A Philosopher's Blog

Should Madoff Be in Jail?

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on January 12, 2009

CNN’s Cafferty recently raised the question of whether Madoff should be in jail pending his trial. Madoff, once considered a financial wizard, has been accused of stealing approximately $50 billion from his investors. Rather than being locked up in jail, he is currently out on bail and residing in his $7 million apartment in Manhattan. He is under house arrest; but a man could probably not find a better “jail.”

Cafferty notes that people who commit relatively minor offenses (such as selling modest amounts of marijuana) are often locked up until their trials and seems displeased that Madoff seems to be enjoying special treatment.

Of course, Madoff has yet to be found guilty and he did make bail. As such, it would seem that he has the right to remain in his house and not be locked up. After all, it can be argued that a person should be allowed to post bail provided that they are not a flight risk (that is, they are not likely to run away) and that they do not present an ongoing danger to the community. If someone is likely to simply flee before the trial, then they should be kept in jail to prevent that. If someone presents a danger to the community, then they should obviously not be allowed to roam free.

While it is appealing to see Madoff locked away, it is hardly just to punish someone before they are found guilty. Of course, one might point out, people are locked up before their trials quite often. Hence,  it would hardly be unusual for this to occur. However, let us argue from the standpoint of what would be just.

As noted above, he has yet to be found guilty. He also does not seem to be a serious flight risk-his infamy would make it rather difficult for him to sneak away. Also he still seems to have considerable wealth (at the very least his apartment) and he would put that at risk by fleeing. This is not to say that he would not flee-just that there are reasonable grounds to think that he will not.

Of course, there is now a reasonable concern that Madoff might use his relative freedom to harm the community further. To be specific, the prosecution has accused Madoff of sending millions of dollars worth of jewelry to friends and relatives. The intent of this act would seem to be to keep those assets safe from any legal action that might be taken against Madoff. If he is engaging in such activity, then it would seem that he is still harming the community. After all, this sort of action would seem to be on par with trying to conceal stolen goods to prevent their being recovered. While Madoff might legitimately own the jewelry, it seems reasonable that his personal wealth should be subject to seizure should he be found guilty of the crimes for which he stands accused. As such, if it is likely that he will continue to try to wrongfully protect his assets, then he should be jailed to prevent that from occurring-or at least to make the show that an attempt is being made.


Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2009

While pirates are often seen as a thing of the past and suitable mainly for Disney movies, pirates have never really vanished. While piracy has generally not gotten much media coverage in the past, the recent surge in piracy off the coast of Somalia has lead to increased media attention.

In general, pirates are free-lancers who seize vessels for their own profit. However, some people categorize any illegitimate capturing or attacking of vessels as acts of piracy. For example, some might consider Israel’s recent ramming of a boat attempting to bring aid to Gaza as an act of piracy. After all, the boat was a civilian craft and was operating in international waters when it was attacked. Of course, nations prefer to describe their actions as legitimate military operations rather than piracy.

From a legal standpoint, that distinction can hold quite nicely. After all, nations have the legal right to do all sorts of nasty things to ships provided that they do all the right legal things (like declare an embargo, blockade or war). Of course, the moral distinction between pirates and nations can often be a very fine one. In fact, during times of war nations have often employed private citizens to augment their naval operations. These legal pirates were called “privateers” and were considered a legitimate part of warfare. They were employed by the major European powers against each other and also by the United States. Of course, when they decided to strike off on their own after the war, they then became pirates. After all, they were no longer killing and looting for some king or president-they were killing and looting for themselves. That is, of course, what makes them criminals.

As always, it is interesting how committing acts of theft and violence for a country is often regarded as acceptable while such acts done for private gain are universally condemned. However, the moral distinction does seem blurred. After all, if a navy attacks ships because doing so is in the interest of the state, then it would seem that an individual could make the same sort of argument for his acts of piracy.

Naturally, it can be argued that a state has legitimate interests that pirates lack. However, states often seem to have the same motivations and interests as pirates-to gain power and wealth. As such, it would not be unreasonable to often see them in the same pirate boat.

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Proportionality, Gaza & Israel

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 5, 2009

As Israel continues ground operations in Gaza, the casualties continue to grow. Not surprisingly, the civilians are suffering the most. As Thucydides wrote, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Of course, the suffering is not all on one side. Hamas continues to launch random rocket attacks into Israel and there will no doubt be more deaths among Israeli forces.

Having followed events in the news, I have noticed that a common talking point among those critical of Israel is the notion of proportionality. The view generally expressed by such critics is that Israel is not responding in a proportional manner to Hamas. While the news does not go into depth (depth is the bane of TV news) I infer that they are using the concept in the usual moral sense. Put a bit simply, the idea is that a response to a harmful or provocative  action should be in proportion to that action. To go beyond that in doing harm would be unjust. For example, suppose someone gets angry at my political views, hits me with a small rock and thus bruises my arm. If I break his arm, then I have acted in a disproportionate way. As such, my action would be wrong. In the case of Israel, the critics say that Israel’s air strikes and ground invasion is not proportional to the random rocket attacks and hence is wrong.

