A Philosopher's Blog

Men, Women, Business & Ethics

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 14, 2014
Journal of Business Ethics

Journal of Business Ethics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Carlos Danger & Badness

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2013
, member of the United States House of Represe...

Carlos Danger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One longstanding philosophical concern is the matter of why people behave badly. One example of this that filled the American news in July of 2013 was the new chapter in the sordid tale of former congressman Anthony Weiner. Weiner was previously best known for resigning from office after a scandal involving his internet activities and his failed campaign of deception regarding said activities. Weiner decided to make a return to politics by running for mayor of New York. However, his bid for office was overshadowed by revelations that he was sexting under the nom de sext “Carlos Danger” even after his resignation and promise to stop such behavior.

While his behavior has been more creepy and pathetic than evil, it does provide a context for discussion the matter of why people behave badly.

Socrates, famously, gave the answer that people do wrong out of ignorance. He did not mean that people elected to do wrong because they lacked factual knowledge (such as being unaware that stabbing people hurts them).  This is not to say that bad behavior cannot stem from mere factual knowledge. For example, a person might be unaware that his joke about a rabbit caused someone great pain because she had just lost her beloved Mr. Bunny to a tragic weed whacker accident. In the case of Weiner, there is some possibility that ignorance of facts played a role in his bad behavior. For example, it seems that Weiner was in error about his chances of getting caught again, despite the fact that he had been caught before. Interestingly, Weiner’s fellow New York politician and Democrat Elliot Spitzer was caught in his scandal using the exact methods he himself had previously used and even described on television.  In this case, the ignorance in question could be an arrogant overestimation of ability.

While such factual ignorance might play a role in a person’s decision to behave badly, there would presumably need to be much more in play in cases such as Weiner’s.  For him to act on his (alleged) ignorance he would also need an additional cause or causes to engage in that specific behavior. For Socrates, this cause would be a certain sort of ignorance, namely a lack of wisdom.

While Socrates’ view has been extensively criticized (Aristotle noted that it contradicted the facts), it does have a certain appeal.

One way to consider such ignorance is to focus on the possibility that Weiner is ignorant of certain values. To be specific, it could be contended that Weiner acted badly because he did not truly know that he was choosing something worse (engaging in sexting) over something better (being faithful to his wife). In such cases a person might claim that he knows that he has picked the lesser over the greater, but it could be replied that doing this repeatedly displays an ignorance of the proper hierarchy of values. That is, it could be claimed that Weiner acted badly because he did not have proper knowledge of the good. To use an analogy, a person who is offered a simple choice (that is, no bizarre philosophy counter-example conditions) between $5 and $100 and picks the $5 as greater than $100 would seem to show a failure to grasp that 100 is greater than 5.

Socrates presented the obvious solution to evil: if evil arises from ignorance, than knowledge of the good attained via philosophy is just what would be needed.

The easy and obvious reply is that knowledge of what is better and what is worse is consistent with a person choosing to behave badly rather than better. To use an analogy, people who eat poorly and do not exercise profess to value health while acting in ways that directly prevent them from being healthy. This is often explained not in terms of a defect in values but, rather, in a lack of will. The idea that a person could have or at least understand the proper values but fail to act consistently with them because of weakness is certainly intuitively appealing. As such, one plausible explanation for Weiner’s actions is that while he knows he is doing wrong, he lacks the strength to prevent himself from doing so. Going back to the money analogy, it is not that the person who picks the $5 over the $100 does not know that 100 is greater than 5. Rather, in this scenario the $5 is easy to get and the $100 requires a strength the person lacks: she wants the $100, but simply cannot jump high enough to reach it.

Assuming a person knows what is good, the solution to this cause of evil would be, as Aristotle argued, proper training to make people stronger (or, at least, to condition them to select the better out of fear of punishment) so they can act on their knowledge of the good properly.

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Is America Education as Bad as They Say?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 12, 2013
Seal of the United States Department of Education

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a professor I have grown accustomed to the litany of doom regarding American education. We are repeatedly told that American schools are failing, that colleges are not teaching, and that the students of today are not as good as the students of the past.

There are, of course, problems with the education system. Because of economic disparity, some schools are significantly better than others and the ideas of equality of education and equality of opportunity are cruel jokes. However, the mere fact that there are some serious problems does not entail that all the dire claims are true.

