given that art tends to reflect the values of a culture, it seems evident that wealth, fame and power are valued and preferred in this culture. If additional evidence is needed, a survey of the rest of the media will reveal that the general glorification of wealth, success and material goods is common. Thus it may be safely concluded that the media provides ample evidence that material success is preferable.

Third, there is the fact that many people pursue material goods at the expense of non-material goods. For example, people are willing to engage in degrading activities for material gain or fame. Reality television shows such as Fear Factor, Flavor of Love, the various versions of Survivor and similar shows make this quite evident. Magazines such as Maxim, Playboy, Playgirl, Penthouse and Hustler also make it clear that people are willing to engage in degrading behavior for the sake of money and fame. As another example, people are willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health in order to acquire money. In Japan, for example, people have been known to work themselves to death. In the United States, people are willing to work long hours and focus on their careers at the expense of their personal relationships in order to achieve material success. As a final example, people are quite willing to engage in immoral behavior for material success. People lie, cheat, steal and murder in order to gain material goods. Dictators throughout history ranging from Caesar through Hussein have been willing to employ the most terrible methods to secure their material power. These facts indicate that people greatly value material goods and, given the above argument, it would follow that these goods are preferable.

Fourth, people are willing to risk punishment in order to acquire material goods. Prisons are full of people, ranging from former corporate officers to petty thieves, who committed crimes in the attempt to make material gains or in search of material pleasures. Given that people will risk terrible punishments in order to gain material goods, it seems reasonable to believe that these goods are preferable.

Overall, given the arguments presented above, it seems eminently reasonable to accept that material goods are what people prefer and hence are preferable. What remains is showing how being unjust enables one to better acquire such goods.

Consider, if you will, two people who are each starting their own software companies. One, Bad Bill is unjust. The other, Sweet Polly is just. Now, imagine a situation in which both Bill and Polly stumble across a lost CD at a technology expo. This CD, of course, contains key trade secrets of another competing company. Polly will, of course, return the CD to the rightful owners and will not look at any of the details- the information does not belong to her. Bill will, of course, examine the secrets and thus gain an edge on the competition. This will increase his immediate chance of success over the competition.

Now imagine what will happen if Sweet Polly continues along the path of justice.  She will never take unfair advantage of her competition, she will never exploit unjust loopholes in the tax laws, and she will never put people out of work just to gain a boost to the value of her company’s stock. She will always offer the best products she can provide at a fair price.

In direct contrast, if Bad Bill follows his path of injustice, he will use every advantage he can gain to defeat his competition and maximize his profits. He will gladly exploit any tax loophole in order to minimize his expenses. He will put people out of work in order to boost the value of the company stock. His main concern will be getting as much as possible for his products and he will make them only good enough that they can be sold.

Given these approaches and the history of business in America, it is most likely that Sweet Polly’s company will fail. The best she can hope for is being a very, very small fish in a vast corporate ocean. In stark contrast, Bad Bill’s company will swell with profits and grow to be a dominant corporation.

In the real world, Bad Bill’s unjust approach could lead him to a bad end.  However, even in reality the chance is rather slight and, given Glaucon’s conditions, it must be assumed that Bill is never caught and never punished. In the real world, Polly’s chances of success would be rather low, this showing that her choice is a poor one-even in reality. Adding in Glaucon’s conditions, she would have nothing but her justice and her poor, pathetic life. Given these conditions, it should be clear that Bill’s choice for injustice is preferable to Polly’s choice.

Naturally, more than a story is needed to make the general point that injustice is superior to justice. Fortunately a more formal argument can be provided.

The advantages of injustice are numerous but can be bundled into one general package: flexibility. Being unjust, the unjust person is not limited by the constraints of morality. If she needs to lie to gain an advantage, she can lie freely. If a bribe would serve her purpose, she can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then she can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, the unjust person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the unjust person has a considerable advantage over those who accept moral limits on their behavior.

