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Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

I occasionally read The Ethicist column in the NYT.  I think I read the first few because I was fascinated that they just got some guy who seemed a bit more honest than the rest of the people looking for a job at the Times to write the column.  I’m not kidding, but if you ask me to pay money to get the introductory column, you are SOL. Since then, I think I’ve answered the burning question that everyone should ask when reading the New York Times: does anyone there know what honesty looks like anymore?  I’ll leave you to figure that one out for yourselves.

Back at the ranch: I read Randy Cohen’s column only occasionally and unfortunately I get that “restaurant judgment” feeling about it.  If you have one bad experience at a restaurant, you usually don’t go back.  Since reading the Ethicist is unlikely to cause violent retching (I read Frank Rich for that) I still stop by even though I often don’t appreciate his nuanced take on ethics.  The last time I read it, he counseled someone who had fired a pilfering employee not to turn him in to the police because he would be thrown in jail and lives would be ruined.  The questioner didn’t want this guy to get another job and victimize another employer.  Who do you think has a better sense of ethics, especially when you factor in the unlikelihood that a first-offender petty thief would do any jail time at all?  In an update, it turns out the questioner ignored Mr. Ethicist’s advice.  Maybe he should write the column.

As for today’s column, all I can say is, what about “Don’t deal with people who steal.”  Is it OK to accept a ring that fits from someone who stole it because you didn’t like the one you bought from the same place?  Oh, I see- intellectual property is different.  And the fact that the second-hand stealer can’t wait a couple of weeks-months-years to download a Stephen King novel to avoid stealing.

I have a friend who is a copyright attorney- I know she’s going to weigh in.  In fact, she should be writing this column.  Randy, move over.  Time to call in the pro.

Update: Do you suppose the editors went to Randy to work through the MoDo incident?

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OK, I’m just as happy seeing al-Awlaqi meet his maker and however many virgins.  But, for those of us who did take the whole FISA debate seriously, and that whole due process rigamarole that the Bill of Rights blathers on about, and as someone who felt the sting of the sarcasm embodied in the bumpersticker wisdom of “Go Ahead, Take My Rights; I Wasn’t Using Them Anyway” I just wanted to ask: where are all the Lefties on this?  I mean, this is a guy who actually IS an American.  Has he been tried, even in absentia?  What about “guilty until proven innocent?”  What about Miranda? Oh, I see.  That only works for Nigerian Jihadis who have had the great good fortune to land mostly intact on American soil, even if that wasn’t the plan (Philo- you’re the music guy- can we have Abumutallab’s theme, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” cued up?)

Where is the ACLU? Has anyone uttered a peep about this? Is all the angst about rendition spent and we have none to spare for the imminent smithereenhood of an American citizen?  Isn’t vaporization somewhat worse than waterboarding or getting the Quran wet?

And I’m not asking rhetorically here.  I really don’t think we should be assassinating American citizens by executive order.  There should be a trial, in absentia, and if found guilty of say, treason (huh- that has a nice old fashioned ring to it, doesn’t it?) he should be stripped of his American citizenship.

You know, Roman justice was pretty brutal, but one of the perks of citizenship was that you had the privilege of being beheaded if you were to be executed.

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I Knew the Name Sounded Familiar

Michelle Malkin reminds us of what Jill Greenberg was up to before she shot The Atlantic cover of John McCain. If realizing that tormenting children is wrong is at the foundations of our moral sense, then her history indicates that she is someone with no moral sense at all.

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Hollar on Happiness

Brian Hollar reflects on happiness and Iceland:

While it is true that people in wealthier countries are happier than people in poorer countries, there is only weak correlation inside those countries between happiness and wealth. (In other words, if you live in a wealthy nation, earning a lot of income probably won’t buy you a whole lot of happiness relative to a modest income.) My intuition says that a similar relationship may hold true for marriage and religiosity — cross-country comparisons and intra-country comparisons may lead to two entirely different results. It is entirely conceivable that countries with higher divorce rates and lower levels of religiosity are “happier” than countries with lower divorce rates and higher levels of religiosity, while at the same time people in each country who have higher religiosity and lower divorce rates are happier than their fellow countrymen.