One stock claim is that America has fallen behind the world in education in terms of performance on various tests. While the fact that America is behind other countries is a point of concern, there are at least three points worth considering here. The first is the above-mentioned disparity which will tend to result in lower performance when taking the average for America. The second is that many countries have put considerable effort into improving their education systems and hence it is worth considering that America’s decline is also due to the improvement of others. The third is the matter of the measures—do they, in fact, present an accurate picture of the situation? I am not claiming that the data is bad, I am merely raising a reasonable concern about how accurate our picture of education is at this time.

Another stock claim is that American students are doing badly on standardized tests. While there is clearly value in assessment, it is reasonable to consider whether or not such tests are a proper and adequate measure of education. It is also worth considering whether the obsession with these tests is itself causing damage to education. That is, as teachers teach to the test and student learn for the test, it might be the case that what is being taught is not what should be taught and what is being learned is not what should be being learned. My view is that standardized tests seem to exist mainly to make money for the companies that sell such tests and that their usefulness as a tool of education is dubious. However, such a claim would require proper support, ideally in the form of a properly funded assessment of these assessments.

It is also claimed that schools are failing and that even colleges are not providing worthwhile education. I do agree that the cost of college education has become ridiculous and there are problems in the entire education system. However, it is certainly interesting that along with the mantra of “public schools are failing” there has been a strong push to funnel public money into private and for-profit schools. Now, it could be the case that the for-profit and private schools are merely being proposed as solutions to the alleged problems. But, it seems worth considering that the “public schools are failing” line is being pushed so that people will support and favor shifting funding from the public schools to the for-profit and private schools. Interestingly, while traditional private schools generally do well, the for-profit schools have been plagued with problems, as I have written about in earlier essays.  As such, the idea that for-profit schools will save education seems to be a dubious claim.

One last matter I will consider is the idea that students are worse now than ever. After hearing colleagues and professionals say this over and over, I almost began to feel that it was true. However, my familiarity with history saved me from this fate: such claims about the inferiority of the current generation goes back at least to the time of Socrates. Every generation seems to claim that the next is inferior—think of all “when I was kid” claims that people make. “When I was a kid, people respected their elders.” “When I was a kid, we did our homework.” “When I was a kid, we studied hard.” While kids are different in some ways today (they have Facebook and smartphones), the idea that they are inferior must be considered in the context of the fact that people always make that claim. Now, it might be that every generation is right and that we have reached the lowest point in human history. However, going back and considering actual facts in an objective way should show that the kids today are a bit different but they do not appear to be any worse than the other generations.

As a professor I do often hear other professors lament about how kids get worse every year (I have been hearing this for about 20 years). However, there is an alternative explanation. I do admit that the work of students, such as papers, does seem worse than it did in the past. But, this could be due to the fact that I am better at my job rather than the students being worse. When I look back on my own work as a student, I can see the same bad writing and mistakes I see in my students today. I improve each year, but each year I get new students and it seems reasonable to consider that they seem worse because of this and not that they must actually be worse.

I do admit that changes in technology are probably impacting the students of today. They do labor under the delusion that they can multitask effectively (they cannot—they can just multitask poorly) and they also have more distractions than I faced as a student. However, the students seem to be about the same as when I was a student years ago.

Overall, I do not claim that there are not problems in education. However, I am concerned that the litany of doom and despair may contain consider hyperbole. I am also suspicious regarding some of the motivations behind the doomsayers. While some are no doubt sincerely concerned, it is worth considering that some people are motivated by political or economic agendas rather than the needs of students.


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Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2013

English: Barack Obama delivers a speech at the...

The current narrative is that the Obama administration is floundering in three major scandals: Benghazi, IRS TPT (Tea Party Targeting), and the DOJ’s AP incident. I agree with Socrates’ view that the “gadflies” have a duty to keep the “horse” that is the state from falling into laziness and corruption. But, of course, I also agree with Socrates’ view that we should better ourselves rather than endeavoring to tear others down with deceits. As such, I believe it is rather important to find and properly consider the truth in these matters.

During the first four years of Obama’s administration, those who wished to attack Obama had to generally rely on made up and often absurd attacks, such as the infamous Birther and Secret Muslim movements. Obama was also charged with being a socialist, a communist, a tyrant and so on. However, these charges only seemed to stick within certain minds-those who wished to believe the worst of the president regardless of the evidence.  Interestingly, real problems such as drone assassinations, the grotesque disparities in wealth, the endemic problems in the VA, and so on were largely ignored by most folks on the left and the right. Someone more cynical than I might suspect that the pundits and politicians work to focus public rage in what they regard as safe channels.

