A Philosopher's Blog

Obligations to People We Don’t Know

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 10, 2014

One of the classic moral problems is the issue of whether or not we have moral obligations to people we do not know.  If we do have such obligations, then there are also questions about the foundation, nature and extent of these obligations. If we do not have such obligations, then there is the obvious question about why there are no such obligations. I will start by considering some stock arguments regarding our obligations to others.

One approach to the matter of moral obligations to others is to ground them on religion. This requires two main steps. The first is establishing that the religion imposes such obligations. The second is making the transition from the realm of religion to the domain of ethics.

Many religions do impose such obligations on their followers. For example, John 15:12 conveys God’s command: “This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you.”  If love involves obligations (which it seems to), then this would certainly seem to place us under these obligations.  Other faiths also include injunctions to assist others.

In terms of transitioning from religion to ethics, one easy way is to appeal to divine command theory—the moral theory that what God commands is right because He commands it. This does raise the classic Euthyphro problem: is something good because God commands it, or is it commanded because it is good? If the former, goodness seems arbitrary. If the latter, then morality would be independent of God and divine command theory would be false.

Using religion as the basis for moral obligation is also problematic because doing so would require proving that the religion is correct—this would be no easy task. There is also the practical problem that people differ in their faiths and this would make a universal grounding for moral obligations difficult.

Another approach is to argue for moral obligations by using the moral method of reversing the situation.  This method is based on the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and the basic idea is that consistency requires that a person treat others as she would wish to be treated.

To make the method work, a person would need to want others to act as if they had obligations to her and this would thus obligate the person to act as if she had obligations to them. For example, if I would want someone to help me if I were struck by a car and bleeding out in the street, then consistency would require that I accept the same obligation on my part. That is, if I accept that I should be helped, then consistency requires that I must accept I should help others.

This approach is somewhat like that taken by Immanuel Kant. He argues that because a person necessarily regards herself as an end (and not just a means to an end), then she must also regard others as ends and not merely as means.  He endeavors to use this to argue in favor of various obligations and duties, such as helping others in need.

There are, unfortunately, at least two counters to this sort of approach. The first is that it is easy enough to imagine a person who is willing to forgo the assistance of others and as such can consistently refuse to accept obligations to others. So, for example, a person might be willing to starve rather than accept assistance from other people. While such people might seem a bit crazy, if they are sincere then they cannot be accused of inconsistency.

The second is that a person can argue that there is a relevant difference between himself and others that would justify their obligations to him while freeing him from obligations to them. For example, a person of a high social or economic class might assert that her status obligates people of lesser classes while freeing her from any obligations to them.  Naturally, the person must provide reasons in support of this alleged relevant difference.

A third approach is to present a utilitarian argument. For a utilitarian, like John Stuart Mill, morality is assessed in terms of consequences: the correct action is the one that creates the greatest utility (typically happiness) for the greatest number. A utilitarian argument for obligations to people we do not know would be rather straightforward. The first step would be to estimate the utility generated by accepting a specific obligation to people we do not know, such as rendering aid to an intoxicated person who is about to become the victim of sexual assault. The second step is to estimate the disutility generated by imposing that specific obligation. The third step is to weigh the utility against the disutility. If the utility is greater, then such an obligation should be imposed. If the disutility is greater, then it should not.

This approach, obviously enough, rests on the acceptance of utilitarianism. There are numerous arguments against this moral theory and these can be employed against attempts to ground obligations on utility. Even for those who accept utilitarianism, there is the open possibility that there will always be greater utility in not imposing obligations, thus undermining the claim that we have obligations to others.

A fourth approach is to consider the matter in terms of rational self-interest and operate from the assumption that people should act in their self-interest. In terms of a moral theory, this would be ethical egoism: the moral theory that a person should act in her self-interest rather than acting in an altruistic manner.

While accepting that others have obligations to me would certainly be in my self-interest, it initially appears that accepting obligations to others would be contrary to my self-interest. That is, I would be best served if others did unto me as I would like to be done unto, but I was free to do unto them as I wished. If I could get away with this sort of thing, it would be ideal (assuming that I am selfish). However, as a matter of fact people tend to notice and respond negatively to a lack of reciprocation. So, if having others accept that they have some obligations to me were in my self-interest, then it would seem that it would be in my self-interest to pay the price for such obligations by accepting obligations to them.

