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Taxing the 1% II: Coercion

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 11, 2015

As noted in my previous essay on this topic, those with the highest income in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. There have been serious proposals on the left to increase this rate to 40% or even as high as 45%. Most conservatives are opposed to any increase to the taxes of the wealthy while many on the left favor such increases. As in the previous essay on this subject, I will focus on arguments against increasing the tax rate.

One way to argue against increasing taxes (or having any taxes at all) is to contend that to increase the taxes of the wealthy against their wishes would be an act of coercion. There are more hyperbolic ways to make this sort of argument, such as asserting that taxes are theft and robbery by the state. However, I will use the somewhat more neutral term of “coercion.” While “coercion” certainly has a negative connotation, the connotations of “theft” and “robbery” are rather more negative.

If coercion is morally wrong, then coercing the wealthy into paying more taxes would be wrong. As such, a key issue here is whether coercion is wrong or not. On the face of it, the morality of an act of coercion would seem to depend on a variety of factors, such as the goal of the coercion, the nature of the coercive act and the parties involved. A rather important factor is whether the coerced consented to the system of coercion. For example, it can be argued that criminals consented to the use of coercive force against them by being citizens of the state—they (in general) cannot claim they are being wronged when they are arrested and punished.

It could be claimed that by remaining citizens of the United States and participating in a democratic political system, the richest do give their consent to the decisions made by the legitimate authorities of the state. So, if Congress creates laws that change the tax rates, then the rich are obligated to go along. They might not like the specific decision that was made, but that is how a democratic system works. The state is to use its coercive power to ensure that the laws are followed—be they laws against murder, laws against infringing the patents of pharmaceutical companies or laws increasing the tax rate.

A reasonable response to this is that although the citizens of the state have agreed to be subject to the coercive power of the state, there are still moral limits on the power. Returning to the example of the police, there are moral limits on what sort of coercion they should use—even when the law and common practice might allow them to use such methods. Returning to the matter of laws, there are clearly unjust laws. As such, agreeing to be part of a coercive system does not entail that all the coercive actions of that system or its laws are morally acceptable. Given this, it could be claimed that the state coercing the rich into paying more taxes might be wrong.

It could be countered that if the taxes on the rich are increased, this would be after the state and the rich have engaged in negotiations regarding the taxes. The rich often have organizations, such as corporations, that enable them to present a unified front to the state. One might even say that these are unions of the wealthy. The rich also have lobbyists that can directly negotiate with the people in the government and, of course, the rich have the usual ability of any citizen to negotiate with the government.

If the rich fare poorly in their negotiations, perhaps because those making the decisions do not place enough value on what the rich have to offer in the negotiations, then the rich must accept this result. After all, that is how the free market of democratic politics works. To restrict the freedom of the state in its negotiations with rules and regulations regarding how much it can tax the rich would be an assault on freedom and a clear violation of the rights of the state. If the rich do not like the results, they should have brought more to the table or been better at negotiating. They can also find another country—and some do just that. Or create or take over their own state.

It could be objected that the negotiations between the state and the rich is unfair. While the rich can have considerable power, the state has far greater power. After all, the United States has trillions of dollars, police, and the military. This imbalance of power makes it impossible for the rich to fairly negotiate with the state—unless there are rules and regulations governing how the rich can be treated by the greater power of the state. There could be, for example, rules about how much the state should be able to tax the rich and these rules should be based on a rational analysis of the facts. This would allow a fair maximum tax to be set that would allow the rich to be treated justly.

The relation between a state intent on maximizing tax income and the rich can be seen as analogous to the relation between employees and businesses intent on maximizing profits. If it is acceptable for the wealthy to organize corporations to negotiate with the more powerful state, then it would also be acceptable for employees to organize unions to negotiate with the more powerful corporations. While the merits of individual corporations and unions can be debated endlessly, the basic principle of organizing to negotiate with others is essentially the same for both and if one is acceptable, so is the other.

Continuing the analogy, if it is accepted that the state’s freedom to impose taxes should be regulated, limited and restricted by law, then it would seem that imposing limits, regulations and restrictions on the economic freedom of employers in regards to how they treat employees. After all, employees are almost always in the weaker position and thus usually negotiate at a marked disadvantage. While workers, like the rich, could try to find another job, create their own business or go to another land, the options of most workers are rather limited.

