Archive for July, 2012

Is Utilitarianism a Sound Ethics?

Is Utilitarianism a Sound Ethics?

Tibor R. Machan

Recently some who failed to disclose that Penn State University’s assistant football coach molested several youngsters tried to excuse themselves saying they remained silent in the hope of preserving the university’s good name. In effect they argued that the greater good of the school’s reputation excused their silence despite the fact that such silence may have shielded the culprits from having to answer for their misconduct.

Those who study ethics arguably face, in this case, utilitarianism in action. For the sake of a “greater good,” namely, the reputation of an admittedly vital educational institution, was it proper to try to hide the molestation?

Is this an accurate general assessment of what transpired? Did those who defended their silence act like proper utilitarians? Did the pursuit of the university’s good name justify suppressing the information about the molestation? And does this undermine utilitarianism’s credibility?

Even people outside of academic philosophical ethics often reason that the greater good may require engaging in what ordinarily amounts to malpractice. Inflicting the pain of, e.g., spanking or harsh military training may be justified so as to achieve a greater good. Confiscating the property of citizens, as is done via taxation, is at times justified or excused since taxation collects resources that are spent on worthwhile public projects. As Oliver Wendell Holmes is reputed to have said, with taxation–the pain–we buy civilization–the greater good. And so on and so forth.

There are, of course, cases that appear to fit the utilitarian idea that the “pursuit of the greater good justifies some evils” though they aren’t normally found acceptable. Pursuing a sexual liaison with a highly desired potential partner doesn’t normally justify coercion such as rape, stalking or harassment! The immense pleasure some child molesters may gain from their mistreatment of children doesn’t come close to justifying their conduct. But perhaps it should do so, at least if utilitarianism is a sound ethical position. Why not sacrifice the child’s well being when in other instances such a price is deemed to be worth the reward?

Probably because no one is really a consistent, unrelenting utilitarian. No ends appear to justify certain means, however important or desirable those ends may be. Utilitarianism is thus usually moderated by the doctrine of individual rights, especially the right not to be used by others against one’s will. But is such coercive use of unwilling others ever acceptable and why? How is it that President Obama’s health care policy–which mandates that those who don’t want to purchase insurance be forced to do so anyway–is widely approved of but torture, in the service of gaining vital information from unwilling victims, is not? Why is the confiscation of people’s resources and labor accepted on utilitarian grounds–the public interest is served by it all, no?

It would appear that there is a standard of value that exists–or is, at least, accepted by many–in terms of which the trade-offs between various ways of treating other people is supposed to be calculated or determined. If my child were being held captive and threatened with severe harm by two people one of whom, who can provide information has been captured, torture would not appear highly objectionable. Why not? Maybe because it’s been established that the individual is guilty of kidnapping. So torturing someone who is known to be guilty of such viciousness would appear to be OK. Righteous indignation at such torture would appear to be seriously misplaced. (Indeed, some of the complaints about torturing terrorists seem therefore to be disingenuous.)

These matters aren’t academic by a long shot. Those involved in operations on the field of battle need to decide about them and can be held accountable for what they have decided.

Does utilitarianism avail us of a convincing rationale to deal with these kind of issues? Or does a rights based public policy do a better job? To explore such issues is why a proper education must include a solid dosage of moral philosophy or ethics.

The New York Times Meets Property Rights

The New York Times meets Property Rights

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last several years I have subscribed to The Sunday New York Times, mainly because it came with accessibility to its daily online editions. I like to read the Op Ed pieces and editorials and chime in here and there with some sanity where the paper lays out its loony leftists ideology. For example, I found it valuable to oppose the doctrine that people are entitled to a great variety of free goods and services, i.e., goods and services others must pay for.

When President Obama’s health insurance scheme became the subject of widespread public discussion, I was committed to pointing out how this was going to be yet another case of trying to rob Peter so as to benefit Paul, by whatever obscure criterion of eligibility. I was targeting my points at Paul Krugman and others who served as Mr. Obama’s ideological cheerleaders. But not just at Professor Krugman but at all those who promoted policies that would chip away at human liberty, in more or less Draconian ways.

Well, suddenly The New York Times no longer makes it possible for online readers to offer comments easily–to do so one must climb over several walls, email letters to the editor, etc., etc. And reading the comments of other readers is no longer possible (or if it is then it is by no means as simple as it used to be). In other words, The New York Times is making changes, most likely to save money or to avoid having to deal with contrarians among its online readers. I don’t actually know what lies behind the changes but I do not like them.