The start of the second term saw what the folks at Fox probably regarded as a gift from on high, given that they had been desperately flogging Benghazi with little effect: two scandals that might actually have some substance. Interestingly, even the “liberal” media jumped onto the scandal bandwagon. However, the question remains as to whether or not there is any true substance behind these alleged scandals.

Again, someone more cynical than I might suggest that the pundits and politicians are focused primarily on scoring political points against Obama rather than operating from a desire for justice and ethical government. After all, some of the conservative pundits who are expressing outrage at Obama are the same people who embraced contrary views when their favorites engaged in worse misdeeds. Peggy Noonan is, of course, one of the outstanding examples: when it came to Iran-Contra, she claimed that Reagan did not know and was failed by his people. In the case of Obama, she contends that the President is fully accountable. Such blatant inconsistencies nicely reveal the truth of the matter. Naturally, folks on the left do the same thing: many of those who railed against Bush give Obama a pass on the same matters, presumably because he is their guy and Bush was not. But, left or right, such inconsistency is intellectually and morally wrong.

Someone far more cynical than I might even spin a tale of conspiracy-that outrage is generated, managed and directed so as to divert attention from real problems. After all, if the media and the people are in a froth over the IRS or the DOJ, then they have little outrage to spare for such matters as the pathetic state of our infrastructure or the fact that congress engages in legal insider trading. But, to get back to the main subject, I turn to the IRS scandal.

On the face of it, the IRS scandal is being sold as the IRS specifically targeting conservative groups. The flames of the scandal certainly have been fanned by the fact that Lerner pleaded the Fifth before Congress. While she might have been reacting out of fear because of the inflammatory rhetoric, this sort of thing is rather like when Romney refused to release his tax information: it leads people to believe that the damage that could be done by whatever is being hidden is far worse than the damage done by trying to hide it. However, let us go with the facts that are actually available.

One key part of the narrative is that the IRS only targeted conservative groups. However, the numbers show that this is not the case: only 70 of the 300 groups looked at were tea party organizations. There is also the fact that the IRS is required to determine whether or not those applying for tax-exemption are “social welfare” groups or are engaged in the sort of political activity that is forbidden to such groups. As such, the IRS was actually looking for exactly what the law required. As far as why they flagged the 300 rather than everyone, this seems to be a practical matter: the IRS was apparently faced with a flood of documents.

Another part of the narrative is that the IRS harmed those targeted for this review. However, the tax exempt status is not actually contingent on the IRS approving it: such groups can operate with that status even before official approval. Somewhat ironically, the only groups denied this status were three progressive groups: Emerge Nevada, Emerge Maine, and Emerge Massachusetts. The reason they were denied approval was because they were created to support Democrats, a violation of the law.  The IRS commissioner at the time was a Bush appointee.

The facts would seem to reveal that there is not much here in the way of  a scandal. The IRS and the administration can, however, be dinged for their poor handling of the matter. The Obama administration does have a poor track record of addressing the “scandling” from the right. Most infamously, they threw Shirley Sherrod to the wolves without even bothering to check on the facts. As such, I would say that one true scandal of the administration is how it handles allegations of scandals.

Interestingly, some conservatives are still trying to turn Benghazi into a scandal, and ABC News’ Jonathan Karl apparently engaged in fabrication, only to be exposed by CNN.  There real scandal here would seem to be on the part of those who are trying to make Benghazi into a scandal.

It might be countered that the Obama administration is so bad (perhaps a socialist, communist, Muslim tyranny) that all of these tactics are justified. That, for example, it is acceptable to manufacture a scandal so as to undercut Obama’s support (and pave the way to the White House in 2016). The easy and obvious reply to this is that if the Obama administration is truly as bad as claimed, then there would be no need to manufacture scandals. One would merely need to provide evidence of the badness and that should suffice.

I do actually think that there is considerable badness. However, this badness is of the sort that neither party wishes to expose or bring to attention of the public. Thus, we generally get a war of manufactured scandals while the real problems remain festering in the shadows.

