Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

Good Lord!

Sunday, 23 August 2015

[This entry is a reworking of a less carefully written entry that I posted to Facebook on 26 March.]

ἐννόησον γὰρ τὸ τοιόνδε· ἆρα τὸ ὅσιον ὅτι ὅσιόν ἐστιν φιλεῖται ὑπὸ τῶν θεῶν, ἢ ὅτι φιλεῖται ὅσιόν ἐστιν;[1]

Socrates
as related by Platon
in Εὐθύφρων [Euthyphro] 10a

A classic question is of whether goodness — in the sense of that which is moral or otherwise objectively to be desired — determines the will of G_d, or is determined by the will of G_d.[2]

The notion that whatever G_d wills is, ipso facto, good is called the Divine Command theory of goodness. A fair number of people profess to believe this theory, but few people actually do. One way of testing belief would be to ask, for various X, whether it would be bad for G_d to do X. For example, whether it would be bad for G_d to create innocent souls, and then, beginning immediately, subject them to an eternity of unrelieved suffering. A person who reached for some theoretical greater good somehow achieved wouldn't be accepting that G_d's will were ipso facto good; a person who cried out that G_d would not do such a thing because it were evil wouldn't be accepting that G_d's will were ipso facto good. Only a person who could honestly declare that it would not be bad for G_d to do any X would accept the Divine Command theory.

Phil Robertson's infamous speech, in which he presents a hypothetical scenario within which ghastly things are done to an atheïst famly,[3] is an exemplar of an attempt to advance a Divine Command theory that violates the essential feature of that theory. Robertson presumes that atheïsm in turn implies moral nihilism. But he also presumes that none of the things done to the family could be good; that presumption implies that even G_d could not make them good. Robertson expects his audience — even the non-believers in his audience — to be able to see that these assaults are actively wrong. Indeed, he is apparently prepared to bet that, in spite of their unbelief, atheïsts undergoing such trials would form an opinion that something about this just ain’t right.

Well, if G_d cannot make a thing good merely by willing it to be good, then fundamental goodness is independent of the will of G_d. And if goodness is independent of the will of G_d, then the case for goodness is independent of the will of G_d. If G_d should not do things because they are evil, then men and women should not do them because they are evil, for pretty much the same reason as G_d should not, whatever that reason might be.

Possibly G_d might be more morally discerning than ordinary persons. But ordinary persons plainly have great difficulty recognizing whatever principles are communicated by G_d, which is why there is so much disagreement amongst theïsts about alleged communications. Faith is not a mechanism of discernment; it is guessing without the guidance of evidence, and a leap of Faith can carry one in any direction. If we are not to make uneducated guesses about morality, then we must hope that some human beings amongst us can make a case that does not itself rely in its foundations upon unproved assertions about what G_d declares — a case, thus, that can be made to atheïsts.

[Insertion (2015:08/31): (Hypothetically, it might be proved that G_d were more morally discerning and had made some moral declaration the basis of which were not understood by other persons. Still, if that proof were not apprehensible to atheïsts, then it would not be a proof by which human beings could reasonably be guided. And I certainly haven't encountered such a proof.)]

That's not to say that the will of G_d would be irrelevant to a manifestation of ethical principles; the will of other persons can be important to such manifestations (as, for example, when I think myself morally required not to hurt the feelings of a child); and G_d would perhaps be the most important of persons. But the fundamentals would be prior to the desires of all persons.

Actually, those of us who believe that morals are prior to the will of anyone have a hard time seeing any real difference between taking morality to be no more than the commands of G_d and taking morality to be no more than the commands of some other powerful party of persons. For us, that looks like no morality at all, just the rule of a bully or of bullies.[4]

And, really, a belief in a morality greater than the demands of any person is what underlies the emotional commitment of so many atheïsts to their atheïsm. They believe that G_d would be good, and that G_d therefore could not cause nor allow certain things to happen; but they see those things happen, and so conclude that G_d is not there. It is an implicit and often unrecognized commitment to morality that makes these people atheïsts. (A potential counter-argument to this case for atheïsm might be found in claiming that some greater good were served by the ills observed.)


