Category Archives: ethics

What will Trump play while America burns?

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No doubt many of us would consider an election and its attendant politics to be the paragon of an adversarial institution or process. Naturally, we expect a certain degree of hardball from candidates and parties when it comes to a competition for power. However, it’s one thing to raise hell about partisan gerrymandering – the nefarious scheme politicians employ in order to ensure electoral domination by their party and its other candidates – but isn’t it a whole other ball game to claim that an entire election will be rigged and stolen? (Not even that it was fraudulently won, but that it will be. Fear > Facts.)

Donald Trump’s latest, and arguably most concerning, comments regarding the upcoming presidential election have thrown many reasonable citizens into whirlwinds of confusion, anxiety, and outright fear. (If somehow you haven’t yet heard about any of this, this should bring you up to speed.) Those same flippant, yet consequential, remarks have primed his supporters for what may prove to be the least peaceful transfer of power that this nation has ever seen.

When it comes down to it, especially given the salience and perceived importance of the presidency in the minds of many Americans, the United States really only survives due to the gracious and peaceful quadrennial transfer of power from one chief steward to the next after a free and fair election.

While Donald Trump’s warning that such an American rite may be subverted may suggest negative prospects for his ascension to the presidency, giving at least some of us superficial comfort, the fact remains that he seems to have convinced a not insignificant number of ignorant, confused, obtuse, disillusioned, angry, and armed people to prepare for what we can only imagine would be a literal uprising.

Many Americans consider “the election” to be the fundamental institution of democracy, and to spoil our common trust in its practical efficacy and salutary potency disrespects the rules of the game from a procedural perspective – this is a process which he willingly joined and the rules of which he agreed to follow – and threatens the actual security and stability of the United States as a sovereign state. He has stepped beyond his hateful and ignorant remarks to take aim at the very mechanism through which American democracy is able to exist at all.

Sometimes sports fans burn cars or businesses in their own cities when their teams lose, but should a politician burn a whole country when he loses an election?

-SB

Rules of engagement for academic adversaries

Academics argue. That’s what they do. They argue against each other’s theories and results; they propose alternatives they believe are superior; and those theories, in turn, become the subject of critique by their colleagues. Yada, yada, yada, we all get closer to the truth.

Read between the lines and academic argument often sounds pretty passive-aggressive. As if we’re often not sure which kind of argument we are trying to have. The distinction between the two sense of the English word “argument” is, of course, most perfectly explained by those Cambridge philosophers, Monty Python’s Flying Circus:

 

So how ought we to argue in academia? Politely. Why? Because it works.

I recently came across some advice from the great American philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to write a scholarly critique. (I haven’t yet tracked down the citation, or the larger context in which it was written, but the advice given here is perfect all on its own.)

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If I may, I would add a fifth point:

5. Once you have presented a rebuttal or criticism, search the text in question to see if the author has already considered and responded to your criticism; and if he or she hasn’t then it is up to you to formulate the best possible responses to this criticism, given the author’s other commitments. Either way, voice this actual or potential replies to your critique explicitly, and respond to them. Repeat….

So what kind of friendly advice is this? Is it academic etiquette? Academic ethics? Or the key to academic effectiveness?

If the academic community you are in has a sufficient degree of intellectual integrity, then its widely recognized leaders will have convinced a good many of their colleagues that they have discovered flaws with previous theories and findings in the field, and they will have demonstrated this critique, its implications, and possibly a new-improved theory in its place, with a reasoned argument involving clear concepts, evidence, and inferences. (In an academic community without a sufficient degree of integrity, institutional and political power will be the main tools for achieving local, if fleeting, fame.)

In any case, if your chosen field has integrity, then Dennett’s advice unites those three E’s: etiquette, ethics, and effectiveness. If you want to have an impact on the debates in your field (and if not, why are you doing this?), you need to get your critique published. Editors will invite the authors you are engaging with, or others known to be sympathetic with their views, to “referee” your critique. If they think you have simply not understood the ideas you are criticizing; or worse, if they think you have deliberately misrepresented them, then they are highly unlikely to be persuaded by your arguments — assuming they even read all the way to the end of your MS.