There can, of course, be real scandals. However, what is to be rationally expected is actual objective evidence from credible sources supporting the key claims as well as a rational value assessment regarding the seriousness of the scandal. For example, the DOJ AP scandal might be a real problem-if so, a presentation of the actual facts and a rational evaluation of the wrongdoing should reveal the scandal. These rational standards are generally ignored in favor of  partisan interests and the desire to keep the eyes of America looking a certain way.

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Death & Fear

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on March 8, 2013

The_Myth_of_PersecutionAs mentioned in the previous essay, Candida Moss’ the Myth of Persecution got me thinking about the notion of the good death. Her mention of Socrates and discussion of the stories of martyrdom reminded me that a considerable part of the Apology is about death and why it should not be feared.

In her book Moss makes an interesting argument in which she endeavors to show how the death of Socrates and other ancient philosophers shaped the later Christian martyrdom. One similarity worth exploring further is the idea that the philosophers and Christian martyrs face death bravely. To use the most famous example, Socrates faced both his trial and death with considerable courage. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, a lack of fear. Since Socrates, unlike most martyrs, presented a detailed case supporting his view that death should not be feared, his story makes an excellent point of focus.

Socrates gives multiple arguments to support his claim that death should not be feared. I will present a summary of each as well as commentary.

Socrates first argument, which I will call the ignorance argument, runs as follows: As Socrates sees it, “no one knows if death may be the greatest good” and hence if someone fears death, they are making an error. This error, for Socrates, is to have the mere pretenses of wisdom—believing that one knows something he does not.

Socrates, who well known for his claim that his wisdom amounted to knowing that he knew nothing, claims that he does not know about death. He does, however, claim that he knows that he should not fear or avoid a possible good (which death might be). Rather, he should fear and avoid a certain evil—in this case, injustice. Thus, Socrates two main reasons here for not fearing death are that 1) he does not know if death is good or evil and 2) he fears injustice as a known evil and will choose death, which might be good, over being unjust.

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As might be suspected, the Christian martyrs would not, in general, lack the fear of death for the reason that they accepted their ignorance of the matter. As Moss notes in her book, the generally held view was that martyrs were guaranteed not only heaven, but also premium treatment. However, the Socratic influence can, perhaps, be seen in the notion that the Christian martyr stories often involved the martyr facing the same choice as Socrates, namely giving up his principles to avoid death. Like Socrates, the martyrs elected to avoid what they regarded as the known evil.

In terms of courage, facing the unknown nature of death would require some degree of bravery. After all, while it could be good, it could also be bad. Socrates does, of course, seem to be assuming that any possible evil of death would be less evil than injustice. As such, it could be claimed that his choice is not a matter of courage—after all, he is merely choosing something he does not fear (death) over something he does fear. He can, obviously enough, be regarded as brave from the perspective of people who do fear death.

Socrates’ main argument as to why death is nothing to fear is his famous dilemma: he claims that “death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness or a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.” While some might fear the nothingness, Socrates does not—he regards it as a great gain, like a sleep undisturbed even by dreams. The other option, as he sees it, is even better: what we would now regard as a heavenly afterlife in which one is judged by those “who were righteous in life” and is, for good measure, happy and immortal.

Interestingly enough, Ecclesiastes 9:5 seems to match what Socrates: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” There is also the more popular view that the good go to Heaven when they die—where they are, as Socrates said, happy and immortal.

While some claim that Socrates is merely trying to calm his friends, the argument is worth assessing in terms of whether or not it shows death is nothing to fear and also in terms of how this connects to the matter of bravery.

On the face of it, if Socrates actually believed the claims in his own argument, then facing death would not seem to be a matter of courage. After all, facing something that one does not (and should not) fear is not courage. To use an analogy, suppose we are in a house and hear a strange noise coming from the dark basement. If I have no idea what is down there in the dark, then it would (or could) be brave of me to go into the dark to find out what made the noise. However, if I believe the noise is being made by my husky pursuing a cat, then it would be no braver of me to go into the basement than it would be for me to eat some ice cream—after all, I would believe that I was not facing anything bad.  As such, if Socrates believed that death was really nothing to fear, than facing it without fear would not be courage.

As should be obvious, Socrates can be easily accused of presenting a false dilemma. After all he offers two alternative when it is easy enough to imagine post-death experiences that are very horrible indeed, such as Hell or a Hell like place where people are unhappy and immortal. Such fates would presumably be something to fear. What would be needed is, of course, evidence that only good things can happen to the good. Naturally, Socrates clearly believes that he is good, just as the martyrs are presented as being good.