For those who like evolutionary just-so stories in the context of providing foundations for ethics, the tale is easy to tell: those who accept obligations to others would be more successful than those who do not.

The stock counter to the self-interest argument is the problem of Glaucon’s unjust man and Hume’s sensible knave. While it certainly seems rational to accept obligations to others in return for getting them to accept similar obligations, it seems preferable to exploit their acceptance of obligations while avoiding one’s supposed obligations to others whenever possible. Assuming that a person should act in accord with self-interest, then this is what a person should do.

It can be argued that this approach would be self-defeating: if people exploited others without reciprocation, the system of obligations would eventually fall apart. As such, each person has an interest in ensuring that others hold to their obligations. Humans do, in fact, seem to act this way—those who fail in their obligations often get a bad reputation and are distrusted. From a purely practical standpoint, acting as if one has obligations to others would thus seem to be in a person’s self-interest because the benefits would generally outweigh the costs.

The counter to this is that each person still has an interest in avoiding the cost of fulfilling obligations and there are various practical ways to do this by the use of deceit, power and such. As such, a classic moral question arises once again: why act on your alleged obligations if you can get away with not doing so? Aside from the practical reply given above, there seems to be no answer from self-interest.

A fifth option is to look at obligations to others as a matter of debts. A person is born into an established human civilization built on thousands of years of human effort. Since each person arrives as a helpless infant, each person’s survival is dependent on others. As the person grows up, she also depends on the efforts of countless other people she does not know. These include soldiers that defend her society, the people who maintain the infrastructure, firefighters who keep fire from sweeping away the town or city, the taxpayers who pay for all this, and so on for all the many others who make human civilization possible. As such, each member of civilization owes a considerable debt to those who have come before and those who are here now.

If debt imposes an obligation, then each person who did not arise ex-nihilo owes a debt to those who have made and continue to make their survival and existence in society possible. At the very least, the person is obligated to make contributions to continue human civilization as a repayment to these others.

One objection to this is for a person to claim that she owes no such debt because her special status obligates others to provide all this for her with nothing owed in return. The obvious challenge is for a person to prove such an exalted status.

Another objection is for a person to claim that all this is a gift that requires no repayment on the part of anyone and hence does not impose any obligation. The challenge is, of course, to prove this implausible claim.

A final option I will consider is that offered by virtue theory. Virtue theory, famously presented by thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius, holds that people should develop their virtues. These classic virtues include generosity, loyalty and other virtues that involve obligations and duties to others. Confucius explicitly argued in favor of duties and obligations as being key components of virtues.

In terms of why a person should have such virtues and accept such obligations, the standard answer is that being virtuous will make a person happy.

Virtue theory is not without its detractors and the criticism of the theory can be employed to undercut it, thus undermining its role in arguing that we have obligations to people we do not know.


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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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Citizen, Consumer, Taxpayer

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 23, 2011
united states currency eye- IMG_7364_web

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Once upon a time, people were subjects of a ruler (in some places, it is still once upon a time). In democracies (or republics) people could be citizens of the state. Crudely put, a subject can be seen as a sort of political property-the subject is subject to the will of the ruler. In contrast, the citizen is a member of a community and has, at least in theory, a vote and a stake in the matters of said community.

In the not so distant past it was common to refer to people in the United States, the UK and other democracies as citizens. However, there was an interesting change in vocabulary in that the term “consumer” began to gradually replace the term “citizen.” This change in terms reflected economic changes-after the second World War the United States (and some other countries) became a consumer country. This change in terms reflected this shift. Whereas once an American was a citizen who was, at least partially, defined by his or her membership in a community, Americans became primarily defined as consumers of economic goods. This resulted in a comparable change in values and virtues and the economic virtues of consumption, ownership, and production became important focuses. As such, it was hardly surprising that after 9/11 Bush said, “I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” He did not, as some claim, actually tell people to “go shopping.”

