Jul 082008

There are two natural criteria to attend to if we are to advocate the death penalty in our justice system: we must establish that we are objective in identifying, say, heinous murderers — and we must establish that it is morally permissible if not mandatory to kill them when so identified.

I want to focus here on the moral question: should we kill the heinous murderer when he is so identified? (I appreciate that the epistemological troubles of our justice system are substantial and likely rule out as negligent the imposition of any punishment so decisive and final as the death penalty. For the moment, though, let’s set aside today’s epistemological issues and their general reform; please assume objective convictions for this discussion of punishment.)

In addressing the morality of the death penalty, we may be tempted to simply appeal to retributive justice and say that one should lose a life for taking a life, discussion over. But while Objectivists support a retributivist justice system, this principle is not by itself decisive regarding the specific punishment of the death penalty: notice we can’t and don’t attempt to balance crime and punishment literally, with an eye for an actual eye, a theft for a theft, and so on. (Consider the simple example of an arsonist burning down your house. It is not possible to likewise burn down his if he is a renter.) No, we are satisfied — and necessarily so — with the justice of something more indirect. We use proxies like imprisonment and fines, scaled and otherwise adjusted to achieve the effect we seek in matching punishment to endless variety in crime. So any answer to the moral question around the death penalty has to accommodate this and explain just what would make killing a heinous murderer necessary in lieu of, say, locking him up for life.

I haven’t yet seen any fundamental explanation of what would require “the ultimate punishment” in the face of this element of flexibility in our response to crime. Here I’ll propose a way of thinking about punishment that answers that challenge, and more. (Because I am not a lawyer and could easily be confused about our legal system, I especially encourage legally-savvy readers to jump in and correct or clarify as needed!)

Nested Classes of Offense

First, note how Objectivism carefully distinguishes immorality in general from criminality, a particular species of immorality. Shunning productiveness is your own problem, until you start stealing from others to feed yourself. The key distinguishing feature here is the initiation of physical force (including indirect forms, like fraud). It is one thing to choose not to pursue life yourself — i.e., to choose not to be moral — but it is another to also initiate physical force and prevent someone else from doing so, suppressing their moral agency. This is why the Objectivist politics identifies the proper scope of government action (and any legitimate use of physical force) as a response only to violations of rights, leaving all other matters to force-free resolution via, say, personal disassociation. It is specifically the initiation of physical force which necessitates a response involving physical force.

I am going to argue that just as rights violations are essentially different than other cases of immorality and thus require an essentially different kind of response, that there is an essential distinction between criminal offenses and civil offenses that requires an essentially different kind of response, and that there is an essential distinction between capital offenses and other kinds of crime that requires an essentially different kind of response. In every case, the nature of the offense is different in kind than offenses from the other classes, and in all cases the nature of any response, to be just, must at least match the offense in kind. That is: while injustice is possible if crime and punishment are not well matched, justice is impossible if they are not at least from fundamentally commensurable classes.

Consider then the following classes of offense and how they relate to each other, beginning with mere immorality and progressing through nested subclasses of ever-stronger rights violations (yes, as I try to frame these categories in terms of essentials, I may be shifting some boundaries as currently conceived and implemented in our legal system) :

  1. Immorality: when someone operates counter to the fundamental principles of sustaining human life (is dishonest, irrational, lacks integrity, etc.). In this case, others are free to respond with a range of peaceful forms of disassociation (by, say, avoiding someone, or perhaps even advertising that choice and their reasons for it). Lameness calls for loneliness. Note how offense and response must be at least fundamentally commensurate: where there is no physical force being initiated, no physical force may be used in response (otherwise that would itself be an injustice to take legal note of — an initiation of force, criminality in response to mere immorality).

  2. Civil offenses: when someone isn’t just immoral, but more specifically bears responsibility for damaging an innocent’s person or property (say, with an irrational contract dispute, or an at-fault driving collision). In this case, our justice system compels the offender to repair the damage they are responsible for. Damage calls for restoration. Note how again offense and response must be at least fundamentally commensurate: responding to a civil misdeed with only disassociation of any stripe would be unjust — and, as indicated above, responding to mere immorality with compulsory “reparations” of any kind would likewise be unjust.
  3. Criminal offenses: when someone isn’t just responsible for harming an innocent’s person or property, but more specifically intentionally curtails an innocent’s moral agency (say, with armed robbery, fraud, burglary). In this case, our justice system in turn curtails the offender’s moral agency (his liberty via imprisonment, his property via fines and confiscation). Curtailment calls for curtailment. Note yet again how offense and response must be at least fundamentally commensurate: responding to a criminal misdeed with only compulsory reparations would be unjust — and responding to mere civil offenses with imprisonment of any length would likewise be unjust.
  4. Capital offenses: when someone chooses not just to curtail an innocent’s pursuit of life, but more specifically to eliminate an innocent’s life (say, with premeditated murder). Here then is the key distinction to observe: murder isn’t merely subverting someone’s means to continued existence, curtailing their pursuit of life — it is purposefully eliminating their life itself, ending their existence altogether. There is a difference in kind between the implicit and the explicit, the means and their end, and these cannot be treated as merely different in degree. Annihilation calls for annihilation. As with the other classes above, offense and response must be at least fundamentally commensurate: responding to a heinous murder with only imprisonment, no matter the length, would be unjust — and responding to a mere criminal offense with any form of the death penalty would likewise be unjust.