Socrates does, of course, make exactly that claim. Near the end of the Apology he says, “no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.” While he is aware that he has been sentenced to death, he does not regard this as a harm, since he is sure that he has not been “neglected by the gods” and, famously, his little voice did not stop him from choosing the course he followed.

Not surprisingly, a similar view is held by the martyrs—at least as they are generally portrayed in the stories. That is, in the stories they receive a proper reward for their martyrdom. If a martyr knows or at least believes that death is actually a great gain, then choosing death or accepting death are not acts of courage. After all, if I choose ice cream or accept a bowl of it, I am not thus a brave person.

The obvious reply is, of course, that the process of death tends to hurt—especially the deaths that the Christian martyrs are said to have experienced. As such, it could be argued that they had physical courage in that they were willing to face the pain that stood between them and their reward. Going with the ice cream analogy, I could (perhaps) be called brave if I had to win my ice cream by enduring some modest amount of pain (after all, I am just getting ice cream and not Heaven).  Then again, perhaps enduring some discomfort for a gain is not courage at all, but merely a desire for gain that is stronger than the pain.

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Socrates & the Good Death

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 4, 2013

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading the section on the deaths of the philosophers in Candida Moss’ the Myth of Persecution led me to think about the notion of the good death.

As Plato recounted in the Apology and the Crito, Socrates makes it clear that he prefers to keep to his moral principles and die sooner rather than violate these principles and die somewhat later. The account of his death presents Socrates as courageously accepting death—he freely drinks the hemlock and philosophizes as the hemlock kills him. He also expresses a principle defiance against his accusers and a respectful defiance towards the state. In regards to the state, he claims that he will obey the state, unless he is ordered to cease engaging in philosophy—he cannot accept that order.

While Socrates death is often considered to be the model of how a philosopher should face death, other philosophers have even more dramatic ends. Diogenes of Sinope, it is claimed, held his breath until he perished. Zeno, of the famous paradoxes, allegedly bit of his tongue and spat it towards the tyrant who was questioning him. Perhaps the most extreme case involves Anaxarchus—not only did he spit his own tongue at the tyrant Nicocreon, he also responded to being beaten with pestles (while, appropriately enough, being in a mortar) with the remark, “just pound the bag of Anaxarchus. You do not pound himself.” This remark mirrors one made by Socrates when Crito inquires about how he is to be buried. In reply he says, “However you want to, if you can actually catch me and I don’t escape you.”

At least according to the legends, these philosophers regarded a good death as one which involved some or all of the following: choosing death over violating one’s principles, expressing courage and self-control before and during the death, and expressing defiance towards the wicked.  Such principled deaths were praised in the ancient world and held up as a model of how a person should conduct himself when faced with death.

This is not to say that people in the ancient world wanted to die—presumably they wanted to live as much as people do today. However, the moral of these death tales is that a person should die a good death in preference to living a bad life. In any case, these heroic deaths were presented as a model as how a worthy person should die.

As might be imagined, as Moss notes in her book, most people in the modern Western world seem to regard dying well in a rather different way. To be specific, most seem to hold the view that the good death is dying in comfort and peace of old age.  If Socrates is the model of how to die for the ancient world, Winston Smith of 1984 is the model for the death to avoid for the contemporary world. Smith, unlike Socrates, is broken and the lesson of this story is rather different from that of Socrates’ story.

While it might be tempting to regard this view as a sign of the decline of Western civilization, there are two things well worth noting. The first is that while the ancients presented the heroic philosophical death as an ideal, most of the ancients did not seek out such heroic deaths. Socrates himself notes that he knew of the apparent common practice of people engaging in shameful behavior in the court in the hopes of postponing their death. The second is that we still value the heroic philosophical death today. For example, Dr. King is lauded for his heroism in facing death threats and it seems reasonable to think that he believed that he, like Moses, would not live to see the promised-land. Like Socrates, he faced the threat of death with courage and he essentially elected to die rather than abandon his principles. There are, of course, numerous other examples of people who are praised for dying in a way that the ancients would certainly regard as good deaths.

I will close with a question well worth discussing, namely what is a good death? That is, what should we hold as the highest value when it comes to dying? For Socrates and other ancients, a good death involved meeting death with courage and control. For much of the Western world today, it is meeting a peaceful and painless death.