[1] For consider such as this: Is that which is hallowed loved by the gods because it is hallowed, or is it hallowed because it is loved by the gods?

[2] Of course, one may more generally write and speak in terms that allow for multiple gods (as did Platon). This allows for consideration of disagreement amongst gods, but otherwise adds nothing but verbal awkwardness, and irrelevant discomfort for monotheïsts. Since I expect a greater share of my readers will be monotheïsts rather than polytheïsts, I'll concern myself less with the discomfort of the latter.

[3] “I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist's home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn't it great that I don't have to worry about being judged? Isn't it great that there's nothing wrong with this? There's no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

“Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn't it be something if this was something wrong with this? But you're the one who says there is no God, there's no right, there's no wrong, so we're just having fun. We're sick in the head, have a nice day.’

“If it happened to them, they probably would say, ‘something about this just ain't right.’”

[4] See my entry of 20 February 2008 for discussion of the notion that rights are creäted by powerful parties. It is unsurprising that the typical response of classical liberals and the typical response of conservatives to atheïsm should differ one from the other, given that classical liberals and conservatives have very different notions about a need for bullies in human society.

The Veterans Confidence Racket

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Veterans Health Administration is a con job. I'm sure that many of those working as part of it do not recognize it as a con job. I'm sure that some of those working for it recognize that it is a con job but believe that it can be something more and better, and have been struggling towards that goal. But it is a con job and it will remain a con job so long as it has anything much like its present form.

The declared purpose of the VHA[1] is to provide health-care to military veterans. This mission appeals to those voters who see veterans as deserving reward or compensation for their military service, and it appeals to those contemplating entering such service.

In theory, the provision of this health-care could be entirely by a voucher system, allowing veterans to acquire health-care at state expense but through a market of private producers. The reason that a voucher system is not used is because of its expense.

To control costs, provision has largely been by state-run facilities. Some people imagine that costs will be kept in check because of elimination of profit, because of technical efficiencies achieved through vertical integration, and because of recruitment of superior personnel willing to work for lower salaries. But the elimination of profit means the elimination of the profit-motive, which elimination in turn inhibits the search for new and better ways of doing things. Vertical integration might be able to exploit technical efficiencies, but a greater problem of economic calculation confronts any attempt to administrate a large-scale allocation programme. And the state is simply not very good at recruiting superior people on-the-cheap.

The problem of economic calculation bites especially hard, and the VHA cannot actually get its costs down to those of private provision through the market. The VHA can, however, lower its evident pecuniary costs by reducing the quantity or the quality of the health-care that it provides. In other words, it can shift the cost to veterans, in the form of unmet promises; in the form of suffering and in the form of death. That is how the VHA can and does control costs.

When the VHA was launched, there was almost surely a sincere belief that it could deliver at a discount. However, there have since been many decades for state officials to observe that it has not; there has been ample time to recognize that it cannot. Yet instead of being forthright in explaining what it would take to provide veterans with the benefits that they were promised, and instead of preparing to meet the promises now being made to recruits, the deception continues. As failure continues to come to-light, there will be further reforms that fall short of what is actually needed to meet the promises, because fraud saves the state a considerable amount of money, and protects the mythology under which the state preserves and accumulates power more generally.


I have noted that health-care could be provided to veterans by way of a voucher system, but if one respected the sensibility and character of military veterans, and trusted the strength of voters, then a better thing to do would be simply to give veterans enough money that they could buy the same amount of health-care (in part by purchasing insurance), but to allow them to spend that money as they chose. At the margin, a bit more or less of something else may reasonably be more important to some veterans than a bit more or less of health-care.

