A Philosopher's Blog

Charity & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2013
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Chari...

William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Charity (1878) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an earlier essay I looked at the matter of the ethics of overhead in regards to charities. In that essay, I focused on Dan Pallotta’s discussion of the matter and in this essay I will discuss the matter more generally.

While people do vary in their opinions of the matter, there does seem to be a general moral intuition that a charitable non-profit should have minimal overhead. The idea is, presumably, that the money should go to the charitable cause rather than to the cost of overhead. Thus, the idea is that the lower the overhead, the greater the virtue. In this context it is assumed that the overhead is generally legitimate (that is, the money for overhead is not simply wasted or misused).

The obvious way to discuss this matter in the context of ethics is to consider it within established approaches to ethics, specifically those of virtue theory, Kant and utilitarianism.

Borrowing from Aristotle and Aquinas, when assessing charity one needs to consider such factors as the object of the action, the circumstances of the action, and the end of the action.  Aristotle, in defining what it is to act virtuously, puts considerable emphasis on the idea that a person must do the virtuous act for its own sake. Using the example of giving to charity, exercising the virtue of charity (or generosity) requires that the giving be done for the sake of giving. If, for example, I give for the sake of getting a tax break, then I am not exercising the virtue of charity. This would seem to provide some foundation for the intuition that charities should have low overhead. After all, for those engaged in the charitable function (be it a road race, a bake sale or something else) to be acting from the virtue of charity they would need to engage in the activity for its own sake. If, for example, I work for a charity to get a salary, then it would seem that I am not acting virtuously. As such, to be acting virtuously it would seem that those involved in a charity would need to be engaged in the charity for its owns sake, which would certainly seem to involve the expectation that they make sacrifices for the charity since they are supposed to be acting for its sake and not for some other sake, such as making a large salary.

Not surprisingly, people are praised for making sacrifices for charity—be it a person who volunteers for free or a person who could be a CEO of a major corporation but instead works for a charity for a mere fraction of what she could make in the for-profit sector.

Kant claimed that what matters morally is the good will and not what the good will accomplishes. Roughly put, if a person wills the moral law, then that is what matters. Whether the person accomplishes anything practical or not is not relevant to the ethics of the matter. In the case of a charity, what would presumably matter is that a person will in the appropriately good way and the consequences would not matter morally. This would certainly match the idea that what matters in a charity is that this will be shown by focusing on minimizing overhead and maximizing what goes to the charitable cause. Naturally, a person can will the good and also have success in terms of the consequences. However, people are praised for their intent. So, as Pallotta noted, those running a bake sale with a low overhead that raises a tiny amount of money are regarded as morally superior to those running a high-overhead event that raises a great deal of money. It is presumably assumed that those with the low overhead are focused on (willing) charity while those who are involved in the high overhead operation are really concerned with their own income.

In the case of utilitarianism, the focus is not on the intentions of those involved nor on what they will or do not will. Rather, what matters is the consequences. On this moral view, it would certainly seem that a high overhead charity could be superior to a low overhead charity in terms of the consequences. In fact, Pallotta seems to be giving what amounts to a utilitarian argument: what matters is the overall consequences. On this view, a charity is assessed based rather like any business: costs and benefits. So, for example, if a charity has large expenses in terms of salaries and promotions, yet successfully raises millions for charity, then it is better than a charity with tiny expenses that raises a tiny amount of money.

While it is tempting to claim that those operating from the utilitarian perspective would be doing so in a way that rejects the idea of the true virtue of charity, this need not be the case. Acting in a virtuous manner presumably does not require that a person act less effectively. As such, if a person accepts a large salary to work at a charity for the sake of the charity, then the person can still be regarded as virtuous, albeit well compensated for her virtue.

The obvious counter is that a person who was truly motivated by a sense of charity would accept a much lower salary so that more would go to charity. This is certainly a legitimate concern and raises the question of how much a person should sacrifice in order to be virtuous. In this case, a person who could make a huge salary effectively selling bottle water to the masses instead elects to make a large salary effectively combating malaria could be regarded as being virtuous—provided that she chose the one over the other for the sake of helping others. While a person who accepted a lower salary for doing the job could (and perhaps should) be regarded as more virtuous, it does seem misguided to automatically regard someone who is doing good as lacking virtue merely because they receive such compensation. If only from a practical sense, it seems like a good idea to reward people for doing what is good.