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Mental Illness or Evil?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2012

(Photo credit: Robbie Wroblewski)

When a person does terrible things that seem utterly senseless, like murder children, there is sometimes a division in the assessment of the person. Some people will take the view that the person is mentally ill on the grounds that a normal, sane person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Others take the view that the person is evil on the grounds that a normal, non-evil person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Both of these views express an attempt to explain and understand what occurred. As might be imagined, the distinction between being evil and being mentally ill is a matter of significant concern.

One key point of concern is the matter of responsibility and the correct way to respond to a person who has done something terrible. If a person acts from mental illness rather than evil, then it seems somewhat reasonable to regard them as not being accountable for the action (at least to the degree the person is ill). After all, if something terrible occurs because a person suffers from a physical illness, the person is generally not held accountable (there are, obviously, exceptions). For example, my running friend Jay told me about a situation in which a person driving on his street had an unexpected seizure. Oddly, the person’s foot stomped down on the gas pedal and the car rocketed down the street, smashing into another car and coming to a stop in someone’s back yard. The car could have easily plowed over my friend, injuring or killing him. However, since the person was not physically in control of his actions (and he had no reason to think he would have a seizure) he was not held morally accountable. That is, he did nothing wrong. If a person had intentionally tried to murder my friend with his car, then that would be seen as an evil action. Unless, perhaps, the driver was mentally ill in a way that disabled him in a way comparable to a stroke. In that case, the driver might be as “innocent” as the stroke victim.

There seem to be at least two ways that a mentally ill person might be absolved of moral responsibility (at least to the degree she is mentally ill).

First, the person might be suffering from what could be classified as perceptual and interpretative disorders. That is, they have mental defects that cause them to perceive and interpret reality incorrectly.  For example, a person suffering from extreme paranoia might think that my friend Jay intends to steal his brain, even Jay has no such intention. In such a case, it seems reasonable to not regard the person as evil if he tries to harm Jay—after all, he is acting in what he thinks is legitimate self-defense rather than from a wicked motivation. In contrast, someone who wanted to kill Jay to rob his house or just for fun would be acting in an evil way. Put in general terms, mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal.  Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems sensible to consider that such people might be following their conscience as best they can, only they have distorted information to work with in their decision making process and this distortion results from mental illness.

Second, the person might be suffering from what could be regarded as a disorder of judgment. That is, the person’s ability to engage in reasoning is damaged or defective due to a mental illness. The person might (or might not) have correct information to work with, but the processing is defective in a way that causes a person to make judgments that would be regarded as evil if made by a “normal” person. For example, a person might infer from the fact that someone is wearing a blue hat that the person should be killed.

One obvious point of concern is that “normal” people are generally bad at reasoning and commit fallacies with alarming regularity. As such, there would be a need to sort out the sort of reasoning that is merely bad reasoning from reasoning that would count as being mentally ill. One point worth considering is that bad reasoning could be fixed by education whereas a mental illness would not be fixed by learning, for example, logic.

A second obvious point of concern is discerning between mental illness as a cause of such judgments and evil as a cause of such judgments. After all, evil people can be seen as having a distorted sense of judgment in regards to value. In fact, some philosophers (such as Kant and Socrates) regard evil as a mental defect or a form of irrationality. This has some intuitive appeal—after all, people who do terrible and senseless things would certainly seem to have something wrong with them. Whether this is a moral wrongness or health wrongness is, of course, the big question here.

One of the main reasons to try to sort out the difference is figuring out whether a person should be treated (cured) or punished (which might also cure the person). As noted above, a person who did something terrible because of mental illness would (to a degree) not be accountable for the act and hence should not be punished (or the punishment should be duly tempered). For some it is tempting to claim that the choice of evil is an illusion because there is no actual free choice (that is, we do what we do because of the biochemical and electrical workings of the bodies that are us). As such, people should not be punished, rather they should be repaired. Of course, there is a certain irony in such advice: if we do not have choice, then advising us to not punish makes no sense since we will just do what we do. Of course, the person advising against punishment would presumably have no choice but to give such advice.

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A Socratic Challenge

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2012
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First Philosophy Shooter: Cartesian Apocalypse

Posted in Humor by Michael LaBossiere on May 30, 2012

The year is 2056. The majority of the world’s population has been deceived and enslaved by the virtual reality of the Evil Genius.  Only the mysterious Cartesian Circle has the will and the means to oppose the Evil Genius. Using advanced technology and theology, they resurrect the one man to ever face off against the Evil Genius: Rene Descartes.