With the rise of the Tea party, there was also another change. While Americans are still referred to as “consumers”, there was (and is) a new emphasis on Americans as taxpayers. While the consumer view of Americans focused on Americans as purchasers of goods and services, the taxpayer view focuses on Americans as payers of taxes (obviously). While the consumer model made a virtue of consumption, the taxpayer model seems to make a virtue of selfishness. The idea, put roughly, is that people should focus primarily on the taxes they pay and what they personally get in return. Whereas a citizen is enjoined to be concerned with the general welfare and to ask “what can I do for my country?” , a taxpayer is told to be self focused and enjoined to ask “what’s in it for me?”

This sort of attitude is, of course, a classic view put forth by various ethical egoists from Glaucon’s unjust man to Thomas Hobbes to Ayn Rand. This view is also the model of what can be considered the dark side of capitalism (selfishness and greed).  Not surprisingly, the concern some people express about paying too many or too much taxes is also often accompanied by concerns that tax dollars are being spent on various aid and assistance programs, such as welfare, student loans, and medicare. This is, of course, perfectly consistent with the view that a person is a taxpayer rather than citizen. After all, a citizen is a member of a community and, presumably, has a stake in that community and a fellowship with other members. A taxpayer is, essentially, in an economic relationship of paying taxes and getting (or not getting) goods and services in return. In short, this is a business sort of relationship.

It can, of course, be contended that the taxpayer relationship is the realistic and practical view of the world. After all, as Ayn Rand argued, the way to be happy is to be concerned solely with your own happiness. The altruism needed to be an actual citizen is not compatible with this-it is every man, woman and child for himself. Only a fool would concern himself with others or, god forbid, love her neighbors as herself.

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Psychopaths & Ethical Egoists

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2011
Author Ayn Rand

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There seem to be some interesting similarities between psychopaths and ethical egoists.

Based on the stock account, a psychopath has a deficit (or deviance) in regards to interpersonal relationships, emotions, and self control.  In terms of specific deficiencies, psychopaths are said to lack in shame, guilt, remorse and empathy. Robert Hare, who developed the famous Hare Psychopathy Checklist, regards psychopaths as  predators that prey on  their own species: “lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.”

Interestingly enough, these qualities also seem to describe the ethical egoist. Ethical egoism is an ethical theory that individuals ought to maximize their own self-interest. This is generally contrasted with altruism, the view that people should (at least some of the time) take into account the interests of others.

Ethical egoism can also be cast in more general terms as a form of consequentialism. On this sort of view, people should maximize what is of value (V) for the morally relevant beings (MRB). The sort of utilitarianism endorsed by Mill is a form of consequentialism. However, Mill is clearly not an ethical egoist since he considers all humans (and sentient beings) as morally relevant beings. In the case of the ethical egoist, the scope of morality (who counts as a MRB) extends only to the individual. For example, if I were an ethical egoist, then the MRB would be me (and me alone). If you were an ethical egoist, then your MRB would be you (and you alone). As far as values goes, V could be almost anything. However, it tends to be things like self-interest, pleasure and happiness. Famous ethical egoists include Glaucon (as laid out in his Ring of Gyges tale), Ayn Rand, and Thomas Hobbes.

While this oversimplifies things a bit, those who accept ethical egoism generally claim that people are naturally inclined toward desiring “undue gain” and are not naturally inclined towards sympathy or goodwill towards others. Hobbes makes it rather clear that people are lacking in sympathy and are motivated only by the hope of gain and glory. In many ways, this view seems to cast humans as naturally exhibiting some of the key traits of psychopaths. It is no wonder, then, that Hobbes argues that people do not form society out of mutual good will or on the basis of being social beings. Rather, people form society out of selfishness and it can only be maintained by the power of the sovereign.

However, what defines the theory is not the description of humans but rather the prescriptive element. Proponents of ethical egoism endorse the claim that each person should act so as to maximize value for himself. Rand goes as far as to cast selfishness as a virtue and altruism as the height of foolishness. In a way, it could be seen that Rand is advocating that people act like psychopaths.

Of course, there are important distinction between being a psychopath and being an ethical egoist. One is that psychopaths are supposed to behave in ways that are impulsive and irresponsible. This might be because they are also characterized as failing to properly grasp the potential consequences of their actions. This seems to be a  general defect in that it applies to the consequences for others as well as for themselves This reduced ability to properly assess the risks of being doubted, caught, or punished no doubt has a significant impact on their behavior (and their chances of being exposed).