On one hand, the critics do have a reasonable point. By the numbers, the rockets have killed and injured only a few people and the airstrikes and invasion have killed and injured many. As such, Israel seems to be acting wrongly be responding in such an extreme way.

On the other hand, it can be argued that Israel is acting in a just manner. While it is clear that Israel is killing far more people than Hamas’ rocket strikes, there is also the matter of considering what is required to stop the rocket strikes. Going back to my example above, if I shoot someone for brusing my arm with a rock, then I have clearly over reacted. However, there is the question of what my response should be. If I react in a way that is exactly proportional and throw a rock at him, then I will most likely just create a cycle of rock throwing. Each response will be proportional (a rock for a rock) but this would hardly be a desirable solution. It would be better to put an end to the rock throwing altogether.

In the case of Israel and Hamas, if Israel fired comparable rockets randomly into Gaza, then they would have an exactly proportional response. However, this would create an ongoing cycle of random deaths and injury. This hardly seems desirable (although a utilitarian argument could be made that an ongoing rocket exchange with few deaths would be better than an invasion that end up killing many people).

Perhaps there is a way for Israel to stop the rockets without killing and injuring a disproportionate number of people. If so, that would be the morally preferable approach. Unfortunately, Israel seems left with few options. Air strikes against the rockets will do more damage than the rockets do to Israel. Further, they will not stop the rocket attacks without inflicting massive destruction.  Precision special forces operations could destroy some rocket launchers with minimal deaths, but such operations cannot be extensive enough to solve the problem. As such, the military way to stop the rockets would seem to be to use ground forces to defeat Hamas in the area. This will no doubt prove both difficult and costly.  However, if such operations are the only way to stop the rocket attacks, then they would seem morally justified. Assuming, of course, that it is wrong for Hamas to fire rockets at Israel.

Going back to my example, if the person who hit me with a rock will not stop throwing rocks at me unless I break his arm, then I would be justified in doing that. This assumes, of course, that he should not be throwing rocks at me. If I deserve to be hit with rocks, then I would have no moral right to break his arm. But if I do not deserve to be hit by rocks and only a broken arm will stop him, then I would be right to break his arm.

As always, it would be better if a peaceful solution could be reached. However, history shows that this is not likely. We can expect more death, injury and suffering before this current situation comes to an end.

Ground War in Gaz

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 2, 2009

After launching numerous air strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza, Israel is prepared to launch a ground invasion. Israel has always done amazingly well in conventional warfare against Arab military forces. However, rooting out combatants who hide among civilians has never been something that conventional armies have done exceptionally well. Of course, an occupying army would help cut down on the rocket attacks-they can respond rapidly to launches. However, a conventional army also presents numerous targets for unconventional attacks and an occupation can be a political risk.

One risk is that Hamas can try to drain the resolve of the Israeli people by trying to bleed the ground forces. Losing friends and family in an occupation is never popular and Hamas presumably knows this. With the support of Iran, they can probably wage a fairly effective campaign.

Another risk is that the inevitable civilian deaths can be exploited by Hamas to bolster their support. As they gain local support, they can step up the attacks on Israeli forces and goad them into more retaliatory attacks. This will lead to yet more civilian deaths and thus further enhance the support given to Hamas. Of course, this tactic can be a risk for Hamas. People in Gaza might actually support Hamas less as things become more bloody.

There is also the general concern about how the rest of the world will react. Israel has never been a generally popular state and invading Gaza would generally not be seen as a positive action. Of course, the United States will stick with Israel-they are a critical ally.

From a moral standpoint,the ground war can be seen as morally acceptable in some ways and less so in others. On one hand, ground troops can be more precise in their attacks and can have better local intelligence (relative to air strikes). Of course, ground forces can still make errors and kill the wrong people (civilians). On the other hand, having ground forces invade Gaza escalates the conflict and can very well lead to more deaths. After all, the Hamas targets are not clear military facilities or locations. Rather, their fighters and rocket launchers are spread among the civilians. As such, the civilian population will be rather involved as Israeli ground forces move towards their targets. Unlike aircraft, the troops have to cover the ground relatively slowly and will no doubt be attacked along the way (thus increasing the odds of civilians being killed during battles).

Of course, Israeli cannot stop the rocket attacks simply by continuing to bomb from the air. While some people have argued that air power alone can win conventional wars, history (from WWII forward) shows otherwise. As such, unless Israel and Hamas can reach a political solution, Israel will almost certainly need to invade. And, once again, more people will die on all sides (Israeli, Hamas and civilians).

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