I think the above clarifies the objective basis for capital punishment, cementing the moral necessity of its use when the proper conditions have been met (and please note again that such conditions would include an epistemologically sound conviction).

Because the above organization encompasses and relates the entire range of misdeeds and response along principled lines, we have an opportunity to see if it might help explain, or even suggest adjustments to, other aspects of our justice system.

Decomposition of Crime and Composition of Response

Focus now on how the above classes are nested, with each being a narrowing of the preceding: Not every moral breach is a civil offense (often one is only harming oneself, or only harming others in non-rights-violating ways) — while every civil offense is necessarily a moral breach (that is the source of the responsibility for a rights-violating harm). And not every civil offense is a criminal offense (being responsible for harm and intending to do harm are not the same thing) — while every criminal offense is a civil offense (intending to do harm certainly makes you responsible for it). And so on through all of the classes.

This indicates that responses should not be limited to only what is indicated by the narrowest category that applies, but must also include any relevant responses from each of the broader enclosing classes as well — because they all apply. So murderers should expect time in prison (for the criminal aspects), being forced to make any possible reparations (for the civil aspects), and certainly infamy and social ostracism (for the moral aspects), on their way to annihilation (for the capital aspect). And a burglar should expect fines and jail time (for the criminal aspects), to restore his victim (for the civil aspects), and to suffer social ostracism (for the moral aspects). Any given crime must be treated on all applicable levels, by decomposing its aspects into relevant charges, and addressing each to compose the full response.

Our legal system’s support for separate treatment of civil and criminal offenses is a mechanism for satisfying this need. But it is also interesting to see how the cascade of offenses above helps us see how our approach is not the only way to satisfy this need: a different court system could, say, use a single trial, decomposing the offense into its various charges at all levels for appropriate assessment, and then handing down a single, integrated response. The cascade of offenses also clarifies how holding separate civil and criminal trials needn’t introduce the injustice of “double jeopardy”: the charges and potential punishments for each of these classes are different in kind — one being about responsibility for damages, the other about criminal curtailment of moral agency or worse. So whether or not both of these aspects of a crime are assessed during the same proceeding is immaterial, a matter of convenience or tradition.

One danger of our current two-trial approach, though, lies in blurring the distinction I’ve drawn between civil and criminal matters. Their division of judicial labor can become unprincipled and uncoordinated: consider that we have criminal courts handing down orders for reparations, and civil courts handing down orders for “punitive damages.” This blurring of responsibilities seems to flirt with the injustice of double jeopardy. Worse still, in the case of civil courts drifting into handing down punishments, the higher standard of judgment demanded in criminal proceedings is being evaded.

Graduated Standards of Judgment

Regarding standards of judgment, consider how this nested structure highlights qualitative leaps in the gravity and irreparability of offense and response. Combined with the fact of limited time and resources, this suggests the need for qualitative leaps in standards of judgment and extent of oversight. Negligence in the justice system itself cannot ever be acceptable (that would render it literally an injustice system) : the more grave and/or irreparable the crime, the more diligence we must bring to bear to ensure correctness in conviction and punishment with a similarly grave and/or irreparable response. Our present system addresses this need as follows:

  • In civil judgments we must show responsibility for damages. Our system’s standard for demonstrating such liability is that of a “preponderance of the evidence”, which seems to roughly correspond to what Objectivists technically classify as “probable” [OPAR 178].
  • In criminal judgments, we must show intent to commit a rights violation (i.e., the initiation of physical force, even indirectly like with fraud or potentially with assault). Our system’s more-rigorous standard for demonstrating such guilt is that of “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which seems to roughly correspond to what Objectivists technically classify as “certain” [ibid].
  • In capital judgments, we must show intent to cause a rights-violating death. This requires the standard of criminal judgments, with the additional requirement of appeals and extended scrutiny and oversight to further insure against any systemic negligence.