However, and this is a notion that the editors and publishers at The Times probably do not appreciate at all, the paper belongs to them and they have the authority–based on the right to private property–to institute the changes however much I and very probably a bunch of other readers do not like them. We are not entitled to the provision of various services from The Times, such as accepting comments from readers, notifying us that the comments have appeared online, etc., and so forth. The paper belongs to them not me and others whose desires are no longer being fulfilled as they used to be. Something has changed at The Times and the publishers and editors there have the right to make the needed adjustments just as they see fit. They do not owe me and others like me a platform for expressing our dismay with what appears in the pages of the paper. Yes, we may wish for this very much. We may even have become habituated to offering up our ideas for the editors and readers to ponder. But that doesn’t entitle us one whit to being given room in the pages of The Times.

Only, the publishers and editors and most Op Ed contributors to the paper just don’t get it–they are exercising a right that they do not recognize for other people, such as those who do not want to contribute funds the Mr. Obama’s health care budget or who do not want to follow mandates to which they gave no consent! These editors and publishers just decided, unilaterally, to close me and thousands of others out from the forums they could continue to keep open to us all. And they probably don’t even realize that this right, this authority they have to do so, is entirely inconsistent with their welfare statist public philosophy.

No, I and others like me do not have a right to gain entrance to the pages of The New York Times, in print or online. And the folks at The Times know this well and good and act accordingly. They didn’t need my permission to shut me out. It was their right to make that decision.

Which is central to human freedom, based on the right to private property, a right The Times doesn’t much like and certainly doesn’t defend in its editorials.

What’s the Fuss About those Uniforms?

What’s the Fuss About those Uniforms?

Tibor R. Machan

Senate majority leader Reid expressed outrage about the fact that the uniforms American athletes were going to wear at the opening ceremonies for this summer’s Olympics in London, UK, were manufactured in China. No, he wasn’t complaining because the places where they were made employ minors or violate other standards of proper business. No, he was fussing about the fact that making the uniforms was outsources. And now it appears commitments have come forth from Ralph Lauren, who has the contract to produce the uniforms, that outsourcing the task of making the uniforms will be stopped.

What insanity. Who makes such uniforms competently and least expensively? That is the question, not where they are made. Commerce isn’t about nationalism but about cutting good deals. How many of us wear garments, use gadgets and devices, rely on various articles of clothing such as buttons and fabrics, accessories such as watches, glasses, and so forth, made who knows where by who knows whom? Why is this important if it doesn’t involve any kind of forced labor?

Dissing Mr. Lauren for finding a manufacturer of the requisite uniforms in China or anywhere else where a good deal could be struck is vile. That is just what he is supposed to do when he is contracted for a job like this one. When domestic politics focuses on such perverse issues, how far are we from instigating trade warfare? Senator Reid was sounding like the United States of America is at war with any nation in which there are firms that produce commodities that fulfill the needs of companies producing goods and services for American consumers? Next Senator Reid will call for declaring war on any country that doesn’t fall in line with his standards of acceptable trading partnership. The Majority Leader went so far as to declare that the Olympic committee should “put [the uniforms] in a big pile and burn them.” (And, by the way, this isn’t a partisan issue–several Republicans joined Senator Reid in expressing hostility to freedom of trade which made Mr. Lauren’s decision possible.)

What kind of neanderthals are these people who want to take this “buy only American” to such extremes? Not only is the idea absurd in the 21st century but it amounts to out and out bigotry. What is wrong with foreign working people who can produce perfectly acceptable uniforms for American Olympic athletes?

America is supposed to be a culture in which persons from every other culture are welcome to make contributions to science, athletics, fashion, etc., regardless of race or national origin. So what’s with the Senate majority leader and other politicians who attempt to stir up bad blood based on an elementary cosmopolitan feature of commerce? Lay off the bigotry already! It is the source of the sentiments that used to lead to wars between countries.

The Open Secret to Affordability

The Open Secret to Affordability

Tibor R. Machan

For a little while I was mystified about what would make the health insurance scheme that’s at the heart of Obamacare affordable. I was reading about the measure all around the Web and couldn’t find much information about this. Why would this be affordable, compared to unaffordable alternatives?

And then it hit me–and I felt ashamed for failing to grasp it right away. Of course! Anything you can get other people to pay for can easily become affordable! If my kid wants me to buy her a new car, I would normally say “Sorry, I cannot afford it.” For our family such a purchase is unaffordable, at least now. And that’s the story with innumerable commodities and services available on the market–most of these are just unaffordable to a great many folks. Why? Because they haven’t got the funds to buy them at the price sellers are willing to accept. Ergo, all of this is unaffordable.