It might be objected that the unjust person does face one major limit-she cannot act justly. While she cannot be truly just, she can, when the need arises, act justly-or at least appear to be acting justly. For example, if building an orphanage in Malaysia would serve her purpose better than exploiting those orphans in her sweat shop, then she would be free to build the orphanage. This broader range of options gives her clear edge-she can do everything the just person can do and much more. Best of all, none of her misdeeds can ever lead her into trouble. As per Glaucon’s conditions, she can never be caught or exposed. With her advantage she can easily get the material goods she craves-after all, she can do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Turning to the real world, an examination of successful business people and other professionals (such as politicians) shows that being unjust is all but essential to being a success. For example, it is no coincidence that Microsoft is not only the top software company but also rightly regarded as being one of the most unjust. Now I turn to the just person.

If a person, such as Polly, is just then she must accept the limits of justice. To be specific, insofar as she is acting justly she must not engage in unjust acts. Taking an intuitive view of injustice, unjust acts would involve making use of unfair tactics such as lying, deception, bribes, threats and other such methods. Naturally, being just involves more than just not being unjust. After all, being just is like being healthy. Just as health is more than the absence of illness, being just is more than simply not being unjust. The just person would engage in positive behavior in accord with her justice-telling the truth, doing just deeds and so forth. So, the just person faces two major impediments. First, she cannot avail herself of the tools of injustice. This cuts down on her options and thus would limit her chances of material success. Second, she will be expending effort and resources in being just. These efforts and resources could be used instead to acquire material goods. To use an analogy, if success is like a race, then the just person is like someone who will stop or slow down during the race and help others. Obviously a runner who did this would be at a competitive disadvantage and so it follows that the just person would be at a disadvantage in the race of life.

The situation becomes extremely dire when Glaucon’s conditions are taken into account. In Glaucon’s scenario, the just person has no chance of material success and cannot even enjoy the reputation of being just. In light of these conditions, the just life would be a foolish choice indeed.

In light of the above arguments it is evident that the life of injustice is the preferable life.


[i] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (London, 1863)

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Summary of Plato’s Ring of Gyges

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 29, 2009
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The “Ring of Gyges” begins with a challenge put forth by Glaucon-he wants Socrates to defend the just life and he wants the defense to show that justice is intrinsically preferable to injustice. For the sake of the argument, Glaucon proposes to present a defense of injustice.

Glaucon begins by asserting that people find it desirable or good to inflict wrongdoings on others but these wrongdoers regarded being on the receiving end of misdeeds as undesirable. When people have been on both ends of misdeeds (giving and receiving), they quickly realize that the pains of being a victim far outweigh the benefits of being the victimizer. To avoid being victims, people come together and forge agreements and dub these agreements with the name “justice.”

Glaucon makes it clear that people do not enter into the agreement that gives rise to justice willingly and that this situation is not regarded as the best. He regards justice as a compromise between what is most desirable to the individual (doing misdeeds with impunity) and what is the most undesirable for the individual (being a hapless victim). He further concludes that people accept justice because they are weak and that a person with the power to successfully carry out misdeeds would be a fool not to do so.

In support of his claims that no one is willingly a follower of justice and that anyone who was free to be unjust would be unjust Glaucon tells the tale of the ring of Gyges. In this tale the shepherd Gyges finds a magical ring of invisibility within a strange bronze horse that has been exposed by an earthquake. Using the power of the ring, he seduces the queen and, with her help, murders the king and takes control of the realm.

Given his tale, Glaucon concludes that if identical rings were given to a just man and an unjust man, then both men would act unjustly. This proves, to his satisfaction, that people act justly only under compulsion. By nature, he claims, all living beings desire more than what they are actually due. Despite this, he does consider the possibility that someone might decline to use the ring to perform misdeeds. While such a person would be praised to her face, she would be regarded as a great fool for not using the power in her possession.