Carefully observing the proper standard for each aspect of a crime is required, lest we court the kind of systemic negligence mentioned above, with civil courts handing down “punitive damages.”

Commodity Units of Punishment

Because of the impossibility of literally matching offense and response, as well as because of limits in time and resources, we need to institute uniform responses to crime that make it possible to “dial in” a just match to any given offense.

The above classes of offense are based in philosophical principle and fixed, while within each class there is endless variation in misdeed. Because the misdeeds in each class are fundamentally commensurate, though, we have the possibility of commoditizing our responses, making them regular and even scalable to match a great variety of fundamentally similar offenses. The use of such units also allows us to objectively express the relative badness of one offense vs. another, making for sentencing open to audit, against guidelines that are open to review, clarification, and correction.

In civil reparations, we achieve commoditization of damages economically: most damages can be cleanly reduced to the monetary impact of the replacement value of items, the time value of lost use, the value of time away from work, the economic impact of reputation damage, the economic impact of a lost limb, etc. The troublesome aspects for restoration lie in physical pain, mutilation or death, psychological suffering, the loss of a unique object, and the like: these cannot be genuinely repaired with money or any object or action. Take pain and suffering, for example: at best, we might attempt to contrive a monetary valuation for psychological suffering by rough, subjective scaling of pay for an extraordinarily unpleasant job. But the trouble is most clear in the case of physical pain: trying to find the market value for the experience of letting someone, say, break one’s arm is right out. This is quite unfortunate, because it means a victim of such damage cannot be made whole in principle. In such cases there is simply no justice to be had — and this would be morally intolerable if it were not due to a metaphysically-given fact.

In criminal punishment, our system commoditizes moral agency curtailment via limitations on liberty (incarceration) and takings of property (fines or confiscations). Each component can be scaled and combined with the other in practically endless ways to punish much of what makes up criminal activity. Even psychological suffering can be captured by such losses. But just as we cannot repair the infliction of physical pain in civil cases with any action or object, we cannot genuinely punish the infliction of physical pain via incarceration or fines. These are simply not commensurable. And while there was a metaphysically-given fact standing in the way of civil reparations for such damage, there is no such fact standing in the way of criminal punishments for inflicting such damage.

To genuinely punish the intentional infliction of physical pain, we would need a uniform, scalable imposition of physical pain by some means (ideally one that could deliver a controlled degree and amount with no physical damage whatever, thus leaving all other elements of the crime to be matched as needed by a mix of incarceration, fines, and so on). While perhaps distasteful, this seems to be the only kind of unit which is actually commensurable with the sometimes substantial physical suffering intentionally inflicted in cases involving torture, beating, rape, and so on. In having such a unit of punishment available to match those (and of course only those) commensurate aspects of a crime, the justice system would no longer be driven by its current inability to actually punish, say, a heinous rape of a child, into seizing upon “some” (i.e., the only available) “greater punishment” than even life behind bars. Such a category leap into capital punishment for even a particularly horrible but ‘merely’ criminal offense is in fact unjust. Responses like that corrode the absolute, principled lines of the justice system to invite ever more arbitrary actions and corrosion — precisely what must be avoided in a proper government’s response to crime. (Note that, just as in capital punishment, such corporal punishment is impossible to repair, so the epistemological oversight must be likewise heightened to prevent systemic negligence.)

In capital punishment, our system achieves commoditization by ostensibly employing a small, uniform set of (relatively) quick and painless procedures for execution. (Note that there is no need for a scalable unit of capital punishment because existence vs. nonexistence is binary.) And on the account here, it is a good trend to seek to standardize on the most quick and painless method(s) of execution — including bringing as little gore and psychological damage to the witnesses and executioners as is possible. While methods of execution that are purposely torturous and gory in varying ways and degrees have been used throughout history, this would again be a case of needlessly mixing in aspects of punishment which should be assessed and treated independently, in the criminal supercategory. For example, a heinous torture-murder should be decomposed into the judgment and response to the torture, and the judgment and response to the killing, each by the applicable standards — and this would result in an overall punishment that is properly distinguished from the punishment for a ‘mere’ murder.

Toward Principled Punishment

I have argued here that we should seek principled lines in identifying and classifying misdeeds, to systemically encourage justice and discourage injustice in our potential responses. And while perhaps distasteful, this means that we should ensure that our justice system has available all of the needed kinds of units of punishment, as in the cases of corporal and capital punishment. This is not only to allow the possibility of genuine justice in punishment, but also so frustration at the systemic prevention of justice caused by any such gaps will not drive people to seek “justice” by violating the principled lines we must observe to maintain the objectivity of our system. That kind of corrosion in particular has to be avoided, lest we spiral ever further into the arbitrariness which has characterized so much of mankind’s approach to punishment.