If veterans are intelligent, economically rational, and of good character, then they will use the money appropriately. If they are stupid, irrational, or sociopathic, then they may spend the money inappropriately, and later seek a bail-out from the tax-payer in the event of an emergency, and voters might give that to them.

I leave each reader with responsibility for his or her judgment on that matter.


[1] The VHA is the best-known part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, aka the Veterans Administration, to the point that VA usually refers to the VHA, and that VHA and Veterans Heath Administration aren't much used. None-the-less, I'll employ the more precise term and abbreviation hereïn.

The Economy of Conscription

Friday, 14 August 2015

[Every now-and-then, I'm provoked or otherwise prompted to explain the false economy of conscription. What prompts me to do so now is the ill health of James Earl Carter, since, after all, that alleged champion of human rights restarted registration for the military draft.]

There is a wide-spread belief that the burden of taxation is somehow reduced by conscripting service. Usually the service under consideration is military. The notion is that, with a conscripted force, one only has to pay an average soldier some amount MC, whereas with a volunteer force, one has to pay an average soldier some greater amount MV. So people think that there's a per-soldier savings of

MV - MC
This thinking is utterly wrong.

First of all, conscription involves its own peculiar costs of administration and of enforcement. Those are far more substantial than most people imagine, and even if we use an accountant's notion of cost, the difference between the annual cost of a volunteer army and that of a conscripted army would come to less than $30 per soldier.

But an accountant's notion of costs really misses the Big Picture here.

Imagine that the state got people into the service (army or whatever) by promising them MV, but then, once they were enlisted, declared a surprise tax (peculiar to their pay)

T = MV - MC
That would be a tax exactly equal to the supposed savings. Defrauding them in this manner wouldn't have reduced the tax burden; rather, it would have enabled it.

If the state had used more overt force to get those same people to enlist — threatening them with imprisonment if they did not — the tax wouldn't be reduced; it would merely be disguised. Their financial loss would be just the same,

MV - MC
exactly that amount of tax that people mistakenly believe would be saved by using conscription. The supposed savings was no savings at all, just a tax that people failed to recognize as a tax.

However, in the real world, the draft doesn't end up getting the same people who would have been tricked by promising pay and then taxing some of it away. It draws from a larger population, some of whom might be making less money than they would in the service, but a great share of whom are making more even than MV (the pay at which enough volunteers would be found). If someone is indifferent between her job in the private sector and the job that she has as a conscript, except for the pay, then the implicit tax that she pays is

MJ - MC
where MJ was her private-sector pay. For example, if MJ was $60K and MC is $15K, then she is paying an implicit tax of $45K.

Because of this sort of situation, even if we ignore the peculiar costs of administration and of enforcement that I mentioned earlier, the tax burden of conscription is greater than that of paying recruits enough for an all-volunteer service.

However, in the real world, people are not indifferent between jobs (except for pay). Some people are willing to take a pay cut to defend their country; and, obviously, those people might pay a lower implicit tax (if conscripted).[1] But other people wouldn't choose to go into certain lines of work — such as soldiering — for all the wealth in the world. The only thing that gets them into the conscript force is the fact that the certainty of being punished by their state is an even worse fate in their eyes. So let MW be the wealth of the whole world; the tax paid by each of these conscripts is something greater than

MW - MC
In some cases, it can be summarized thus
And that, folks, is the actual tax cost of conscription.


Registration for military service was reïntroduced by James Earl Carter in an attempt to seem efficacious after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Early in his campaign, Ronald Wilson Reagan was saying that he would end that registration; but, as it became plain that he could win the election without maintaining that promise, he walked away from it. William Jefferson Clinton, who had dodged the draft as a young man, decided that young men during his Administration should none-the-less be required to register.


[1] I say might because a revulsion towards the conscription itself could subvert that willingness.

Plight of the Bumble Bee

Friday, 14 August 2015

The subject of bumble bees arose yester-day, reminding me of the time, many years ago, that I bathed one.