To use a specific example, if it is morally right to set a rational limit to the maximum tax for the rich, it is also morally right to set a rational limit on the minimum wage that an employee can be paid. Naturally, there can be a wide range of complexities in regards to both the taxes and the wages, but the basic principle is the same in both cases: the more powerful should be limited in their economic impositions on the less powerful. There is also the shared principle of how much a person has a right to, be it the money she keeps or the money she is paid for her work.

Like any argument by analogy, the argument I have made can be challenged by showing the relevant similarities between the analogues are outweighed by the relevant dissimilarities. There are various ways this could be done.

One obvious difference is that when the state imposes taxes on the rich, the state is using political coercion. In the case of the employer imposing on the employee, the coercion is economic (although some employers do have the ability to get the state to use its coercive powers in their favor). It could be argued that this difference is strong enough to break the analogy and show that although the state should be limited in its imposition on the rich, employers should have considerable freedom to employ their economic coercion against employees. The challenge is showing how political coercion is morally different from economic coercion in a way that breaks the analogy.

Another obvious difference is that the state is imposing taxes on the rich while the employer is not taxing her employees. She is merely setting their wages, benefits, vacation time, work conditions and so on.  So, while the state can reduce the money of the rich by taxing them, it could be argued that this is relevantly different from an employer reducing the money of employees by paying low wages. As such, it could be argued that this difference is sufficient to break the analogy.

As a final point, it could be argued that the rich differ from employees in ways that break the analogy. For example, it could be argued that since the rich are of a better economic class than employees, they are entitled to better treatment, even if they happen to be unable to negotiate for that better treatment. The challenge is, of course, to show that the rich being rich entitles them to a better class of treatment.


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Augmented Soldier Ethics IV: Cybernetics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 4, 2015

Human flesh is weak and metal is strong. So, it is no surprise that military science fiction has often featured soldiers enhanced by cybernetics ranging from the minor to the extreme. An example of a minor cybernetic is an implanted radio. The most extreme example would be a full body conversion: the brain is removed from the original body and placed within a mechanical body. This body might look like a human (known as a Gemini full conversion in Cyberpunk) or be a vehicle such as a tank, as in Keith Laumer’s A Plague of Demons.

One obvious point of moral concern with cybernetics is the involuntary “upgrading” of soldiers, such as the sort practiced by the Cybermen of Doctor Who. While important, the issue of involuntary augmentation is not unique to cybernetics and was addressed in the second essay in this series. For the sake of this essay, it will be assumed that the soldiers volunteer for their cybernetics and are not coerced or deceived. This then shifts the moral concern to the ethics of the cybernetics themselves.

While the ethics of cybernetics is complicated, one way to handle matters is to split cybernetics into two broad categories. The first category consists of restorative cybernetics. The second consists of enhancement cybernetics.

Restorative cybernetics are devices used to restore (hopefully) normal functions to a wounded soldier. Examples would include cyberoptics (replacement eyes), cyberlimbs (replacements legs and arms), and cyberorgans (such as an artificial heart). Soldiers are already being fitted with such devices, although by the standards of science fiction they are still primitive. Given that these devices merely restore functionality and the ethics of prosthetics and similar replacements is well established, there seems to be no moral concern about using such technology in what is essentially a medical role. In fact, it could be argued that nations have a moral obligation to use such technology to restore their wounded soldiers.

While enhancement cybernetics might be used to restore functionality to a wounded soldier, enhancement cybernetics go beyond mere restoration. By definition, they are intended to improve on the original. These enhancements break down into two main classes. The first class consists of replacement cybernetics—these devices require the removal of the original part (be it an eye, limb or organ) and serve as replacements that improve on the original in some manner. For example, cyberoptics could provide a soldier with night vision, telescopic visions and immunity to being blinded by flares and flashes. As another example, cybernetic limbs could provide greater speed, strength and endurance. And, of course, a full conversion could provide a soldier with a vast array of superhuman abilities.

The obvious moral concern with these devices is that they require the removal of the original organic parts—something that certainly seems problematic, even if they do offer enhanced abilities. This could, of course, be offset if the original parts were preserved and restored when the soldier left the service. There is also the concern raised in science fiction about the mental effects of such removals and replacements—the Cyberpunk role playing game developed the notion of cyberpsychosis, a form of insanity caused by having flesh replaced by machines. Obviously, it is not yet known what negative effects (if any) such enhancements will have on people. As in any case of weighing harms and benefits, the likely approach would be utilitarian: are the advantages of the technology worth the cost to the soldier?