In FPS: Cartesian Apocalypse you take on the role of Rene Descartes. Guided by the Panopticon, you use the power of philosophy (and lots of guns) to battle the tyranny of the Evil Genius. Your mundane arsenal is augmented by powers drawn from the great philosophers of history: the Socratic Method, the Platonic Form, the Inverted Spectrum, the Chinese Box, the Second Sex, Mad Pain & Martian Pain, the Will to Power, the Categorical Imperative, and more. Do you know how to save the world?


“Step over Diablo, there is a new Evil Genius in town!”
-A. Blizzard

“This game reminds me that the French once did real philosophy.”
-V. Quine

“It is imperative that you play this game.”
-I. Kant

“FPS maximizes utility. And destruction. Five stars.”
-J. Mill

“It is nothing, but what kick-ass nothing it is being.”
-J. Sartre

“F@ck Yeah!”

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Penn State & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2011
Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Joe Patern...

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Before writing about the situation involving Penn State it is important to note that the facts of the matter have not been settled in a court of law. As such, what follows will be based, in part, on assumptions about what might (or might not) have happened.

While the incidents involving Sandusky and Penn State have gotten a great deal of media attention, it is not uncommon for institutions (especially powerful institutions) to conceal the misdeeds of members so as to protect them and, of course, the institution. My pointing out that this practice is a common one is not intended as a defense. Rather, it is intended to indicate that this is not an isolated problem.

While the matter might seem complicated, the ethics of the matter are actually quite straightforward.

McQueary alleges that he witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy. If this is true, then he was morally obligated to, at the very least call the police. Apparently, he now alleges that this is what he did. However, the original narrative was that he had spoken with his father who told him to talk to the head coach Paterno. Nothing came of this 2002 event until now.

At this point, the evidence seems to indicate that the incident was concealed by officials at Penn State. These officials, including Paterno and the university president, were fired. Interestingly, these firings occurred (obviously) before the relevant cases have been addressed in court. This does raise a moral question of whether these firings were morally justified-after all, it remains to be seen if, in fact, a crime was concealed. However, it can be argued that while the matter has yet to be settled in a court of law, the evidence of misdeeds on the part of the officials is adequate to justify their firing.

People who hold power in institutions, as might be imagined, have a tendency to believe that they have the right and the authority to handle situations they see as relevant to their interests. There is also, as Socrates noted, a tendency on the part of people to desire to conceal misdeeds. These two factors tend to lead to such (alleged) acts of concealment. People who work in such institutions are also often pressured into accepting the idea that almost everything must go through the “chain of command.” To use a a minor example, when I first started teaching I found that the lights did not work in the room in which I taught my night class. I, as I recall, made the mistake of trying to contact the physical plant folks directly (as I had been able to do at Ohio State). The result was that I was chastised by a university official for violating the “chain of command.” While that was a surreal experience, it does illustrate the sort of mindset that can exist in institutions.

In the abstract, one key moral issue is the extent to which an institution such as Penn State has the moral right to claim the authority to resolve a situation. In many cases, an institution does have that authority. For example, if a grade dispute arises in one of my classes, the university officials have the authority to resolve the issue. This is because grade disputes fall under the legitimate domain of the institution-namely that of education and related matters.

In other cases, the institution would exceed its legitimate authority and thus potentially act in an immoral way by such an infringement. This would be especially likely in cases in which the intervention of the institution’s “authority” would result in a denial of access to the legitimate authority by those involved in the situation. This can occur in cases in which those who are denied such access are victims (for example, students who are victims of sex crimes that are “resolved” by a university rather than by the police) as well as cases in which the perpetrators are denied (or protected from) the legitimate authority (such as perpetrators of sexual harassment being shielded by the institution).

Judging the extent of authority can involve considering the legal authority of the institution as well as the moral aspects of the matter. To be specific, a core aspect of this matter is determining this legitimate authority.

In the Penn State case, if it is assumed that such an assault took place and was reported to the university officials (and not police), then it would seem rather clear that the university officials acted beyond their legitimate authority. After all, a football coach and some college administrators do not have the moral authority to resolve an alleged rape. A coach does have the authority to, for example, bench players for poor grades. A university official can, for example, legitimately have the authority to resolve a grade dispute. However, rape is not a sports or academic matter-it is a matter for law enforcement, a matter for the police.

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