If, however, a person picks the charitable job for other reasons (such as location or to boost his image for planned political run), then the person would not be acting virtuously even if he happened to do good. We do not, of course, always know what is motivating a person. This probably explains why people tend to praise charities with lower overhead—since those involved are obviously not getting anything for themselves (in terms of money), then they surely must be motivated by charity’s sake. Or so it is assumed.

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Mike’s Run: Weather

Posted in Mike's Run by Michael LaBossiere on July 30, 2013


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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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Splitting Marriage: Love Unions

Posted in Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on July 26, 2013
Author: Bagande

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In previous essays I argued in favor of splitting marriage by proposing theological unions (for the religious folks) and civil unions (to cover the legal contract aspect of marriage). However, there does seem to be one aspect of marriage left out, namely the matter of love.

On the one hand, it is sensible to not include the notion of love in marriage. After all, a couple that is getting married does not have to prove that they are in love. People who do not love each other can get married and people who do love each other (in the romantic sense) need not get married.

On the other hand, the notion of marriage for love does have a certain romantic appeal—fueled by literature and movies (if not reality). As such, it seems worthwhile to include a third type of marriage, namely the love union. While the romantic image is appealing, there is also a more substantive basis for the love union.

As noted in another essay, the theological union was proposed to allow people to exercise both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. As was noted in the essay after that, the civil union was proposed to handle the legal aspects of marriage. In the case of the love union, the purpose is to allow couples to create their own relationship bond (and rules) apart from that of religion and the state. That is, this is a relationship defined entirely by the couple. While the couple might involve others and have a ceremony, a love union would not be a theological union and would have no legal status.  That is, the rules are only enforced (or not) by the couple. Naturally, a love union can be combined with the other types. A couple could, for example, get a theological union at their mosque, get a civil union from the state, and then have an event with friends to announce their love union.

Given that the love union has no theological status or legal status, it might be wondered what it would actually do. The answer is, of course, that this would vary from union to union. However, the general idea is that the couple would define the aspects of their relationship that are not covered by theology (which might be all of it) and do not fall under the dominion of the state. This sort of definition might be something as simple as a declaration of eternal love to a fairly complex discussion of the nature of the relationship in terms of rights, expectations and responsibilities. While not every couple will want to establish a love union, this does seem like a good idea.

Love is, apparently, the least important aspect of marriage when it comes to the political debates over the matter. This might be a reflection of the reality of marriage (that it is about religion and legal rights) or a sign of misplaced values. Because of this, I thought I would at least give love a chance.

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Mike’s Run: The Quest for Lightness

Posted in Mike's Run by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2013


Splitting Marriage: Civil Unions

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on July 24, 2013
English: A woman makes her support of her marr...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an earlier essay I argued in favor of splitting marriage and focused on the creation of theological unions. Each religious institution could define its own theological union in accord with its doctrines, thus allowing people to exercise their religious freedom. However, the theological union would have no legal status—thus allowing people to exercise their right to freedom from other peoples’ religions. Marriage as currently practiced does have numerous legal aspects that range from tax status to hospital visitation rights. On the assumption that these legal aspects are worth preserving, I propose a second type of marriage. At the risk of some confusion, it could be called a “civil union”—but I am not wed to this name. I am also open to the idea that some or even all of the legal aspects of marriage are not worth preserving and would certainly consider arguments to that effect.

A civil union of the sort I am proposing would actually cover a variety of legal relationships and would allow people various options. I base this on the idea that people should, in general, have the freedom to define their legal relationships in this context.

Those who prefer a more traditional approach could select the full traditional marriage civil union with all the legal obligations and rights that compose current marriage. In terms of who should be allowed to engage in such unions, the answer would seem to be that it is open to all adults who are legally capable of giving consent. Thus, this would exclude civil unions with turtles, corpses or goats.  The basis for this is the right of legally competent adults to enter into legal contracts. As I see it, the legal aspects of marriage (such as joint property, insurance coverage, and so on) are merely legal agreements that hold between adults and the sex of the individuals seems to be irrelevant. As such, same-sex civil unions would be just as legitimate as different-sex civil unions. People engage in business contracts with people who are of their same sex all the time and the legal aspects of marriage are rather similar to a business contract—most especially in matters of divorce.