A second type of enhancement is an add-on which does not replace existing organic parts. Instead, as the name implies, an add-on involves the addition of a device to the body of the soldier. Add-on cybernetics differ from wearables and standard gear in that they are actually implanted in or attached to the soldier’s body. As such, removal can be rather problematic.

A fairly minor example would be something like an implanted radio. A rather extreme example would be the case of the comic book villain Doctor Octopus—his mechanical limbs are add-ons.  Other examples of add-ons include such things as implanted sensors, implanted armor, implanted weapons (such as in the comic book hero Wolverine), and other such augmentations.

Since these devices do not involve removal of healthy parts, they do avoid that moral concern. However, there are still legitimate concerns about the physical and mental harms that might be caused by such devices. It is easy enough to imagine implanted devices having serious side effects on soldiers. As noted above, these matters would probably be best addressed by utilitarian ethics—weighing the harms against the benefits.

Both types of enhancements also raise a moral concern about returning the soldier to the civilian population after her term of service. In the case of restorative grade devices, there is not as much concern—these soldiers would, ideally, function as they did before their injuries. However, the enhancements do present a potential problem since they, by definition, give the soldier capabilities that exceed that of normal humans. In some cases, re-integration would probably not be a problem. For example, a soldier with enhanced cyberoptics would presumably present no special problems. However, certain augmentations would present serious problems, such as implanted weapons or full conversions. Ideally, augmented soldiers could be restored to normal after their service has ended, but there could obviously be cases in which this was not done—either because of the cost or because the augmentation could not be reversed. This has been explored in science fiction—soldiers that can never stop being soldiers because they are machines of war. While this could be justified on utilitarian grounds (after all, war itself is often justified on such grounds), it is certainly a matter of concern—or will be.


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Augmented Soldier Ethics II: Informed Consent

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 6, 2015

One general moral subject that is relevant to the augmentation of soldiers by such things as pharmaceuticals, biologicals or cybernetics is the matter of informed consent. While fiction abounds with tales of involuntary augmentation, real soldiers and citizens of the United States have been coerced or deceived into participating in experiments. As such, there do seem to be legitimate grounds for being concerned that soldiers and citizens could be involuntarily augmented as part of experiments or actual “weapon deployment.”

Assuming the context of a Western democratic state, it seems reasonable to hold that augmenting a soldier without her informed consent would be immoral. After all, the individual has rights against the democratic state and these include the right not to be unjustly coerced or deceived. Socrates, in the Crito, also advanced reasonable arguments that the obedience of a citizen required that the state not coerce or deceive the citizen into the social contract and this would certainly apply to soldiers in a democratic state.

It is certainly tempting to rush to the position that informed consent would make the augmentation of soldiers morally acceptable. After all, the soldier would know what she was getting into and would volunteer to undergo the process in question. In popular fiction, one example of this would be Steve Rogers volunteering for the super soldier conversion. Given his consent, such an augmentation would seem morally acceptable.

There are, of course, some cases where informed consent makes a critical difference in ethics. One obvious example is the moral difference between sex and rape—the difference is a matter of informed and competent consent. If Sam agrees to have sex with Sally, then Sally is not raping Sam. But if Sally drugs Sam and has her way, then that would be rape.  Another obvious example is the difference between theft and receiving a gift—this is also a matter of informed consent. If Sam gives Sally a diamond ring that is not theft. If Sally takes the ring by force or coercion, then that is theft—and presumably wrong.

Even when informed consent is rather important, there are still cases in which the consent does not make the action morally acceptable. For example, Sam and Sally might engage in consensual sex, but if they are siblings or one is the parent of the other, the activity could still be immoral. As another example, Sam might consent to give Sally an heirloom ring that has been in the family for untold generations, but it might still be the wrong thing to do—especially when Sally hocks the ring to buy heroin.

There are also cases in which informed consent is not relevant because of the morality of the action itself. For example, Sam might consent to join in Sally’s plot to murder Ashley (rather than being coerced or tricked) but this would not be relevant to the ethics of the murder. At best it could be said that Sally did not add to her misdeed by coercing or tricking her accomplices, but this would not make the murder itself less bad.

Turning back to the main subject of augmentation, even if the soldiers gave their informed consent, the above consideration show that there would still be the question of whether or not the augmentation itself is moral or not. For example, there are reasonable moral arguments against genetically modifying human beings. If these arguments hold up, then even if a soldier consented to genetic modification, the modification itself would be immoral.  I will be addressing the ethics of pharmaceutical, biological and cybernetic augmentation in later essays.