If Glaucon’s unjust man is taken as a role model for ethical egoism, the ethical egoist is supposed to strive to be the opposite of the pyschopath in this regard. The successful unjust man is supposed to grasp the consequences of what he does and hence acts in ways that are calculated to conceal his true nature. The unjust man is also supposed to have the impulse control needed to act in ways that make him appear to be just. It is tempting to conclude that an ethical egoist is essential a psychopath would good impulse control and a grasp of consequences. Or, put another way, that a psychopath is an ethical egoist who is not very skilled at being an ethical egoist.

Interestingly, when Socrates gives his rebuttal to Glaucon, he argues that the unjust man actually does not grasp the true consequences of his actions. That is, the unjust man does not realize that he will corrupt his soul in the process of being unjust. If so, perhaps the ethical egoist is a psychopath with an ethical theory.

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A Cure for Tyrants

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 22, 2011
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

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The revolutions in the Middle East have served to draw attention to the fact that many people live under the power of dictators and tyrants. This is, of course, not true merely of the Middle East. Many of the people in Africa live in abject poverty while their “leaders” enjoy lives of excess. In most cases, these tyrants are backed by outside states and receive support in return for access to natural resources or for how well they serve strategic interests. In many cases, the United States has a hand in keeping these people in power. Given that we are supposed to be a democratic state committed to justice for all, this sort of behavior seems especially wicked. After all, given our professed values and revolutionary history, we should be crushing tyrants or, at the very least, not lending them support and comfort.

It might, of course, be argued that we are acting in a realistic manner. In the global game of politics and power, we cannot afford be to impeded by such things as ethics or principles. We need to play to win and this means being willing to support tyrants who rob their people and control them with the tanks, tear gas and torture implements we fund or provide. This does have a certain appeal and has been argued for by folks such as Glaucon and Hobbes. Of course, taking this approach does rob us of any claim to moral goodness and empties our talk of justice and rights.

It might also be argued that people get the government they deserve. If, for example, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea and his family loot the government, it is only because the people (many of whom live on $2 a day) allow him to do so. They could, one might argue, rise up and provide a cure for their tyrant. That they elect not to do so shows that they have consented to this rule, however tyrannical it might seem.

Of course, there is the fact that this dictator, like so many others, is backed by outside powers (like us). As such, the people are at a terrible disadvantage-they are up against someone who has far more resources as well as outside backing. Hence, their alleged consent is the “consent” that an unarmed person gives to the robber who has a gun pressed to their head-hardly consent at all.

There is also the argument that while tyrants are bad, they are (in a Hobbesian style argument)better than the alternatives. Better to have a single tyrant that maintains some degree of order than chaos or an even worse tyrant. Also, history seems to show that tyrants are often replaced by other tyrants-so why try to cure the problem of tyranny if the cure will not take? As such, the people should simply endure the tyranny to avoid something worse. Even if they try to rebel, the result will be death and destruction followed by a new tyrant.

At this point, some might point to Iraq: the United States removed a tyrant and poured billions into constructing something that is sort of nation like. Perhaps the United States or other countries could use that sort of cure: roll in, kill the tyrants and rebuild the nations.

While this has  certain imperial appeal, the practical fact is that we cannot afford to do this to every dictator. There is also the concern that even if we do roll out one dictator, we cannot be even reasonably confident that the results will be better for the people.

One rather extreme option would be to simply assassinate tyrants. This would be far more cost effective than a war and would, on Lockean grounds, be morally justified. Of course, there are the concerns that doing this would result in hostility towards the United States and that killing one tyrant would merely pave the way for another (or chaos). However, there is a certain appeal in ridding the world of the wicked and it is easy enough to kill anyone. After all, tyrants are just humans and a single well placed shot or knife will kill them easily enough.  If potential tyrants realized that the reward of their tyranny would be death, then they might be less inclined to become tyrants.

There would also seem to be a certain rough justice in making tyrants live in the sort of fear that they inflict on their own people. To steal a bit from Hobbes, if the people need to be kept in line by fear of the sovereign, it would seem to make equal sense that the sovereigns should be kept in check by fear as well. Just as a citizen can expect to be harmed when they cross the line, so too should a sovereign expect the same justice. As such, perhaps the proper cure for tyrants is death.