The Dependent Life

 Posted by on 27 June 2008 at 12:20 pm  Ethics
Jun 272008

Some months ago, I needed to photocopy Stanley Milgram’s “The Perils of Obedience,” a popular article on his famous experiments on authority published in the December 1973 issue of Harpers. (Note to self: blog about that soon!) As I was doing that, I noticed the following quote, excerpted from Philip Slater’s book The Pursuit of Loneliness, in the “wraparound” section. I was so struck by its evil that I photocopied the page, in the hopes of blogging it. I forgot about it — until I found the photocopied page a few days ago while cleaning out my desk. So, at long last, here it is for your reading displeasure:

It is easy to produce examples of the many ways in which Americans attempt to minimize, circumvent, or deny the interdependence upon which all human societies are based. We seek a private house, a private means of transportation, a private garden, a private laundry, self-service stores, and do-it-yourself skills of every kind. An enormous technology seems to have set itself the task of making it unnecessary for one human being ever to ask anything of another in the course of going about his daily business. Even within the family Americans are unique in their feeling that each member should have a separate room, and even a separate television, and car, when economically possible. We seek more and more privacy, and feel more and more alienated and lonely when we get it.

Oh how evil of us crass Americans to wish to live lives of our own, pursuing our own goals and dreams, while allowing others to do the same!

Then again, I suspect that Slater is speaking the truth — about himself. The values that he pursued probably didn’t have any meaning for him, so he longed for some human connection to fill the bottomless void inside himself.


So once again, Ayn Rand’s comment about civilization and privacy comes to mind:

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.

Notably, Philip Slater couldn’t have written that trash in the kind of society he advocates. He’d be too occupied with the elevating tasks of an “interdependent” life, such as waiting in bread lines for daily rations and working nights to support irresponsible relatives.

A Moral Example of Salami Slicing

 Posted by on 26 June 2008 at 11:47 pm  Business, Cool, Ethics
Jun 262008

Remember that technique which showed up in the plots of movies like Superman III, Hackers, and Office Space, where someone would change bank software to take fractions of cents from transactions like interest payments and funnel them all into one account? Nobody misses a fraction of a cent — but given enough transactions over time, the sum can really add up! That’s what they call “Salami Slicing.”

Of course it is stealing in cases like that, but the same idea of accumulating vast numbers of tiny values that are hardly noticeable could legitimately pay off, too.

Consider this fact about driving your vehicle: left turns often require waiting for oncoming traffic to clear, taking a little more time and gas on average than right turns do. Now, this doesn’t make all that much of a difference to most of us (just like the above fraction of a cent we may or may not get in interest from the bank) — but if you have a fleet of 90,000 big brown trucks that follow the routes you schedule for them each day to deliver packages, then adjusting your software to minimize left turns could really add up!

Last year, according to Heather Robinson, a U.P.S. spokeswoman, the software helped the company shave 28.5 million miles off its delivery routes, which has resulted in savings of roughly three million gallons of gas…

That’s some serious scratch, especially with the price of gas today! I love it — kudos to the brain at UPS who saw and brilliantly exploited this little fact.

[HT: Jason]

Harvard Law Review Article on Charity

 Posted by on 2 June 2008 at 5:11 am  Ethics, Objectivism
Jun 022008

The Volokh.com legal blog had an interesting post critical of an appalling article that was just published in the Harvard Law Review entitled, “NEVER AGAIN SHOULD A PEOPLE STARVE IN A WORLD OF PLENTY“.

They also quoted one typical paragraph:

You have now read this Note and you are equipped with the knowledge that $200 can save a child’s life. No claim of ignorance can be supported at this point. In fact, if you would like to make a donation, the toll-free number for UNICEF is 1-800-486-4233. They take credit card donations over the phone, or you can go online at www.unicef.org. Here is some time to call right now. ****

The author of the article, Harvard Law student Phil Telfeyan, has also created a blog with the sanctimonious title of “Do the Right Thing at Every Moment” to promote and defend his notions of morality.

Apart from the issue of whether such an article has any place in a law review, there is the more interesting broader question of the proper role of charity in man’s life.

I left the following comment on Telfeyan’s blog and the Volokh.com blog post:

I think a far better approach towards the broader issue of charity is from Ayn Rand (which incidentally is not the same as the popular misconception of her views of “never help anyone”):

“My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.”


I completely agree. I’ve gladly helped others in need on multiple occasions (1) when I could afford it, and (2) when the recipient was worthy.

