Posts tagged BP

Column on A Lopsided Warning

A Lopsided Warning

Tibor R. Machan

The president of the AAUP–American Association of University Professors–issued a lengthy declaration warning the membership against getting involved with BP, the giant oil company whose operations have gone awry in the Gulf of Mexico and whose management is suspected of numerous failures and malpractices that have lead to the disaster in the Gulf. Of course, this, like some other high visible corporate infelicities have provoked innumerable people, pundits, government officials, bureaucrats, and, of course, most of all the cheerleaders of extensive government regulation of business, to chime in with a chorus of condemnation not only of BP (way before any serious scrutiny of its conduct has been carried out) but of big business itself.

Gary Nelson, AAUP’s president, joined in with his lengthy dissertation imploring academicians–professors and researchers alike–to refuse any job offers from BP which contained contractual provisions that would keep research and scholarship about the GUlf disaster secret or the property of BP. Sounding the mantra of threatening academic freedom–which, strictly speaking, such contracts do not threaten at all–President Nelson paints BP in the worst possible light, which, incidentally, may very well turn out to be justified (although it is at this point too early to tell and anyone with the slightest respect for due process of law, or even morality, would probably best remain silent).

But that is not what is really the most disturbing part of what Craig Nelson has done here. The worst thing is the lopsided nature of his warning. The greatest and bona fide threat to academic freedom does not come from BP and other big corporations. It comes from governments that are knee deep involved in American higher education and university scientific and technological research across the country. The sums of moneys taxpayers are coerced to contribute to universities is staggering. All those costly experiments conducted by the astro- or high energy, particle physicists across the land are funded by the taxpayers, other than those that some big private businesses support voluntarily (!).

When and if Professor Nelson identifies the source of troubles in higher education as stemming from massive government involvement, including funding and regulation, his lamentations about big business may acquire some measure of credibility but before that he has no basis for all his righteous cautionary words about academics getting into bed with big corporations. The threat from government to academic freedom, scholarly impartiality, lack of bias and partisanship is far greater than that coming from associating with big business–one can always, even if with difficulty, withdraw from businesses and go to some that behave better, but there is but one (or a few different levels of) government and usually equipped with guns to get its tasks achieved.

Nor is there any justification in treating government officials as if they were all knowing and virtuous, while corporate managers are regarded as villains. They aren’t public servants any more than are the rest of us. The idea of their having special virtues that qualify them to regiment around professionals of all sorts, including people in business, is misguided or an out and out ruse. Or maybe it’s just rank prejudice, especially in light of the source of most of the world’s deadly wars having been and still being waged by governments. BP has its serious faults but the federal government of nearly every country is far worse.

The first task for academicians is to achieve genuine independence, which must include independence of government funding and its cherry picking of where support will be given and where it will be withheld. Once that theme is central to the message of AAUP president Nelson and others like him, they will have earned the warrant to engage in chiding professors who may chose to join big businesses in the capacity of apologists.

But we should not hold our breaths waiting for this. Consistency and integrity are far from the list of virtues of the likes of Professor Nelson, at least when it comes to this topic.

Column on Justice & BP

Justice and BP

Tibor R. Machan

It is very probable that BP and its associated firms will be found guilty of malpractice and assessed major fines and punishment. However, this hasn’t yet happened so it’s premature to punish BP at this point. Nor is it the role of the President of the U.S. to act as prosecutor, judge and jury in this case or any other. Where is due process in all of what he and Congress have been doing lately? Or has an anti-British or anti-business attitude wiped out the need for justice? Urging or imploring–even attempting to persuade–BP to set up the $20 billion fund could be a good idea but treating this as demanded by justice is utterly misguided. There should be no compromise of principle even in the heat of anger and the grips of outrage and sorrow. It is imperative to wait until the verdict is in.

Many moons ago President Richard Nixon lashed out at Charles Manson after he learned of the carnage but before the law could get at the mass murderer. The president told reporters that Manson was “guilty, directly or indirectly of eight murders.” Manson’s defense team then went on to argue in court that such a statement by the president undermined the possibility of a fair trial. The defense motioned for a mistrial, insisting that the charges against Manson be dropped but the judge, Older, denied it.
Interestingly the following day in court Manson displayed a paper, headlined “Manson Guilty, Nixon Declares,” presumably in the hopes of producing a mistrial but instead the judge questioned jurors concerning their reactions and determined that they could remain impartial. He did sentence one of the attorneys to three nights in jail as punishment for leaving the paper in Manson’s reach.

Why mention all this? A case like the oil spill will generate a long and intricate legal process and many of those who have suffered from the explosion and the spill will need to have it heard and decided expeditiously and President Obama’s and Congress’ treatment of BP could very well pose obstacles to a speedy resolution and due compensation. It is doubtful that this would be welcome, especially by those most effected by the catastrophe.