Glaucon finishes his case by presenting the details of his challenge. In this challenge the perfectly unjust man is to be squared off against the just man. The unjust man must be the very pinnacle of injustice and must have all that he needs to be unjust and carry out his misdeeds effectively and secretly. To this end he is, for the sake of the argument, given great skill in the use of both persuasion and force and is equipped with various virtues such as bravery and strength. He is further to be blessed with wealth, companions, and an unblemished (though false) reputation for justice. In short, though he is truly a master of injustice he is regarded by all as a just man.

In stark contrast, the just man, while truly just, is stripped of everything but his justice and his life. He is burdened with a reputation for being unjust, despite his true nobility. After all, as Glaucon points out, the just man must be properly tested to see whether he acts justly for the sake of justice or merely for the sake of the reputation and all that goes with it.

Given this setup, it must be determined which man is happier-the just man or the unjust man.

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You Can’t Tax Me, I’m the Rangelman!

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 20, 2009
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One interesting story that you will most likely not hear is the tale of Charlie Rangel. While his actions are clearly worthy of the attention of the news media, such attention seems to be sorely lacking.

Charles Rangel is a major player in the House. While he was first elected in 1971, he only recently
became the  chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.  Interestingly, he certainly seems to have a way with money and a means to avoid paying taxes on it.

It has been claimed that his 2007 financial disclosure report failed to report significant assets. These include a credit union account alleged to be worth between $250,000 and $500,000, an investment account, and three properties in New Jersey. To top that off, it is also claimed that he has not disclosed over $1 million in assets, even though he is required to do so.

One story that did make the news (albeit briefly) was that Rangel failed to report and pay taxes on a Caribbean villa. The IRS did take him to task and he was forced to pay the back taxes (about $10,000), but he was not subject to any other penalty.

While the House Ethics Committee has investigated his activities, nothing has been done and the Democrats seem disinclined to take any action. The Republicans have tried to take action against him, but they lack the votes to do anything.

Those with good memories will recall that Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was convicted of lying on his disclosure forms. While his conviction was (conveniently enough) thrown out, his actions effectively ended his career.

From a moral standpoint, what happened to Ted Stevens should also happen to Rangel (assuming that the allegations are true, of course). After all, the same rules must (on the pain of legal and moral inconsistency) apply to all. To let Rangel get away with the same deeds that Stevens was called to task for is grossly unjust. Also, consider what would happen to a normal citizen who engaged in comparable behavior. They would face serious consequences if they did what Rangel was alleged to have done.

If Rangel is guilty of what he is accused of doing and the Democrats do nothing, then they make it clear that they are not concerned about ethics or professionalism. While we have (sadly enough) come to expect little from our elected “leaders”, it is far past the time when we should hold them to the standards that they should meet. The matter of Rangel must be investigated and, if he is guilty, he must be brought to justice. Anything less is an insult to the rule of law and professional ethics.

We were promised that it would not be politics as usual. Yet, as always, it is.  So, I have little faith that justice will be served.

It is also interesting to note that Rangel has received little news coverage. While there have been some major stories to take up the news time, I did noticed that CNN did a lengthy segment on 9/18/2009 about the dad who caught the foul ball and gave it to his daughter (who then threw it). This was a internet hit, true, but I think that if CNN can spare time for this, then they can report in more detail on what sort of misdeeds might be going on in regards to Rangel and others.

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Obama & America’s Moral Struggle

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 29, 2008

Obama accepted the nomination as the Democratic candidate for President yesterday. Yesterday was also the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

In this classic speech, Dr. King presented a clear and profound moral argument for justice and equality. Brilliantly, he based his moral argument on the very ethical principles that the United States is supposed to be founded upon. In short, he showed that the United States had failed to live up to these professed principles and was obligated to make good on its promises of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness and equality.

Obama has shown, as many have said, how far America has come. In a land where slavery was once legal and racism generally accepted, Obama is now a strong candidate for the Whitehouse. John McCain, in a show of what I suspect is his true character, congratulated Obama on his historical accomplishment. Yesterday was, in many ways, a fine day for America.