But life isn’t about putting bandages on other people’s sores; it’s about creating value, achieving goals, and pursuing a happy full existence in accordance with our nature as rational beings. Charity towards others is a secondary aspect of life, not the primary purpose.

I also left the following second comment on Telfeyan’s blog:

…I’d like to also explicitly challenge the primary thesis that there is any kind of a moral *obligation* to help those less fortunate.

My contention is that even if an innocent child in Africa could be saved by my giving him $200 of my salary, his need (genuine as it may be) does not create any sort of mystical *obligation* for me to part with that money for his behalf. In other words, I don’t see any basis for the sort of moral calculus being proposed. In fact, to adopt it means that one’s own life energy ends up being drained perpetually in a race to the bottom. One can never claim the fruits of one’s labor as rightfully one’s own – not when there is someone in greater need (and there will always be someone in greater need).

This nightmarish moral outlook is not conducive to life at all, and only leads to an unnecessary, undeserved moral guilt. For similar reasons, I reject Peter Singer’s moral philosophy.

In contrast, when charitable giving accords with my own values and priorities, then I am happy to donate, because it furthers *my* values. And I do give freely to numerous charitable organizations (predominantly educational groups as well as various organizations like FIRE which defend freedom of speech and other individual rights) for precisely those reasons.

In one respect, Phil is quite right — one should do the right thing at every moment. But the key issue is *what* exactly is that “right thing”?

I contend that it’s furthering one’s life and values as a rational productive being. (Note this does not imply screwing over others — I don’t believe there are any inherent conflicts of rational interest between humans in normal contexts).

For further information of this view, I’d like to point towards the excellent book by University of Texas professor of philosophy Tara Smith entitled, “Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist“.

Professor Smith discusses how a policy of rational ethical egoism is compatible with (and in fact the only consistent basis for) classical virtues such as honesty, integrity, justice, rationality, etc.

It dispels the notion that egoism must imply screwing other people. In fact, it shows that the exact opposite is true.

The Morality of Pornography

 Posted by on 21 April 2008 at 7:02 am  Ethics, Love/Sex
Apr 212008

An interesting question for NoodleFood, again on sex:

I was intrigued by your posting on the psychology of prostitution. I haven’t followed the Spitzer case all that closely, but I read Paul’s posting and Ari Armstrong’s essay with much agreement.

In the past you’ve suggested that we might ask questions related to Objectivism, and Ari’s writing brought to mind the question of pornography. Especially when he writes:

“Prostitution is a vice for the same reason that indiscriminate sex is a vice: sex properly involves a connection of consciousness as well as bodies between two people who genuinely admire one another. Purely physical sex undermines the distinctly human dimension of it.”

Now, I’m no prude and I have no desire to see adult pornography censored by the government. On the other hand, I’ve often been disgusted by the squalid nature of what passes for erotica.

And so… where is the proper place of pornography in the Objectivist ethics?

A couple years ago I listened to Peikoff’s recording on love and sex, and don’t recall his directly addressing the subject. Of course I know Rand did address the subject (In “Censorship: Local and Express”), but always felt her comments to be a reflection of personal taste and context and not necessarily part of her ethics.

What do you think?

On the one hand, the visual and auditory depiction of consensual sexual activity in itself certainly doesn’t seem to violate Rand’s fundamental virtues. On the other hand, as Ari writes above, I can’t see a follower of Rand sanctioning the quick intercourse (for pay) of two actors who hardly know each other.

I’d be interested in your thoughts or any advice on Objectivist writings that address the issue.

In fact, Leonard Peikoff does discuss pornography in his “Love, Sex, and Romance” lecture. So that’s a good place to start.

I would like to distinguish two related moral questions about pornography:

  • When is it moral to watch pornography, if ever? Can it serve a legitimate purpose in a healthy person’s sex life or in a healthy couple’s sex life?

  • When is it moral to create pornography, if ever? Is the production of pornography (e.g. as actor, director, distributor) a proper career?

I have my own thoughts on these matters, but since time is tight for me right now, I think I’ll just open the floor for comments.

Honoring an Author’s Last Wishes?

 Posted by on 20 April 2008 at 11:11 pm  Ethics, Law
Apr 202008

The controversy of whether Vladimir Nabokov’s last novel should be published against his wishes has apparently been resolved. Nabokov’s son Dmitri has reportedly decided to disregard his father’s explicit last wish that his final novel The Original of Laura be destroyed. The literary community is deeply divided on this issue, with some saying that the novel should be published for posterity’s sake, and others arguing that the author’s last wishes should respected.

I haven’t read any Nabokov, so I can’t comment on the merits of his work. But if he made his wishes clear in a legally binding document (such as a will), then they should be obeyed. On the other hand, if he expressed it as a nonbinding preference to his son (but didn’t formally put it in his will), then it’s the son’s decision.