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Summary of Plato’s Ring of Gyges

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 29, 2009
Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...
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The “Ring of Gyges” begins with a challenge put forth by Glaucon-he wants Socrates to defend the just life and he wants the defense to show that justice is intrinsically preferable to injustice. For the sake of the argument, Glaucon proposes to present a defense of injustice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our Corrupt Cousins Across the Pond

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 19, 2009

In an historical event, Michael Martin became the first speaker in the British House of Commons to be forced out since 1695. This is due to the recent  scandal about the handling of expenses. Apparently, the British public got to pay the tab for things like mortgage payments, porn, moat cleaning and other such things. As it now stands, the British Parliament regulates its own expense reimbursements. Amazingly enough, they seem to have approved almost everything.

This sort of behavior is hardly surprising. After all, our American politicians do the same sort of thing; namely milk their offices for personal advantages. Of course, here in the States we tend to see politicians being given gifts by lobbyists or piling up the pork. But, the idea is the same: to use public office for private gain.

One reason why politicians do this sort of thing is that, as Glaucon says in the Republic of Plato, all organisms have a desire for undue gain. In other words, living things want more than their due. While there are some notable exceptions among people, this seems to be a behavioral fact. Thomas Hobbes also made note of this tendency in his works.

Another reason that politicians do this is that they can. After all, they often get to make the laws and rules that regulate their own activities and it is the truly rare person who can be trusted to justly and fairly regulate himself. After all, if someone needs to be regulated, it hardly seems reasonable to expect self-regulation to work. Without and external check, it becomes all too easy to slide into bad behavior. This is why Socrates argued that the rulers should welcome those who criticize and keep and eye on them. This, of course, assumes that politicians should want to do what is best, rather than what they think is best for themselves. Interestingly enough, no laws seem to have been broken in the case at hand. While having the state pay for a politician‘s pornography hardly seems right or reasonable, it seems that all the proper procedures were followed.

A third reason we see politicians doing this sort of thing is that politics tends to attract the sort of people inclined to such behavior. After all, to go through all the trouble and expense of running for office, a person has to be fairly motivated (and wealthy enough to afford it). While some people might be motivated by noble reasons, the more common motivation seems to be for gain. As such, once such folks get into office it is hardly surprising that they would try to use their positions for their own advantage.

So, what can and should be done about this sort of thing? One unreasonable solution is that people could try to elect honest and incorruptible people into office. Obviously, this option has no plausibility.  A more reasonable solution is to put safeguards between politicians and the money. For example, a process of outside review could help as could setting clear limits defining what can be reimbursed. Naturally, an important part of this process is taking the decisions out of the hands of the people who stand to gain from it.

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Narcissism & College Students

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 1, 2009

Americans have long been  accused of having inflated egos, but it has recently become popular to accuse Americans of being narcissistic. This narcissism is now seen as being primarily an affliction of the young; although baby boomers are often seen as being able to give them a run for their money.

Some of the evidence for this is statistical.

Apparently 10% of folks in their 20s have had symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (compared to 3% of those 65 and older). Of course, it could be the case that youth naturally tend to have this symptoms and then outgrow them. However, if the current generation of kids is actually suffering more from such symptoms, then this would be a matter of concern.

Since many 20 somethings are in school, it is not surprising that much of the alleged evidence of narcissism involved education. As one example,  30% of college students believe that showing up to every class entitles them to a grade of B or better. There are also various bits of anecdotal evidence. For example, it is claimed that students now seem to be more inclined to expect make-up tests for when they miss class for no good reason (such as being too drunk to take a test).

While there are many questions that need to be dealt with in this context, I will address only two of them. The first is whether such behavior is something new. The second is whether such behavior is narcissistic or not.

In regards to the first question, I will rely on my experience as a professor. Overall, I would say that I have seen roughly the same degree and type of allegedly narcissistic behavior over the past eighteen years. For example, when I was a graduate student at Ohio State (1989-1993), students would ask me to arrange make up exams for them at special times and would argue that they should not fail because they did not want to fail.  I’ve seen the same as a professor (1993-now).  Over the years, I’ve also dealt with roughly the name number of incidents in which students have claimed that they deserve a good grade merely for attempting to do the work and showing up. Of course, this evidence is anecdotal and my sample might be biased in some ways.