As Americans, we have often been accused of moral arrogance and hypocrisy. Sometimes this charge sticks. There are many things in our past that we should look upon with shame. But we, as a people, have done great and good things. While our misdeeds mark us, it is my profound hope that our better natures are our true natures and that we will continue to strive to live up to our ideals.

This is, as the slogans say, a time for hope. While America has wandered off the moral road, the road is still there. We can still see it and it is but a matter of will to walk that road once more.

While Mao Tse-Tung said that  “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”, there is an older school of thought that true power is based on moral force. Yes, guns can kill. But guns require people to make and use them and people are guided by their values. Thus, morality is greater than guns.

I think we have learned that unjustified force, torture and wrongdoing are things that we should not have done. While our power as a nation is grounded on our economic and military might, that might is grounded on who we are as a people. Our true strength lies in our struggle to be good. That is a struggle we can win and everyone else can win along with us.

TSA Witch…I mean Watch List

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 21, 2008

One way to get on the TSA watch list is to be a suspected terrorist. Another way is to be critical of the TSA. For example, Drew Griffin (a CNN reporter) ended up on the TSA watch list shortly after he did a piece critical of the TSA. Physicist Thomas B. Cochran was also put on the watch list. In 2002 he helped ABC news expose the fact that the nuclear material screening system in use in American ports could easily be defeated. Congressman John Lewis is also on the watch list, but it is unclear why. There are also other people on the list who no doubt should not be on it. Interestingly, Nelson Mandela was recently removed from a terrorist watch list.

Watch lists of this sort do have a legitimate function. After all, it is the duty of a government to protect its citizens and such lists provide a minor tool in achieving this end. While I do recognize their usefulness, I tend to dislike the keeping of such lists. They seem to smell a bit of tyranny.

Naturally enough, a list intended to aid in the defense against terrorists should only contain the names of people who are terrorists or are likely to play a role in terrorism. Obviously, people like Griffin, Lewis and Cochran are not terrorists and should not be on that list.

The reason why Griffin and Cochran made the list seems rather obvious: they were critical of the TSA and revealed truths unpleasant to those in charge of the list. This sort of treatment of critics has been standard practice throughout history. For example, Socrates was placed on trial partially because he exposed the failings of the powerful. However, as Socrates argued, the state should be grateful for such critics because they perform a valuable service. If the goal of the TSA is to protect Americans, they should be grateful when someone assists them in exposing weaknesses and thus enables them to make America safer. Of course, if their main concern is not for the safety of the people but for something else, then such actions would be regarded with hostility.

it might be replied that people such as Cochran and Griffin are actually a threat to America. After all, the exposure of weaknesses in America’s security could be viewed as rendering possible aid to the enemies of America. Such information could be used by terrorists in planning and implementing an attack. For example, the weakness exposed by Cochran and ABC could be used to smuggle in material to make a radioactive weapon of some sort.

This reply does have some appeal. After all, revealing a vulnerability can be seen as a betrayal. For example, the Persians were able to outflank the Spartans by learning of the location of a secret pass. Perhaps what Cochran and Griffin did could be seen as analogous to revealing a pass to America’s enemies.

However, the analogy does break down. Griffin and Cochran were not acting to betray America to her enemies. Rather, they seemed to be acting with the intent of exposing a vulnerability so that it could be corrected. In the case of Cochran, his intent has been made quite clear in a recent article in Scientific American. In this article he argues that the United States should adopt methods that will actual help protect America from nuclear smuggling. This is hardly the sort of thing an enemy of America would do.

Putting such critics on the watch list is clearly morally wrong. First, they are being punished for attempting to expose flaws in security that need to be corrected. If these defects remained unknown, then they would probably remain until a terrorist or other wrongdoer found them and used them to do real harm. Second, taking such action against people who are critical goes against the basic principles of an open democracy. Third, such action can serve to deter the criticism that is so essential to exposing and correcting problems. This could have serious and unfortunate consequences. Fourth, the use of this method to try to punish critics is, as Locke would argue, an act of tyranny. Fifth, putting such people on the list can waste time and resources that could be better spent on people who really should be on such a list.