It seems, however, that politicians cannot resist capitalizing on events like this one. Just as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggested, do not let a disaster go unexploited. However, there can be serious downside to this attitude, since rushing to judgment can backfire and BP’s attorneys, who would naturally want to lessen any losses this disaster will cost the company, could exploit it in the course of the trials sure to follow. Nor need one view this cynically–it is, first of all, the job of those attorney’s to see to it that BP gets what amounts to a legal fair shake; second, objectively speaking, it is still to be determined what and who is responsible for what happened.

Yes, one would wish to be able to point a finger with no complications but that could turn out to be a pipe dream here. However painful this is, especially to the families of those 11 who perished in the initial explosion and to all those who are suffering from the impact of the spill throughout the Gulf region, justice cannot be achieved without examining the situation in full. And that could take time.

Sadly, many, including most of the mainstream media, are more interested in a show of strong feelings from President Obama instead of warning him about muddying the legal waters of this case. In the long run, however, it will be far more important that true justice be done instead of publicly parading sincere yet very possibly badly targeted emotions.

One may suppose that those who have suffered from all this will be impervious to all such niceties as due process of law but even in the most extreme circumstances, as after a plane crash and a building or bridge collapse, the human thing to do is to remain as civilized as bearable. Emotions are perfectly appropriate, of course, but they are no substitute for what justice demands.

Column on Revisiting Free Will

Revisiting Free Will

Tibor R. Machan

In an essay for The New Republic, “Oh, the humanity,” Bradford Plumer writes as follows:

“Take your pick on what’s most infuriating about the oil crisis in the Gulf. There’s the growing evidence that the platform blowout that caused all that crude to erupt out of the ocean floor was entirely preventable and should never have happened in the first place. BP cut corners on safety to save money, and regulators barely seemed to care. And now no one has any real clue how to contain the spill–we just have to watch helplessly as the ever-expanding oil slick poisons fisheries and kills off marshlands and coral reefs. What’s especially unnerving, though, is that the recklessness that helped bring about the spill, and the political reaction that followed, seem to indicate a larger inability to prevent and cope with other large-scale ecological catastrophes–particularly climate change.”

Here you have yet another instance of never allowing a good disaster to go unexploited for political purposes, a policy endorsed a while ago by White House Chief Rahm Emanuel. But I will leave that aside for now and focus once again on the curious phenomenon of defenders of determinism remaining completely silent when it comes to defending those who are accused of wrong-doing on the grounds that, well, there is nothing they could have done differently. Saying that the blowout “was entirely preventable” clearly assume free will–that those responsible for operating and managing the operations at the rig could have done otherwise than they did. All this finger pointing, charges of recklessness–at BP and the regulators and whoever was near to the events and might be a candidate for malpractice charges–seems to be entirely fine with the academic defenders of determinism, such as Paul and Patricia Churchland, Ted Honderich, Daniel Dennett and their innumerable supporters in this controversy.

The doctrine of free will is not faring very well these days among most philosophers, although a few who work on the topic, even among neuro-scientists, do defend it. I am one of them. I have written books, scholarly papers, and essays on the topic but each time I make my case, quite a few people dismiss my thesis as implausible, wrong, even disingenuous. (In these discussions many do not stick to topic and veer off into name calling, sadly, or charging their opponents with duplicitous conduct, specious argumentation, etc., instead of leaving it at trying to show that their adversaries’ position is wrong. That is itself odd, since a determinist could not really sustain the claim that the opponent could have done other than he or she did, namely, defend free will!)

But back to BP and the oil catastrophe. If one maintains that it was all preventable, one must hold that those involved could have done things differently from what they actually did, that they were free to choose to act other than they did act. And that is to reject determinism. So, all those famous determinists I have named above and their allies might be expected to be rushing to the defense of the idea that what happened in the Gulf of Mexico simply had to happen–no alternative course of conduct was possible.

There was one famous American who did come forth in a notorious case, the murder trial of Leopold and Loeb, namely, Clarence Darrow, and defended the accused on the grounds that no one can help what he or she does and criminals are not exempt from this principle. Leopold and Loeb were two wealthy University of Chicago students who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924, supposedly because they believed in some contorted version of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the overman and to put it into practice they decided to do the perfect crime. Darrow, in turn, defended them in part on the very general grounds that there is nothing anyone can do differently from what he or she does in fact do.

One may disagree with Darrow’s line of defense but there is certainly one commendable thing about it: it shows integrity. Darrow put his money where his mouth was, as it were, even though it was a very unpopular position and, indeed, he lost the case for his defendants.

But perhaps coming to the defense of BP would be far more unpopular, given how there is a considerable populist atmosphere in the country and big corporations are pretty much guilty before having been proven so of whatever they are accused. (It is probably true that BP and some of its associates will be found guilty of grievous malpractice in this case, although it is too early to be convinced of this now.)

What is curious to me, as a minor public intellectual–someone who takes one’s theories outside the halls of the academy and applies them quite directly to actual issues in the world–is that these famous defenders of determinism, many of whom make fun of the idea of free will (e.g., call it spooky and magical), do not step up in defense of their idea when it matters most, in a concrete case like the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.