I must admit that every semester I hear other faculty at my school and other schools talk about how the students get worse every year. However, I think that much of this is due to perception rather than a real difference. Having heard this so often, I’ve gone back and checked my grades over the years. What I found was that the grades tend to be about the same; although there are some individual classes that deviate from the norm (which is exactly what one would expect). I’ve also thought about the incidents that would seem narcissistic and the rate seems to have been fairly constant.

To explain this, people seem to have a natural tendency to “remember” things the way that they were not. For example, people talk about how good things used to be back when they were kids. Likewise, people tend to believe that people have gotten worse. However, that seems to be mostly a matter of selective memory.

Also, people have been talking about how bad the kids are since the time of Socrates-thus showing that this is nothing new.  This does not mean that the kids are fine-it just means that this is nothing new.

Now, to the second question. Is the behavior in question really narcissistic? Obviously, this depends on what is meant by the term. It is tempting to slap labels on things in order to make things seem more dramatic or to sell books, but such labels should be carefully considered.

Many thinkers have argued that people are selfish and desire gain they do not deserve. In the Republic, Glaucon argues that people naturally want undue gain and are focused on their own good. However, such behavior seems to be selfish rather than narcissistic. Hobbes goes even further: he contends that people are psychological hedonists who are motivated only by gain or glory (the boosting of their ego). While such behavior could be described as narcissistic, it makes more sense to just stick with calling it selfish.

Narcissism certainly seems to go beyond merely being selfish or having unrealistic expectations about how people will treat you (such as giving grades or special make-ups). There are, obviously enough, people who are narcissistic, but this is nothing new.

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My Christmas Tree

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2007

Some years ago my life was at a terrible low point. My marriage was failing, my career seemed stagnant, and I was stuck in what seemed to be a sea of bleak misery. Many of my problems seemed to stem from my reluctance to do bad things and the willingness of others to prosper through misdeeds.


One morning, when things seemed to be at their lowest point, I went for a run. As I ran, I thought about my life and how I ended up in the situation I faced. Interestingly enough, I had recently been teaching Plato’s “Ring of Gyges.” In this excerpt from the Republic, Plato’s brother Glaucon challenges Socrates to speak in defense of goodness (justice) for its own sake. He, Glaucon, proposes to speak on behalf of injustice. Glaucon makes an excellent case in support of the view that justice is a choice made out of weakness and fear. He further contended that the unjust life would be the better choice because what people truly value (wealth, power, and physical pleasures) can be best obtained by injustice.


In the past, I had always sided with Socrates and believed that justice is superior to injustice-even when it seems that the unjust triumph. But, I had seen the rewards of trying to be good and those reaped by those who have little moral compunction. At that moment, I doubted the worth and sense of trying to be a good person.


But, as I ran across the wooden bridge in the park, I saw that someone had torn one of the memorial trees out of the ground. They had left a cruel wound where the tree used to be and had tossed the uprooted tree onto a nearby picnic table.

Without reflection or thought, I ran to the hole. I looked at it and read the memorial sign. The tree was dedicated to Lancy Amelie Gray, a fifteen year old girl who had died in 2000. I then went to look at the tree. I could see that it was probably still alive. I walked back to the hole and got down on my knees. Ignoring the stares of those walking by, I dug with my hands until the hole seemed big enough for the tree. I put the tree back in the hole and packed the dirt back into place with my hands. I found a discarded water bottle nearby and ran back and forth between the tree and the fountain until the ground was well soaked.


While people often say that what they do without thinking is not the person they are, I think the opposite is true. What we do without thought often shows us who we really are. In this case, that moment showed me the man who I really am-or perhaps it just reminded me. I knew, as I pushed that earth back into place, that I was the sort of person who replanted trees and not the sort of person who would go through life tearing at things. I was still sad and my marriage still ended, but at that moment I was able to make the right choice and stay on the true path of my life.


I am no saint and have a multitude of flaws and sins. But, I do what is right and do my best to live up to being the person I am and should be. When I am troubled or need to make a difficult choice, I pause by the tree and remember who I really am. For me, that tree is my true Christmas tree.