In addition to the “standard package” based on traditional marriage, people could also create more personalized contracts of union. This would involve specifying the legal obligations and rights that define the union. In terms of why this should be allowed, it is absurd that the marriage merger is a one size fits all deal when any other contract can be custom made. As such, I propose that people can create contracts of union that would allow couples to specify the legal aspects of their civil union. While many of these would be drawn from the “standard package”, these could also include tailored specifications. For example, a contract of union might specify the division of property that will occur in the case of divorce. In fact, given the high divorce rate, such contracts would be rather sensible and would save considerable problems later on.

Given that the legal aspect of marriage are based on a contract, it seems reasonable that many of the rights and privileges should be open to people who are not in a union. For example, people should be able to designate the people who get to visit them in the hospital.

It might be contended that this approach to marriage fails to consider the role of religion in marriage. My obvious reply is that this is exactly right. The religious aspects of marriage should be made distinct from the legal aspects, which is why I proposed the religious union as well.

It might be objected that this contract view of marriage would sully the sacredness of marriage. This proposal would seem to reduce marriage to a legal contract and, of course, people might enter into such unions for impure reasons such as financial gain or to get a green card.

The easy and obvious reply to the sully objection is that marriage has already been well and thoroughly sullied. Hence, replacing traditional marriage with a civil union would hardly sully it. To use an analogy, adding a bit more dirt to a mud puddle is not going to sully its purity, for it has none.

In regards to the impure reasons, it is obviously the case that people engage in traditional marriage for such impure reasons. Thus, this would make civil unions no worse than traditional marriage.

As a final point, it can be argued that marriage is defined by the state to encourage a certain type of marriage and in accord with traditional rights. The easy reply to this is that the state can still encourage marriage types by specifying the contracts and that an appeal to tradition is a mere fallacy.

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Training for a Marathon in 7 Days #6

Posted in Mike's Run by Michael LaBossiere on July 23, 2013


Superheroes, Robots and Killing

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 22, 2013
Batman the Animated Series: Volume 4 DVD (from...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even as a kid watching cartoons, I noticed that while the superheroes and heroes never really hurt living opponents, they had no qualms about bashing intelligent machines to bits. While animation of this sort is rather more violent than when I was a kid, the superhero genre still has an interesting distinction between how intelligent living creatures are treated and how even intelligent machines are treated. For example, Batman might give the Joker a solid beat down during an episode of the famous Batman animated series but he certainly does not kill anyone. Anyone organic anyway. Intelligent machines, which are common fare in superhero animation, are routinely destroyed by the same heroes who are sworn to never take a life. As might be guessed, I’ve given this matter some thought.

One rather obvious basis for the difference is psychological (or even biological): while people are generally distressed and even sickened by images of maimed and dead humans (and animals), they generally do not have a similar visceral reaction to damaged or destroyed machines. So, Superman punching Lex Luthor’s head off in a bloody mess would impact viewers rather differently than Superman punching the head off a robot. Interestingly, animators do portray mechanical beings being sliced to pieces and “bleeding” (provided the “blood” is oil or some other non-blood fluid). For example, Samurai Jack featured rather “gory” battles in which slaughtered machines gushed streams of blood. Organic opponents were, of course, never dealt with in that manner.

It is easy enough to dismiss the distinction between the violence against humans (and other living things) and machines as being purely a matter of keeping the action at the appropriate rating for the intended audience. However, there does seem to be more to the matter than this.

In the case of living opponents, the superheroes are generally careful to simply subdue them (even when the villains are mere generic minions and not the valuable comic book properties that are the main villains like Poison Ivy or the Parasite) rather than killing them or even hurting them badly. This is presumably because the heroes regard excessively harming or killing people to be morally unacceptable.

However, even obviously intelligent machines are not given the same treatment—unless the machine is a valuable property (like Braniac) the machine is typically destroyed rather than subdued. Even the main villain machines are also subject to far more violence than the living opponents, even if they do come back in later episodes or issues.