But suppose I manage to sell a manuscript to a publisher who is willing to pay me big bucks for it–yes, I am dreaming–or imagine any other good deal I can nail down; suddenly much of what my family would like to purchase turns out to have become affordable. That would be the kosher way to come to afford what we want, namely, by increasing our resources through making good deals, being more productive, earning more funds than we did before, etc.

But I was forgetting for a while an entirely different way stuff we want can become affordable. We could steal or rob others of their funds and use these to increase our resources. Much of what we want could become easily affordable by this means.

You can easily imagine some bank robber coming home after a heist and announcing at the dinner table that what his family couldn’t afford before has suddenly become affordable. Maybe it would include health insurance, vacations, better furniture for the home, a new automobile, etc., etc. Pronto–all this stuff has become affordable.

And that is really the clue to what makes health insurance affordable under President Obama’s measure! He has put together a system whereby a great many people who do not wish to purchase health insurance will be mandated to do so anyway. This will bring down the price of health insurance, make it affordable to millions seeing that they no longer have to increase their own resources in order to come to afford it. Instead, they can now legally dip into the pockets of others, perfect strangers whose generosity they cannot count on but who have some funds that can be taken from them, making the service affordable to those who would have to either do without or improve their economic situation in order to pay for it on their own.

Not that this is anything new in the field of public finance–indeed, it is the routine. But in most instance some kind of excuse, admittedly spurious, is offered why that approach is necessary.

I don’t know what one calls this approach to purchasing stuff in the field of public administration but I do have the words for it in ordinary English. It is called robbing Peter for the benefit of Paul. And that is at the heart of Mr. Obama’s health care program. That is what the individual mandate is mostly about, namely, forcing those who don’t choose to purchase health insurance to part with the funds that it would take to pay for it. Thus has something that was unaffordable for many people become affordable. Easy as pie!

Socialism American Style

Socialism American Style

Tibor R. Machan

Mr. Milos Foreman is a renowned film director but not a good political economist. This is evident in his recent New York Times op-ed defense of Barack Obama from those who charge the president with being a socialist. (See his essay, “Obama the Socialist? Not Even Close” in the July 10th issue of the paper.)

When someone on the American political landscape is accused of being a socialist, the claim has little directly to do with Stalinism, a lot more with the kind of system they had in Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland and other Soviet colonies, namely the phony promise of cradle to grave security and relentless government meddling in people’s lives (goulash communism). Call it Norman Thomas style socialism, the kind that so many academic socialist in the West champion.

The brutality known as Soviet style socialism comes later. It is not the first step. But we get a good clue about its approach in America when one understands the meaning of a term like “mandate.” It means coerce, plain and simple!

In socialism mandates are everywhere–all must be forced to live the same way, pay for the same health care and insurance, fall in line with state policy in matters of nutrition, conservation, energy usage, environmental ethics, climate change, etc., etc. Clamping down on free speech is never the first step, nor is shutting down the free press and nationalizing media. Or even collectivizing, banks, factories and farms. (But check out Caesar Chavez of Venezuela and how he is imposing a near Stalinist variety of socialism.)

When governments start believing and imposing their idea of how everyone ought to live, how and when people’s resources ought to be utilized, it’s a clear move toward the harsh version of socialism but not yet the same thing; first you get the Swedish and Norwegian varieties, “socialism with a human face.” North Korea’s kind is a good ways down the road, which has a lot to do with the culture and history of the particular country involved. But socialism it is, Mr. Foreman’s sophistry to the contrary notwithstanding (this coming from a refugee from Hungarian communism/socialism, not unlike the sort Mr. Foreman left behind in Czechoslovakia).

There is variety in the different types of socialism proposed and implemented but there is a recognizable unifying central theme in every version of it that Mr. Obama and his ideological cohorts share: people are viewed as belonging to society, as part of a hive or herd that needs to be driven in one proper direction. One size fits all!

The major obstacle to it all being individualism and the free market that is its economic corollary. If you are bent on moving the country toward any kind of bona fide socialism, start with chipping away at its individualist elements, like the liberty of a citizen to purchase the health insurance he or she deems suitable! Or not to purchase any at all. (The fact that in many countries such measures are already present means only that moving away from the governmental habit is difficult, with innumerable specialist interests resisting it.)

Sure, the idea can be driven home more or less forcefully–in America it is government nudging and the oxymoronically named libertarian paternalism, that’s embraced by Mr Obama and his lieutenants, e.g., professors Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes. Theirs are the prudent, gentle approaches to socialism preferred by the likes of American socialists such as the late Norma Thomas and Michael Harrington, not the gulags or concentration camps of Stalin’s communism and Hitler’s Nazism (e.g., national socialism).