Even in the latter case, I would still be inclined to honor the author’s preference even if I thought the world might be losing an incalculable piece of literary genius. The only exception would be if I had good reason to believe that the author’s expressed preferences didn’t actually reflect his genuine preferences (i.e., he was joking or suffering from dementia). But my default would be to go with the author’s wishes, unless there was a compelling reason to act otherwise.

(If the case of Nabokov isn’t sufficiently compelling, suppose that it was 1982 and you were the executor of Ayn Rand’s estate, and she had left similar instructions to burn the pages of her last unpublished novel. Although I can understand the temptation to publish it, I would hope that I would have enough integrity to respect her wishes.)

Mar 242008

Ari Armstrong recently published a defense of legal (but not moral) prostitution in the Rocky Mountain News: Should prostitution be legal?. It’s a good analysis: I recommend reading it.

As a followup on the OBloggers mailing list, Paul posted the following commentary on prostitution from a former booking agent for a high-end escort service describing the destructive effects of prostitution on the women and the clients. It’s fascinating, so I thought I’d repost it here:

“I’ve Seen My Share of Spitzers: The View From an Escort Service”

[About the men:]

…..But why would a rich, powerful and handsome man pay for extra-marital sex? Aren’t there tons of women waiting to throw themselves at him for free? Yes, there are. But those women always want something: they want attention, intimacy and romance. They want to enjoy the high of sleeping with a powerful man. Escorts don’t want or care about any of those things. At least one of the articles about the 22 year-old escort who slept with Spitzer implied that she didn’t even know who he was. Based on my experience, I think it’s highly unlikely that she knew or cared. She was in it for the money, and she had as much to hide as he did.

One high-powered New York attorney explained it to me like this: “Of course I love my wife. Escorts have nothing to do with that. She comes to my hotel room and I don’t have to know her name, because they all use fake names like Amber and Kimberly. I don’t have to worry about how she feels or what she wants. It’s a simple exchange: I give her a thousand bucks, we have a good time for a couple of hours, she goes away and we never have to see each other again.”

A thousand dollars is nothing for these men. Money has little value; because no matter how hard they try they will never be able to spend their hundreds of millions. And if you are about to say that for a thousand bucks those girls must supply the best sex in history, then you really do not understand this world. Because it is not about sex; it is about power. And the simple act of ordering up an anonymously pretty 22 year-old girl to do your bidding in the salubrious confines of a luxury hotel suite is an act of power.

[About the women:]

…..None of these girls was coerced into selling her body for money. Most of them came from middle-class backgrounds, and many had been accepted to universities. But they dropped out as soon as they discovered that they could make $20-30,000 a month as an escort.

Then they got addicted to the money and the lifestyle. And then one day, usually between the ages of 25 and 28, once they’d developed that knowing, experienced look that clients instinctively disliked, they found that themselves in a classic bind: they were addicted to high living but could no longer pay for it; they had no marketable skills; and years of late nights and lazy days had left them with no self-discipline. What to do? The really smart ones pulled themselves together and, with the help of a sympathetic client, started some kind of a business. Others married rich, cynical, older men in a sort of paid-wife arrangement. Those were the most common stories. I did not inquire into the fate of the girls who sort of faded away. I did not want to hear about their loneliness and poverty.

You can read the full essay here.

Aristotle on Anger and Laughter

 Posted by on 13 January 2008 at 8:22 am  Aristotle, Ethics, Psychology
Jan 132008

An interesting tidbit from Aristotle’s Rhetoric:

The emotions are all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgments, and that are also attended by pain or pleasure. Such are anger, pity, fear and the like, with their opposites. We must arrange what we have to say about each of them under three heads. Take, for instance, the emotion of anger: here we must discover (1) what the state of mind of angry people is, (2) who the people are with whom they usually get angry, and (3) on what grounds they get angry with them. It is not enough to know one or even two of these points; unless we know all three, we shall be unable to arouse anger in any one. The same is true of the other emotions.

Aristotle’s subsequent dissection of anger is particularly interesting for its view of proper and improper humor. (I’ve added some paragraph breaks to the online text to make it more readable. And yes, it’s well worth reading in full.)

Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one’s friends. If this is a proper definition of anger, it must always be felt towards some particular individual, e.g. Cleon, and not ‘man’ in general. It must be felt because the other has done or intended to do something to him or one of his friends. It must always be attended by a certain pleasure–that which arises from the expectation of revenge. For since nobody aims at what he thinks he cannot attain, the angry man is aiming at what he can attain, and the belief that you will attain your aim is pleasant. Hence it has been well said about wrath,

Sweeter it is by far than the honeycomb dripping with sweetness,
And spreads through the hearts of men.