Bumble bees burn a huge amount of energy; they're always rather close to starvation. Seeing a bumble bee, and thinking of their energy demands, I was curious as to how she would reäct to refined honey from a honey bee; so I got a spoonful of the stuff to offer to the bumble bee.

The bee and I did not handle it gracefully, and she fell into the honey. Now the bee was covered with sticky stuff, which was drying in the sun. She would probably starve to death, caked with food; and it would be my fault.

I carefully put the bee on a fence-post, and then got some cotton swabs, some tepid water, and a tooth-pick. I periodically dipped the tooth-pick into the honey (still in the spoon), and then daubed the bee's mouth-parts with it. In between, I swabbed her with the tepid water.

It took a long time to clean that bee. She endured the whole process rather well; I don't recall her ever acting agitated. Eventually, she was clean and dry and flew away.

Now, when I told this story in the 'blog that I once had on LiveJournal, someone responded as if my cleaning the bee were an act of charity; I didn't and don't see it as such. I had actively brought disaster upon a benign creature. If I had not subsequently cleaned that bee, then I would have been its killer; there is no counting me as its saviour for having set things right.

But I do enjoy the thought that, with all that honey in her, she were probably buzzed.

Corporations and Persons

Sunday, 26 July 2015

In the eyes of the law, a corporation is itself a person. This effects two sorts of things.

The first comes into play when the corporation is shared amongst multiple owners or ownership changes. Because the corporation may enter into contracts as a legal person, may be sued as a legal person, and may bring suit as a legal person, it is typically unnecessary to identify all the owners for purposes of contracts or of suits, and shares may be traded without explicit and complex contracts reässigning rights or responsibilities.

The second thing effected is limited liability. When a corporation is found to be at fault in some way, typically no more may be seized to satisfy its responsibilities than that assets of the corporation; other assets held by the owners are insulated from confiscation. (And when corporations are themselves permitted to file for protection as bankrupt, there may even be insulation of the corporate assets.)

It is largely because of this insulation that corporations are sometimes created to be owned by single persons, who have no intention of selling shares. (And those owners may be merely legal persons — corporations most of whose assets are now insulated by a layering of incorporation.) Unlimited liability presents some potentially enormous difficulties for the law when a company has many and variable owners; but, if such limitation is to be granted at all, any sort of minimum number to qualify for that limitation would seem to be arbitrary.

In the case of liabilities to second parties — those who have chosen to do business with the corporation — there is really no problem of morality nor otherwise of economics in limiting those liabilities. The limitations are essentially contractual conditions. (And, historically, some firms have avoided incorporation exactly to get the volume of business and to be able to charge the sorts of prices that a corporation within their industry could not.)

But liabilities to third parties — those who have not contracted with the corporation — are another matter.

An example of a liability to third parties would be a case where an airplane crashed into a residential neighborhood. The owners or residents entered into no agreement waiving damages, but if the assets of the corporation are not sufficient to make those victims whole, typically the other assets of the owners of the corporation are out-of-reach.

Incorporation confiscates the property of third parties. At the least, the right to be compensated in the event of injury is abridged.

Economic efficiency would require that an activity be avoided unless its expected value — that is to say its value accounting for possible outcomes and the various plausibilities of those outcomes — were greater than alternatives. For that to obtain, the activity must be fully insured (either self-insured or by the purchase of insurance through an agency); but, if a party is insulated from liability, then that party has a natural incentive to over-consume risk as a productive factor.

And let us be clear that corporations are a deviation from laissez-faire; free-market corporation is a contradiction-in-terms. Incorporation may be on behalf of some private party, but it is not itself a private act. It is the state that creates corporations. In exchange for registration fees and perhaps for special taxes, the state implicitly confiscates the property of third parties, and enables the owners of the corporation to over-consume risk. Where the sums extracted by the state are less than the cost of full insurance, there is more incentive to incorporate, especially in the cases where the firm is to be owned by a single individual or by a small and stable group of people. And corporate taxes are not indexed to risk. When third parties are injured, officials of the state may present themselves as rescuers or as champions of the victims, but those officials are actually amongst the victimizers. And, since over-all the monies got from registration fees and corporate taxes are less than the corresponding aggregate cost of full insurance, either some third parties injured by corporations must go uncompensated, or taxpayers of some other sort must make good the difference.