P.S. – People generally are happier the freer they are. When freedom and wealth both increase, people have greater opportunity and ability to express true preferences about both religion and marriage. This could lead to less preference falsification within society — potentially leading to higher divorce rates and lower rates of religious participation. (Timur Kuran has some excellent work on preference falsification called Private Truth, Public Lies.) I would expect societies with lower levels of preference falsification to have stronger correlations between happiness, marriage, and religiosity.

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Hillary’s History

Dan Calabrese tells of Hillary’s history on the Watergate investigation, where her supervisor fired her and refused to write her a letter of recommendation—because of a pattern of lying and unethical behavior. (HT: Powerline and Ed Morrissey)

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An Ethical Dilemma

A tragic, real-world dilemma (HT: Eugene Volokh):

Alton Logan doesn’t understand why two lawyers with proof he didn’t commit murder were legally prevented from helping him. They had their reasons: To save Logan, they would have had to break the cardinal rule of attorney-client privilege to reveal their own client had committed the crime. But Logan had 26 years in prison to try to understand why he was convicted for a crime he didn’t commit….

“Yes. Sympathize with [the lawyers’ dilemma], yes. Understand it, no,” Logan tells Simon. “If you know this is an innocent person, why would you allow this person to be prosecuted, convicted, sent to prison for all these years?” asks the 54-year-old inmate.

Lawyers Jamie Kunz and Dale Coventry were public defenders when their client, Andrew Wilson, admitted to them he had shot-gunned a security guard to death in a 1982 robbery. When a tip led to Logan’s arrest and he went to trial for the crime, the two lawyers were in a bind. They wanted to help Logan but legally couldn’t.

“The rules of conduct for attorneys, it’s very, very clear…. We’re in a position to where we have to maintain client confidentiality, just as a priest would or a doctor would. It’s just a requirement of the law. The system wouldn’t work without it,” says Coventry.

They watched Logan’s trial to see whether he got a life or death sentence. “We thought that somehow we would stop at least the execution,” Coventry tells Simon. “Morally, there’s very little difference and we were torn about that, but in terms of the canons of ethics, there is a difference — you can prevent a death.”

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Today the Democrats of the House and Senate approved restricting CIA interrogation techniques to those outlined in the Army Field Manual. Power Line correctly notes that this means that the Democratic Party simply is not serious about the national security of the United States.

Over the last 36 hours, Congressional Democrats have again demonstrated a casual, even frivolous attitude toward their Constitutional duty to assist in keeping Americans safe from attack.

As I said in an earlier post, this means that the Democrats would not pluck a single hair from the head of a terrorist even to save the entire world. I think that disqualifies them from being in charge of national security—or much of anything else.

If you find yourself sympathesizing with the Democrats’ position, here’s a quick hypothetical question. A terrorist has put poison in the water supply, which will soon be released in all major lakes and rivers and kill, within hours, almost everyone in the United States. You capture him. If you use the Army Field Manual techniques, he will not talk, and almost all Americans die. If you go beyond that—by, for example, dripping water up his nose, panicking him for perhaps 30 seconds—he will talk, and those lives will be saved. What would you do? (Don’t answer that we never really are in a position to know all this. It’s a hypothetical case, and your knowledge of all this is stipulated. What would you do?)

This is essentially a trolley problem, but with 300 million people tied to the track on which the out-of-control trolley is racing, and one person who might be splashed if the trolley is diverted to the other track, saving the 300 million. May you flip the switch to divert the trolley? The Democrats are committed to answering “No!”

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The Washington Post reports:

Most studies show that wealthy people are marginally happier than poor ones. People with pets or children are no happier than those without. People with active sex lives are — surprise! — happier than those without. No single morsel of happiness data, though, is more intriguing than this: Republicans are happier than Democrats.