It is also attended by a certain pleasure because the thoughts dwell upon the act of vengeance, and the images then called up cause pleasure, like the images called up in dreams.

Now slighting is the actively entertained opinion of something as obviously of no importance. We think bad things, as well as good ones, have serious importance; and we think the same of anything that tends to produce such things, while those which have little or no such tendency we consider unimportant.

There are three kinds of slighting–contempt, spite, and insolence. (1) Contempt is one kind of slighting: you feel contempt for what you consider unimportant, and it is just such things that you slight. (2) Spite is another kind; it is a thwarting another man’s wishes, not to get something yourself but to prevent his getting it. The slight arises just from the fact that you do not aim at something for yourself: clearly you do not think that he can do you harm, for then you would be afraid of him instead of slighting him, nor yet that he can do you any good worth mentioning, for then you would be anxious to make friends with him. (3) Insolence is also a form of slighting, since it consists in doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to yourself, or because anything has happened to yourself, but simply for the pleasure involved. (Retaliation is not ‘insolence’, but vengeance.)

The cause of the pleasure thus enjoyed by the insolent man is that he thinks himself greatly superior to others when ill-treating them. That is why youths and rich men are insolent; they think themselves superior when they show insolence. One sort of insolence is to rob people of the honour due to them; you certainly slight them thus; for it is the unimportant, for good or evil, that has no honour paid to it. So Achilles says in anger:

He hath taken my prize for himself and hath done me dishonour,


Like an alien honoured by none,

meaning that this is why he is angry. A man expects to be specially respected by his inferiors in birth, in capacity, in goodness, and generally in anything in which he is much their superior: as where money is concerned a wealthy man looks for respect from a poor man; where speaking is concerned, the man with a turn for oratory looks for respect from one who cannot speak; the ruler demands the respect of the ruled, and the man who thinks he ought to be a ruler demands the respect of the man whom he thinks he ought to be ruling. Hence it has been said

Great is the wrath of kings, whose father is Zeus almighty,


Yea, but his rancour abideth long afterward also,

their great resentment being due to their great superiority. Then again a man looks for respect from those who he thinks owe him good treatment, and these are the people whom he has treated or is treating well, or means or has meant to treat well, either himself, or through his friends, or through others at his request.

It will be plain by now, from what has been said, (1) in what frame of mind, (2) with what persons, and (3) on what grounds people grow angry. (1) The frame of mind is that of one in which any pain is being felt. In that condition, a man is always aiming at something. Whether, then, another man opposes him either directly in any way, as by preventing him from drinking when he is thirsty, or indirectly, the act appears to him just the same; whether some one works against him, or fails to work with him, or otherwise vexes him while he is in this mood, he is equally angry in all these cases.

Hence people who are afflicted by sickness or poverty or love or thirst or any other unsatisfied desires are prone to anger and easily roused: especially against those who slight their present distress. Thus a sick man is angered by disregard of his illness, a poor man by disregard of his poverty, a man aging war by disregard of the war he is waging, a lover by disregard of his love, and so throughout, any other sort of slight being enough if special slights are wanting. Each man is predisposed, by the emotion now controlling him, to his own particular anger.

Further, we are angered if we happen to be expecting a contrary result: for a quite unexpected evil is specially painful, just as the quite unexpected fulfillment of our wishes is specially pleasant. Hence it is plain what seasons, times, conditions, and periods of life tend to stir men easily to anger, and where and when this will happen; and it is plain that the more we are under these conditions the more easily we are stirred.

These, then, are the frames of mind in which men are easily stirred to anger. The persons with whom we get angry are those who laugh, mock, or jeer at us, for such conduct is insolent. Also those who inflict injuries upon us that are marks of insolence. These injuries must be such as are neither retaliatory nor profitable to the doers: for only then will they be felt to be due to insolence. Also those who speak ill of us, and show contempt for us, in connexion with the things we ourselves most care about: thus those who are eager to win fame as philosophers get angry with those who show contempt for their philosophy; those who pride themselves upon their appearance get angry with those who show contempt for their appearance and so on in other cases. We feel particularly angry on this account if we suspect that we are in fact, or that people think we are, lacking completely or to any effective extent in the qualities in question. For when we are convinced that we excel in the qualities for which we are jeered at, we can ignore the jeering.