When there's an argument over whether corporations are people, oftentimes each side is simply talking past the other.

Those who insist that corporations are people are not typically expressing a position on whether the law should create such legal persons; rather, they are usually trying to communicate that the burdens imposed upon corporations are ultimately imposed upon people — that nothing that the corporation is compelled to do can be done except that it be done by human beings, and that nothing taken from a corporation is not taken from its ultimate owners, who are people.

Those who insist that corporations are not people are typically arguing that the legal fiction that a firm is a distinct person is unwarranted.

But many of those who assert that corporations are not people go on to insist that, because corporations are not persons, they may be compelled to do things that persons should not be compelled to do, and may be restrained in ways that persons should not be restrained. However, it's one thing to argue that a corporation as such is not itself a person outside of law and should not be one in the eyes of the law, and entirely another to argue that the acts of corporations are not the acts of any person and that constraints on corporations are not constraints on any people. With the corporation stripped of distinct personhood, the actual persons of the corporation are revealed, not hidden. A willful blindness is then required if they are not seen.

In the face of decisions to which he objected about what was allowed and disallowed for corporations, Bernie Sanders asserted that Ben Cohen were a person and that Jerry Greenfield were a person, but that Ben & Jerry's Homemade Holdings, Inc., were not a person. But if, while Messrs Cohen And Greenfield still owned that corporation, the law had forbidden the corporation's doing such things as hiring the homeless or required it to do such things as to devote a percentage of its capacity to the manufacture of munitions, then this imposition would have forbidden them to do these desired things or required them to do these repulsive things, and they would surely have taken that quite personally. Ben & Jerry's Homemade Holdings was not and is not a person (outside of legal fiction), but it was and is persons and the property of persons. Mr Sanders is willfully blind or a demagogue or both.

They and Mr Sanders might be quite sure that what they wanted to do were right, and that what they didn't want to do were wrong, but so are the owners of corporations who want to support political candidates or who object to paying for abortifacients. Liberty isn't simply for those who agree with some of us; it wouldn't be liberty if it were.

It might be argued that the various constraints placed upon corporations are none-the-less perfectly legitimate, as incorporation were voluntary. But if incorporation creätes a relative advantage for those who incorporate in some industry, then it ipso facto creätes a relative disadvantage for those who do not. Incorporation may then be voluntary only in the sense that participation in that industry in the first place is voluntary. In such a context, insisting that those who incorporate have voluntarily surrendered various rights would be analogous to claiming that carpenters have voluntarily surrendered those same rights.

An Error of Multiplicities

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Imagine a nation containing two jurisdictions, A and B. Imagine further that the population of jurisdiction A divides neatly into two groups: 51%, who oppose and do not receive transfer benefits from the federal state; and 49%, who receive such benefits (whatever their expressed beliefs). Imagine also that the population of jurisdiction B divides neatly into two groups: 67%, who support but do not do not receive transfer benefits from the federal state; and 33%, who receive such benefits (whatever their expressed beliefs).

The majority in jurisdiction A oppose transfer benefits; yet a higher share of people in that jurisdiction draw benefits than in jurisdiction B, where a majority support such programmes. None-the-less, these figures provide no evidence of hypocrisy in jurisdiction A. Possibly no one there who draws benefits speaks out against them or works to prevent others from receiving them.

In the real world, things are messier. (There'd be six relevant types of people.) But I sometimes see it argued that the people of certain jurisdictions are hypocrites simply on the basis that a majority there oppose some set of entitlement programmes, while at the same time a higher share of the population in that district (than of populations in other districts) draw benefits from that set. The hypothetical case above illustrates the fallacy of that argument.