While informed consent does seem to be a moral necessity, this position can be countered. One stock way to do this is to make use of a utilitarian argument: if the benefits gained from augmenting soldiers without their informed consent outweighed the harms, then the augmentation would be morally acceptable. For example, imagine that a war against a wicked enemy is going rather badly and that an augmentation method has been developed that could turn the war around. The augmentation is dangerous and has awful long term side-effects that would deter most soldiers from volunteering. However, losing to the wicked enemy would be worse—so it could thus be argued that the soldiers should be deceived so that the war could be won. As another example, a wicked enemy is not needed—it could simply be argued that the use of augmented soldiers would end the war faster, thus saving lives, albeit at the cost of those terrible side-effects.

Another stock approach is to appeal to the arguments used by democracies to justify conscription in time of war. If the state (or, rather, those who expect people to do what they say) can coerce citizens into killing and dying in war, then the state can surely coerce and citizens to undergo augmentation. It is easy to imagine a legislature passing something called “the conscription and augmentation act” that legalizes coercing citizens into being augmented to serve in the military. Of course, there are those who are suspicious of democratic states so blatantly violating the rights of life and liberty. However, not all states are democratic.

While democratic states would seem to face some moral limits when it comes to involuntary augmentation, non-democratic states appear to have more options. For example, under fascism the individual exists to serve the state (that is, the bastards that think everyone else should do what they say). If this political system is morally correct, then the state would have every right to coerce or deceive the citizens for the good of the state. In fiction, these states tend to be the ones to crank out involuntary augmented soldiers (that still manage to lose to the good guys).

Naturally, even if the state has the right to coerce or deceive soldiers into becoming augmented, it does not automatically follow that the augmentation itself is morally acceptable—this would depend on the specific augmentations. These matters will be addressed in upcoming essays.



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The Ethics of Prostitution

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2008
English: Prostitutes in front of a gogo bar in...

English: Prostitutes in front of a gogo bar in Pattaya, Thailand. Original text: Like slaves on an auction block waiting to be selected, victims of human trafficking have to perform as they are told or risk being beaten. Sex buyers often claim they had no idea that most women and girls abused in prostitution are desperate to escape, or are there as a result of force, fraud, or coercion. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prostitution is often described as the oldest profession. Not surprisingly, the ethics of prostitution have often been debated. In general, most people claim that it is morally unacceptable. Yet, like all such practices, it continues to thrive-as recent headlines will attest.

However, as a philosopher, what interests me is not the last media frenzy about prostitution, but the ethics of the practice itself. Rather than take the usual approach of simply asserting it is immoral, I will consider the various plausible reasons as to why it should be considered immoral and also argue that, under certain conditions, it can be just as morally acceptable as other forms of work.

One reason often given as to why prostitution is immoral is that it tends to involve coercion. In most cases, people do not freely decide to become prostitutes. In some cases, they are driven to the profession by desperation and a lack of other opportunities for employment. In other cases, they are forced into prostitution by others. In some cases, people are enslaved and forced to be prostitutes. For those who are unaware of this fact, slavery (both relating to prostitution and other forms) is alive and well around the world today.

Such coercion is clearly immoral, especially the sort that involves slavery. I agree with John Locke’s view of the matter. Roughly put, Locke argues that a person who would enslave another person should be regarded as a potential threat to the life and liberty of all. Hence, it is right and just to kill slavers. My own addition to this is that the death should be both cruel and unusual, perhaps involving a wood chipper. As you might imagine, there is little that I hate more than slavery and slavers. In light of this, prostitution that involves this sort of coercion must be considered immoral.

However, some people freely and knowingly chose to be prostitutes. In these cases, the coercion argument obviously fails.

It might be argued that no one would freely chose to be a prostitute and that all people are coerced into doing so. For example, feminists often refer to the coercive power of the patriarchy that is so powerful and subtle that women often do not even know they are being coerced. If these feminists are right, then all (or almost all) prostitution in a patriarchal society would be immoral.

Of course, if we accept this sort of view, then it would entail that almost all jobs are immoral. After all, everyone who is not the top of the power and economic hierarchy will be coerced into working by those above them and by the very nature of capitalism. This view has, of course, been argued for by communists, anarchists and others. It seems reasonable, but also shows that certain types of prostitution are just as moral (or immoral) as most other jobs. So, a prostitute who is no more coerced than a professor is thus morally on par in this regards.