In light of the misuse of the list, there needs to be greater oversight in regards to who is on the list and why. Failure to do so would be to further a moral wrong and also put America at greater risk.

Gender, Education and Income

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on March 13, 2008

While reading the March 17, 2008 issue of Newsweek I came across a reference to an interesting fact: 21-30 year old women in certain cities make more than men in the same age range.

Interested, I did some further research and confirmed this. One concise source is the New York Times article from August, 2007.

Based on the findings of demographer Andrew A. Beveridge, women made 117% percent of men’s wages in New York City and in Dallas it was 120%. However, the national average in that age range is 89%.

The main explanation given for this is that there are more women than men in and graduating from college now and, as is often the case, many educated young people go to major cities.

Not surprisingly, many women are very positive about this change. In the past, more men than women graduated from college and men consistently made more than women.

Women compose 51% of the population. But, women make up 58% of the student body and 61% of the graduates of American community colleges. In 2002, for every 100 men who received a bachelor’s degree there were 133 women. In the same year, for every 100 men who received a master’s degree there were 138 women. Men, however, still outnumber women in the number of doctorates received.

The situation is even more extreme for minorities. For every 100 African American males earning a bachelor’s degree there are 192 African American women. The proportions are roughly the same for Hispanics and Native Americans.

What is somewhat disturbing is that little concern seems to be expressed about the growing disparity between men and women in education and the resulting disparity in wages.

Given the past and present concern with bringing women’s education and income on par with men, moral consistency would seem to require that the same concern be exercised when the balance tips in favor of women. After all, if the guiding principle is fairness, then what is fair for women would have to also be fair for men. Thus, serious steps should be taken to study and correct this growing imbalance.

One obvious reply to my view is that women do not yet have a general parity with men. While women enjoy a positive income disparity in certain cities, they suffer from a negative disparity in general. As such,no action should be taken to address the inequality that is in the favor of women.

This is a reasonable reply. But, the underlying cause of the inequality in the specific cases must be considered. If, as suggested, the cause is due to a disparity in education, then it is likely that the situation in New York will be repeated elsewhere in America and perhaps, as time goes by, women will make more than men because of this.

Helping myself to the argument put forth by feminists in the past, I contend that this disparity in education should be addressed now. After all, if it was unjust and unfair when women were a minority in higher education, then it follows that it is unjust and unfair when men are a minority.

It might be replied that this disparity is fair because men have had such a long time to enjoy their advantageous disparity. I have two replies to this.

First, what is unjust is unjust. What is unfair is unfair. Hence, this fact is not morally relevant to the status of todays disparities. Committing injustice because of past injustice just continues the injustice.

Second, the women who are benefiting and the men who are suffering from this disparity are not the men and women who benefited and suffered from the previous disparity. To justify the current disparity in this manner would be like fining a person because someone who looked like him committed a theft and then giving this money to someone who was not harmed simply because she happened to look like the actual victim.

Some might respond to this by claiming that since women as a group were harmed in the past by men as group the women of today have the right to enjoy a new disparity to balance out the “gender books.” Presumably, when the group injustices have been set right, then equality will be established. If it was not, then new gender inequality would start piling up and things would have to be reversed again and again thus creating an ongoing cycle of injustice.

I don’t buy into the notion of gender groups in this sense. There seems to be no rational basis for this sort of metaphysical claim of a group entity that can be harmed and benefited as a collective as opposed to individuals being harmed or benefited. From an objective logical standpoint, the burden of proof is on those who claim there are such entities. In fact, going from individual harms and benefits to collective harms and benefits in this manner would seem to involved committing the fallacy of composition. But, being a philosopher and a metaphysician, I am open to the possibility of strange metaphysical entities. Obviously, I am aware that individuals can be collected into groups for statistical purposes-but this is quite different from gender groups that can somehow sustain harms and benefits in this manner.