If we had just one jurisdiction, in which a majority opposed some set of benefits yet a large share of people drew those benefits, the idea that there were some sort of hypocrisy wouldn't naturally arise, unless it were suggested that a majority drew those same benefits. Knowing about other jurisdictions doesn't tell one what one needs to know about that one jurisdiction. But many people get befuddled by the multiplicity, especially when the narrator tells them what they are predisposed to believe.

(There's here also another, perhaps more important fallacy, which I discussed in an entry more than five years ago. People who do not believe that some order should prevail can participate in that order without being hypocrites. It is when they deliberately act to sustain an order against which they express themselves that they are acting as hypocrites.)

A Monumental Error

Monday, 29 June 2015

Imagine that, under some law passed long ago, some group of persons was able to take $10 000 from you, without your consent. Further imagine that they spent this money on a statue of your beloved dog, Earl, and presented it to you.

The statue is actually rather nice. The artist truly managed to convey Earl's personality! Setting aside what it cost you, you'd like it a great deal. And, if you'd tried to have one made like it, it would perhaps have cost you $20 000, rather than $10 000. (They have many statues made, and get each at significant discount.)

None-the-less, you don't like it as much as you'd like $20 000; you don't like it as much as you'd like to have kept your $10 000. And no one else is willing to pay $10 000 for a statue of your dog.

Most of us would say that you're entitled to feel yourself worse-off, not-withstanding that, by some accounting, you've got a $20 000 return on a $10 000 cost.

Yet officials and other citizens who complain about Federal tax burdens (or about intervention in general from the Federal government) are often mocked as supposed hypocrites if they come from jurisdictions in which the Federal government spends more than it takes in revenue. The principle may be exactly the same. Even if the Federal government delivers money (rather than commodities) to the constituent state, if it requires that the money be spent in a particular way, then this is like compelling someone to buy a statue of Earl. And the constituent states were not themselves the taxpayers, so giving those states money without mandates still leaves people with reason to feel aggrieved, even when the money is more than that taken from taxpayer. (It is not as if each constituent state has just one taxpayer who is also its one voter, able then to direct how the money be spent.)

Preserve the Proxies!

Monday, 22 June 2015

Under the original ethos of the 'Net, those who registered domain names were required to make publicly available their contact information.

A technical loop-hole was found. One party could register a domain name, and that party could provide its own contact information; yet the party could allow (and perhaps even be contractually required to allow) some other party to use the domain name for its own ends. So the technical registrant was a proxy agent for the practical holder. This loop-hole was challenged, but ultimately allowed to remain.

Now pressure is being brought upon ICANN to prohibit proxies for what are deemed commercial sites. The primary motivation appears to be to help firms identify and pursue those who infringe upon trademarks and other intellectual property. (At present, they would have to get a court order requiring the proxy service to release the identity of the practical holder.)

I think that this effort should be strongly resisted. At the time that the use of proxies began, I had mixed feelings about it. But use of the Internet and of the World-Wide Web has evolved, and evolved within the context of this proxied registration being an accepted practice. A rule-change now would impose new costs — sometimes quite significant — on many people, the vast majority of whom are quite innocent of any trespass on intellectual property. Further, I note that most of those who are deliberate in their infringements are unlikely to have qualms about using using proxies that simply claim to be practical holders.

You may want to read ICANN's discussion of the matter

Comments may be sent to comments-ppsai-initial-05may15@icann.org before 7 July.

Am I Very Wrong?

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Kindness come too late may be cruelty. I wonder whether I am too late.

It's All in the Timing

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Administration has timed its decision on what sort of immigration reform to implement by Executive Decree so that the President can be informed by whatever occurs on 11 September. Any considered reforms that would, in light of 11 September, seem foolish to the voting public will be shelved. If nothing happens domestically, then the President will feel that he has a freer hand.