A 2006 Pew Research poll found that 45 percent of Republicans describe themselves as “very happy,” compared with only 30 percent of Democrats (and 29 percent of independents). This is a sizable gap and a remarkably consistent one, too. Republicans have been happier than Democrats every year since the General Social Survey, conducted biannually by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, began asking about happiness in 1972.

Why are Republicans happier? The Post considers several hypotheses: (1) Wealth: Maybe Republicans are richer. But the effect is robust even controlling for wealth. (2) Power: Republicans have been winning the Presidency. But Republicans are happier even when Democrats are in the White House. (3) Religion: Republicans are more likely to go to church, and church-going correlates strongly with happiness. So, this explains some, but only some, of the effect. (4) Marriage: Republicans are more likely to be married, and marriage correlates strongly with happiness. Again, this explains some but not all of the difference. (5) Ignorance: Maybe Republicans know less, and ignorance is bliss. I don’t know the data, but, in my experience, among PhDs, Republicans are far happier on average than Democrats. So, I conjecture that the difference will remain after controlling for education.

I’ll propose another explanation: I think it’s likely that happy people are more likely to be Republicans, while unhappy people are more likely to be Democrats, for unhappiness gives one an incentive to seek change, and happiness an incentive to resist it. But the causal link goes in the other direction as well, for Republicans stress freedom and individual responsibility, which lead people to feel in control and take action that changes their lives for the better, while Democrats assign blame to institutions, which makes people feel powerless and discourages them from undertaking ameliorative courses of action.

Perhaps the most intriguing point has little to do with explaining Republicans’ greater happiness but much to do with the pointlessness of Democratic policies from a utilitarian perspective:

Once in power, Democrats tend to focus on issues that, according to the science of happiness, have little effect on our contentment — income equality, for instance, and racial diversity. Neither is linked to greater happiness. Countries with large disparities between rich and poor are no less happy than more egalitarian ones, studies have found. And the happiest countries in the world tend to be homogeneous ones, such as Denmark and Iceland, not the ethnic melting pots that liberals celebrate.

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Spain’s Popular Party has proposed that women receive tax breaks for… being women! Since parties to its left are likely to pile on board, Spain will soon have a tax system that discriminates on the basis of gender. There’s a radical feminist argument for this, but there’s also a utilitarian argument based on the Ramsey taxation principle: If the demand or supply of something is more elastic, tax it less. Since women’s labor has greater elasticity than men’s, it should be taxed less. This seems to reflect a profound tension between utilitarianism and equality.

Gilles Saint-Paul:

Now, it turns out that if I am maximising any welfare criterion, I can always do better by discriminating than by not discriminating. This is because non-discrimination is a special case of discrimination, where all groups are treated equally. If different groups have different economic behaviour, then to maximise my welfare function I need to discriminate as much as possible, and I will treat each group differently. So we should have different taxes depending on sex, age, race, marital status, city of residence, state of health, and so on….

It remains true that there is a case for taxing marginal hours at the household level at a lower rate than infra-marginal ones. But this can be achieved by a gender-neutral reduction in the tax rate on the secondary earner’s hours (which could well also apply to the primary earner’s marginal hours such as overtime). And since such a scheme can make the household better-off by supplying more hours without reducing the total taxes they pay to the government, one can actually leave the household free to choose between that and a more traditional tax schedule.

A progressive tax schedule like that in the United States and in most European countries has the effect of taxing the secondary earner more heavily.

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Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow yesterday, predicting six more weeks of winter. (It’s about 80° today where I am. But I don’t hold that against Phil; it’s currently 31° in Punxsutawney.)

When I was young, Groundhog Day was my favorite holiday. (It’s also the subject of one of my favorite movies.) Why? Because it’s a pure holiday; it’s not really about anything. It has no instrumental value; its worth is entirely intrinsic. It’s celebration solely for the sake of celebration. Junius Henri Browne wrote:

The crown of all virtue is to do good for the sake of good.

Just so, the crown of all holidays is to celebrate for the sake of celebration.

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