As such, there is a strong indication of organicism—a bias in favor of organic life and an accompanying contempt for non-organic people. This, of course, might seem like an absurd thing to say, however it does seem to be a matter well worth considering since this bias does extend (at least in fiction) beyond the realm of comic book animation and into science-fiction.

The main point of concern is that the treatment of the entity is often based not on whether it is person or not but based on its composition.  As such, intelligent machines are treated as things despite the fact that they show the key attributes of being people. For example, they think and engage in meaningful speech. Since there are presumably no actual intelligent machines today, this matter is still confined to fiction. However, heroes seem rather less heroic when they causally destroy people simply because they happen to be mechanical rather than biological. After all, they are not acting in a consistent way towards all people—they are biased against mechanical people.

It might, of course, be contended that the machines that act like people in the shows are not actually people (in the context of the show, of course). That is, they are cleverly programmed to create the appearance of being intelligent, but are no more a person than is a gun or dump truck.

While this does have a certain appeal, there is the obvious concern of whether or not the heroes know this metaphysical fact about the fictional world. That is, that the heroes know that a human minion is a person while a seemingly intelligent machine minion that talks and fights as well as a human minion merely has the appearance of personhood.

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The End of Watches?

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 19, 2013
HP watch calculator

HP watch calculator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People today, we are told, no longer wear watches. People just use their smart phones. While the idea of an Apple watch (or, rather, a watch like device) has gotten considerable attention there have been smart watches for quite some time. As I kid, I recall the geeky calculator watch (I owned one). The iPod Nano was also converted by a third party strap into a smart watch of sorts. However, the Apple watch is supposed to be a game changer.

Apparently, I did not get the memo about watches being out-the only time I’m not wearing one is when I am sleeping. I wear a watch for three main reasons. The first is a psychological one: habit. The second is pragmatic: I find my specialized GPS watch useful for running. Before I had my GPS watch, I used a digital watch for timing my runs-runners are generally very much into time and distance.  The third is also pragmatic: I have a  relatively bulky smart phone and I do not carry it with me everywhere and it is way easier to just look at my wrist. Not surprisingly, despite the alleged death of watches, I see many other people wearing them. However, they are usually fellow runners and we should probably not be taken as indicative of what most people do.

I suspect that one reason that smartphones have supplanted watches is that smartphones do what watches do, only better. First, there is the functionality: a smart phone provides a clock as well as much, much more. Second, a smartphone allows a person to display even more rudeness than can be displayed with a mere watch. After all, a person can only glance at his watch so often before seeming a bit crazy. However, a person can be almost endlessly distracted by a smartphone and thus use it to ignore others and express contempt for them. Third, while a person can get a brief respite and the time  by looking at a watch, a smartphone provides an ongoing respite from such things as dull meetings and boring social situations.

While watches will certainly remain in use by some folks, perhaps the trends will continue so that they are used as specialized technology or decorative jewelry (especially displays of ostentatious wealth). I have seen an increasing number of people using smart phones for running and most folks always have their smart phones in front of their eyes at most times, so perhaps the watch will become a niche item. However, if Apple does produce a watch, it will surely aim to make the smart watch as mainstream as the smartphone.

The current model for the smartwatch is essentially an adjunct device that serves as a peripheral for a smartphone. The smartwatch allows the wearer to read her incoming text messages, see who is calling and so forth. Naturally, a smartwatch could be made more robust and there are already smartphones that can be worn on the wrist. The obvious question is, of course, whether or not people will buy such devices. On the one hand, people already seem content with using their phones directly, especially the thin and light ones. As such, it is not clear that adding another device to use a smartphone indirectly will be appealing. On the other hand, Apple might be able to convince people they need the watch or, more likely, that it will make them more hip. If the Apple watch does everything that my GPS watch can do and then some, I would certainly consider one-if the price is reasonable. If it is just an adjunct device for the iPhone, then my lack of an iPhone would certainly prevent me from acquiring one.

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Training for a Marathon in 7 Days #5

Posted in Mike's Run by Michael LaBossiere on July 18, 2013