On the other hand, if you play nice and follow Dennett’s rules, the Journal editor may well read in the referee’s report not only “I wish I’d put it that way myself,” but also “OMG, I never noticed that gap in my argument/ that ambiguous concept/ that invalid inference/ that inconsistency….! I hope I can fix that, but this critic may be onto something original and important!” As a former editor, I can assure you, we do get those kinds of referees’ reports on papers that are criticizing their own theories. And when when we do, those submissions are usually fast-tracked for publication.

I should underscore that Dennett’s advice runs deeper than mere professional decorum or publishing tactics. If you are not successfully mastering Dennett’s first step, then you are probably not grasping why the theory you are criticizing has been taken seriously. Why it might be smarter than you realize. Similarly, if you don’t consider how an intelligent interlocutor would reply to your critique, then are likely to be ignoring the most obvious objections to your critique — the one’s the referees will not fail to point out.

But if you really are onto something, then bending over backwards to demonstrate the inescapability of your critique in a spirit of intellectual fairplay will only make the critique itself that much harder for your academic community to ignore. You “win” in the nicest possible way.

The Clock Doesn’t Lie:  Gaming, Cheating, and the case of Julie Miller

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Corked Bats. Blood doping. Deflated footballs —after a while, we almost cease to be surprised when another story surfaces of a professional athlete engaging in shady (or outright banned) practices to gain an upper hand in competition. Without excusing such behavior, we might recognize that professional players and programs perhaps face greater temptation to cheat than an average person: after all, millions of dollars are on the line in these professional contests, right? Plus, after finding out that competitors are cheating, players may feel that they too need to cheat in order to stay competitive, resulting in a race to the bottom as a culture of cheating takes hold.

If we were to accept such assumptions about the reasons for cheating in sports, the case of Canadian triathlete Julie Miller would appear all the more bizarre. A recent article in the New York Times details how Miller’s competitors and fellow triathletes used timing data, race photos, and spectator testimony to accuse Miller, who competes in the female 40-44 division of Ironman races, of skipping portions of the 2015 Ironman Canada. Miller apparently has a knack for “losing” her timing chip.

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When competitors and spectators couldn’t recall seeing her during parts of the 2015 race, suspicions were raised, and forum posters at Slowtwitch.com began to conduct an impromptu forensic investigation, CSI-style. Times were compared, stories swapped, photos enhanced. See presentation of evidence here, and the NYT infographic of the course here.

Despite Miller’s claims of innocence, the evidence presented to Ironman officials caused her to be stripped of several past titles and barred indefinitely from competing in future Ironman events. One could say that in the triathlon world, it looks like it is no longer … (puts on sunglasses) … Miller time. (Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaah)

Two things in particular stand out in the case of Miller. First, she was competing in a sport that does not draw huge crowds and offers few (if any) monetary rewards. Many Ironman competitors probably embody the spirit of amateurism in the etymological sense of the word: they compete for the love of the sport. As triathlete Claire Young put it in the NYT article:

“Most of us are essentially racing against ourselves. There’s no money and no glory. It’s just a hobby, and if you cheat, who are you cheating? You’re only cheating yourself.”

Yet the NYT article suggests that Miller still had an important standard to live up to: her image. Miller, a mental health counselor specializing in body-image disorders, had become a hometown hero in her hometown of Squamish, British Columbia:

“Miller had established herself as a minor celebrity in town, an inspirational, warm, sympathetic woman who could apparently handle it all: work, motherhood, training and high-level sports competition.”

The second thing to note is how cutting the course in a triathlon differs in kind from the sports scandals mentioned at the beginning of this post. The use of illicit equipment or banned substances may give an athlete an unfair advantage, but they still require that the athlete actually compete. Miller’s violation was not gaming or rule-bending for unfair advantage, it was downright failure to complete the designated activity. One might call such conduct beyond the pale, or so reprehensible that it seems difficult to defend in any capacity. Unlike other race to the bottom scenarios that cheating might foster, cutting the course seems less likely to inspire other athletes to act similarly: after all, it was Miller’s competitors who called her out.