Again, we are angrier with our friends than with other people, since we feel that our friends ought to treat us well and not badly. We are angry with those who have usually treated us with honour or regard, if a change comes and they behave to us otherwise: for we think that they feel contempt for us, or they would still be behaving as they did before. And with those who do not return our kindnesses or fail to return them adequately, and with those who oppose us though they are our inferiors: for all such persons seem to feel contempt for us; those who oppose us seem to think us inferior to themselves, and those who do not return our kindnesses seem to think that those kindnesses were conferred by inferiors. And we feel particularly angry with men of no account at all, if they slight us. For, by our hypothesis, the anger caused by the slight is felt towards people who are not justified in slighting us, and our inferiors are not thus justified.

Again, we feel angry with friends if they do not speak well of us or treat us well; and still more, if they do the contrary; or if they do not perceive our needs, which is why Plexippus is angry with Meleager in Antiphon’s play; for this want of perception shows that they are slighting us–we do not fail to perceive the needs of those for whom we care. Again we are angry with those who rejoice at our misfortunes or simply keep cheerful in the midst of our misfortunes, since this shows that they either hate us or are slighting us. Also with those who are indifferent to the pain they give us: this is why we get angry with bringers of bad news. And with those who listen to stories about us or keep on looking at our weaknesses; this seems like either slighting us or hating us; for those who love us share in all our distresses and it must distress any one to keep on looking at his own weaknesses.

Further, [we feel angry] with those who slight us before five classes of people: namely, (1) our rivals, (2) those whom we admire, (3) those whom we wish to admire us, (4) those for whom we feel reverence, (5) those who feel reverence for us: if any one slights us before such persons, we feel particularly angry. Again, we feel angry with those who slight us in connexion with what we are as honourable men bound to champion–our parents, children, wives, or subjects. And with those who do not return a favour, since such a slight is unjustifiable. Also with those who reply with humorous levity when we are speaking seriously, for such behaviour indicates contempt. And with those who treat us less well than they treat everybody else; it is another mark of contempt that they should think we do not deserve what every one else deserves. Forgetfulness, too, causes anger, as when our own names are forgotten, trifling as this may be; since forgetfulness is felt to be another sign that we are being slighted; it is due to negligence, and to neglect us is to slight us.

The persons with whom we feel anger, the frame of mind in which we feel it, and the reasons why we feel it, have now all been set forth. Clearly the orator will have to speak so as to bring his hearers into a frame of mind that will dispose them to anger, and to represent his adversaries as open to such charges and possessed of such qualities as do make people angry.

Just consider the contrast: in our modern world, expressing any anger in response to insolent remarks suggests the grave moral defect of failing to laugh at yourself. What a horrible package-deal that is! To laugh at one’s own trivial, silly errors is a far cry from laughing at one’s most precious values. Yet so many people fail to see the difference — or refuse to do so.

Teaching Egoism Versus Altruism

 Posted by on 3 January 2008 at 7:47 am  Ethics, Teaching
Jan 032008

When I taught the issue of egoism versus altruism in my Introduction to Philosophy class last semester, I wasn’t happy with my ability to explain why the choice is either-or. I’m able to effectively explain the evils of a fully altruistic life, in part thanks to Susan Wolf’s article on “Moral Saints.” (She draws different conclusions in that article than I do, but it works quite well for my purposes.) However, the next natural position for my students to adopt is that some mixture of egoism and altruism is the right answer: sometimes we should think of ourselves first and sometimes we should think of others first.

Obviously, that view is partially motivated by the false assumption that egoism demands callous indifference to others. However, it’s also due to a much deeper problem, namely the fact that the students don’t understand the fundamental opposition of egoism to altruism. They fail to appreciate that because they don’t think of their own lives in terms of any fundamental principles or ultimate values. They don’t think that a life needs to be so integrated.

So, dear readers, do have any suggestions on how I might show that egoism and altruism cannot be coherently mixed? How can I make reasonably clear that to attempt to sometimes adopt one policy and sometimes adopt the other cannot be done on any rational, principled basis, but would have to be a mere emotional decision?

Of course, my students won’t be obliged to agree with me. They’re welcome to defend any views they please in class and in their papers, so long as those views are supported by plausible arguments. However, I’d like to offer them compelling grounds on which to question a view that seems so natural to them.

Applying Utilitarianism

 Posted by on 3 October 2006 at 8:30 am  Academia, Ethics
Oct 032006

I don’t know if this is a true story or just an urban legend. But it’s funny nonetheless:

A famous decision theorist who once taught at Columbia got an offer from a rival university and was struggling with the question of whether to stay where he was or accept the new post. His friend, a philosopher, took him aside and said, “What’s the problem? Just do what you write about and what you teach your students. Maximize your expected utility.” The decision theorist, exasperated, responded, “Come on, get serious!”

(From “Smart Heuristics” by Gerd Gigerenzer.)

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