It can be argued that the fact that women now outnumber men in higher education is not unfair. After all, a disparity need not indicate injustice.  The disparity between men and women might not be based on unfairness (such as special scholarships for women, etc.) but might be the result of the actions of individuals. If women are more serious about their education and this is why more women than men are in college, then this is not injustice. To use an analogy, the fact that more disciplined people run than non-disciplined people is not a sign of an athletic injustice even though a disparity exists between the numbers. This is because the difference is not due to an unfair attempt to limit one group. So, if more women than men are choosing to go to school and gender based factors are not involved in unfair ways, then there would be no reason to take special action to correct the injustice of the disparity-because there would be no injustice.

What must be determined is whether or not the disparity is a matter of choice or whether the disparity is caused (perhaps only partially) by gender based factors. Interestingly enough, when women make less money and when there were fewer women in college it is and was often assumed that gender based factors were the causes.  Even today, people make claims that when a man succeeds it is because he is a man. The most famous recent example is that of Obama. As noted in an earlier blog, Ferraro claimed that his success was due to his being a black man.

Perhaps it is the case than when a disparity favors men, then it is due to gender based factors. But the same sort of principle would seem to apply when the disparity favors women. If it is to be argued than women are justly entitled to advantageous disparities, then the same sort of consideration must be applied when men have the advantageous disparity. If the women who go to college and make more than comparable men earned that disparity, then perhaps men who do better than comparable women earned that as well. We should not uncritically assume sexism when men do well.

My view obviously is that education and success should be based on merit-people should get what they rightfully earn. Gender should not be a factor because it is not relevant in this regard. Capable women and men should be able to achieve everything their efforts can bring them in terms of education and success. Anything else would be unfair and unjust.

Puppy Video

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 7, 2008

The video that purports to show a US Marine killing a puppy has created quite a stir.

Obviously, killing puppies is wrong. I don’t even see a need to argue for that claim. If the video is not faked, then the person who killed the puppy is clearly an evil person or has serious defects in his mental workings (or both).

The video has been put to use as a propaganda piece that purports to show the evil of America and its soldiers. However, the obvious reply to this is that the video, at most, shows that the person who killed the puppy is a bad person. This hardly serves as evidence that the military and America are evil.

In fact, the American reaction to it shows quite the opposite. Americans, as the Michal Vick case showed, generally love dogs (even more than they love NFL quarterbacks) and hence the majority of Americans are appalled by what this video allegedly depicts. Further, the Pentagon makes it clear what the military position is on such cruelty:

[This video came to our attention this morning, and we have initiated an investigation. We do not tolerate this type of behavior and will take appropriate action.

The vast majority of Marines conduct their duties in an honorable manner that brings great credit upon the Marine Corps and the United States. There have been numerous stories of Marines adopting pets and bringing them home from Iraq or helping to arrange life-saving medical care for Iraqi children. Those are the stories that exemplify what we stand for and how most Marines behave."

The Department thanks the numerous citizens who brought the video to our attention. ]

This might just be dismissed as calculated to respond to the outcry against the video. However, reason should make it clear that the Pentagon does not encourage or endorse cruelty to animals. Most American soldiers, like most Americans, are opposed to such cruelty. If the military encouraged soldiers to be cruel to animals, why then would they bring therapy dogs to Iraq to help soldiers? Why then would the military have a K-9 corps which is well known for the bonds between the soldiers and their dogs?

While the act shown in the video is despicable, what shows the true character of America is how rational people are responding to the situation: if it is real, those involved will be found and punished for their misdeeds. America is, overall, devoted to the rule of law and doing what is right.

A rather disturbing aspect of this situation was the comments that begin to pile up on various blogs calling for the horrible death of the person in the video. His alleged name and address were published online and numerous calls were made to harm him and his family.

While a person who kills a puppy should be punished, calling for his death is not a call for justice. It is merely an expression of senseless anger. To call for death in response to this shows that a person does not really think much of the value of life. Yes, if there is a guilty person, then he should be properly punished after a proper trial. While people no doubt feel tough when they cry out for someone’s death, they put themselves closer to being the sort of person who would kill a puppy than the sort of person who holds to what is right.

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