If we accept that such coercion is morally acceptable, which is a common view in capitalism, then freely chosen prostitution would be morally acceptable on these grounds. This is, of course, what one would expect from capitalism.

The second main moral concern about prostitution is that it is exploitative. As presented stereo typically in movies, prostitutes typically work for a pimp or a madam who takes a sizable cut of their income. This is exploitative because the prostitute is doing the hard work while the pimp/madam is taking an unfair share of the proceeds.

Of course, almost all other jobs are exploitative in this fashion. Think, for example, of how much the typical worker gets paid and how much profits the industry in question makes. Profit, as Marx argues, typically requires that the worker is paid less than the value she adds. Of course, profit can also be made by exploiting the customer or the supplier of raw materials. But, profit by its very nature seems to require exploitation-someone has to be getting less than what they deserve.

It can be replied that such exploitation is acceptable when it is withing a certain degree. So, for example, the exploitation of the prostitutes by their pimps is exploitive because he takes far too much. The exploitation of the workers by Burger King is acceptable, because they do not exploit their workers as badly (and rarely, if ever, pimp slap them).

Now, if a degree of exploitation is acceptable, then prostitution that involves exploitation in this range would be acceptable. For example, working for a generous pimp or madam would be a morally acceptable job, on par with working for Starbucks. Once again, capitalism and prostitution can be bedfellows (and so often are).

Of course, if all exploitation is wrong, then almost all jobs would be immoral. This seems true-especially on Monday mornings.

A third reason that prostitution is regarded as immoral is that it is supposed to be degrading to the prostitute In most cases, this is true. To treat someone as mere sexual object is to fail to respect their worth as human being. Kant makes a good case for this as do numerous feminists, so I won’t rehash their arguments here.

Of course, many jobs are degrading and are still considered morally acceptable. For example, cleaning people’s toilets or working as a servant can be regarded as degrading. Working in a sweatshop is also degrading. In fact, a case could be made that most employment involves some attack on human dignity. Of course, the degree of degradation varies widely. But, if some degradation is morally acceptable, then prostitution that falls within that range would also be acceptable.

This, obviously enough, raises the question as to whether prostitution can be non-degrading or at least acceptably degrading.

it has been claimed that there are historical precedents for prostitution as a profession that is not degrading. One example is that of the dancers in Medieval Japan. Perhaps the most famous example is that of the hetaera of ancient Greece. These women were typically well educated and apparently enjoyed higher status than most women of the time (of course, women generally had very little status in that time). Based on what I have seen on the news, various “escort” services seem to strive to replicate the myth of the hetaera. For example, the service that provided women to Spitzer claimed to have highly educated and refined “companions.” The unfortunate DC Madam (Ms. Deborah Jane Palfrey) apparently strove to create a high class business: “the women had to be older than 23 with two to four years of college. ‘I was not interested in jaded, hard-core girls of any caliber,’ she said. ‘I wanted women who were strong and independent, who wanted to go on with their lives but they couldn’t get into grad school.'” (Newsweek) According to reports from the women who worked for her, Ms. Palfrey treated the women well and the women themselves certainly seemed to believe they were not being degraded.

It might be argued that having sex with people for money is inherently degrading. There are two replies to this.

First, there is the fact that all jobs involve a person selling himself/herself. A person who does manual labor is selling her body. A person who writes for a living is selling her mind. A person who performs is selling his talent. And so on.

Of course, one might reply, these people are doing something less intimate. Hence, the difference.

An easy reply to this is that people sell very intimate things. A writer sells her intimate thoughts. A therapist is being paid to be a friend (of sorts). If these sorts of jobs are acceptable, then so to is prostitution.

Second, it has long been argued that marriage is long term prostitution. The noted thinker Mary Wollstonecraft made this point. The idea is that women are trading sex for economic security. Dating can be, as the comedians do, looked at the same way:

Q: What’s the difference between going on a date and seeing a prostitute?
A: On a date, you spend money and hope for sex. When you see a prostitute, you spend money and know you’ll get sex.

Crude, yet informative. Many feminists thinkers have, as noted above, taken this view. If dating and marriage are 1) economic & sexual relationships and 2) acceptable, then prostitution would also seem to be acceptable. But, it also follows that if prostitution is unacceptable, then marriage and dating of this sort would also be immoral

Given the above discussion, it seems reasonable to accept that in our current society prostitution can be morally on par with acceptable professions. This says a great deal about our society.

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