With Miller out of future contests, the triathlon world can hopefully return to business as usual, i.e., not on the front of the sports section of the New York Times. But Miller’s case might cause us to stop and ponder why it is that people cheat, and what cheating does to the culture of a sport. Her (bad) example might help us to recognize how the desire to maintain our image (or self-image) may tempt us to bend —or flagrantly flout — the rules of the competitions that we supposedly love.

Is life just a competitive game?

In adversarial ethics, we need to be able to differentiate institutions that are adversarial from those that are not. But isn’t competition all around? In any social situation we can imagine there are mutual interests but also competing interests. In some areas like sports, markets, and electoral systems competition is clearly expressed. In others it is not. But that doesn’t mean that it is absent.

There are children competing against each other for the last piece of cake. You may fight against yourself on your daily running track. Even love is a competitive game as ABBA sing in their famous song “The Winner Takes It All”. (Watch the video of the song here.)

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The song tells the story of a jilted woman sadly looking back on a love affair and thinking about the new relationship of her ex. The songwriters used the game-metaphor to illustrate the competition in love. The woman in the song is the loser who is “standing small” and “has to fall”. She is the loser in the game against the woman she lost her boyfriend or husband to but also in the game with or against her boyfriend. There is “no more ace to play” – the game is over. Destiny plays a role in that game, too. It is personified by Gods throwing their dice and thereby deciding about the end of that relationship.

ABBA’s song was about the game of love. We don’t know whether they think all human activities are competitive because, well, they really only ever wrote songs about love. But still, doesn’t it seem plausible to believe that competition somehow plays a role in every situation we can imagine? Aren’t we naturally competitive? Isn’t that the reason why we have ethics and moral standards at all? Joseph Heath quotes Kurt Baier who says that being moral means “following rules designed to overrule self-interest whenever it is in the interest of everyone alike that everyone should set aside his interest”. This means, most ethics are there because we cannot all have what we want. They are used to solve collective action problems.

Sure, in some institutions like markets we try to encourage competitive behavior because people or costumers benefit from that competition. In others like a family we want to suppress it – but it is still around. This difference might be the most important distinction between adversarial and non-adversarial institutions. This means, in non-adversarial contexts (family, love etc.) we try to live by the principles of cooperation and even altruism. In adversarial institutions (markets, elections, sports etc.), however, moral ideals that are relevant in non-adversarial settings are forbidden. For example, cooperation between competitors might lead to price fixing. We justify the abandonment of these ideals in competitions by the benefits for the people who are not competing (the customers). The difference is thus different ethical and moral ideals.

 

Alexander Hamilton and the Supreme Court nomination crisis

By now there is (probably) not a single person in the country who remains unaware of the impending, but also already incredibly intense, showdown over President Obama’s nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice to replace Antonin Scalia, who died last month. (Facts: here. Conspiracy theories: here.)

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In justifying their refusal to consider any nominee, many Republicans cited the authority of both precedent and even some vague Senate “rule,” arguments which have since been unmasked as straight up not true. The number and intensity of opinions seems to be growing wilder and fiercer by the day, so I thought I’d one-up Republicans by appealing to an authority even higher than mere precedent or tradition: Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU does a great job explaining in this article (which can be read alternatively as a cross-posting at The Huffington Post if, for some reason, you prefer Arial to Helvetica) how the framers of the Constitution, particularly Hamilton (and Madison), expected situations like this would be handled by future generations.

As its authors note: “Our constitutional system only works if the institutional players adhere in good faith to the Constitution’s basic rules.”

Politics is an appropriately adversarial system; however, it is inappropriate, and even dangerous, to play political games with the basic, constitutive rules of a government. Politicizing the mere maintenance of the fundamental institutions of a system of government risks gutting the framework and crippling the stability of that system.

The Most Expensive Honey I’ll Ever Have

I’m a skilled dog whisperer. Given that, I was talking with my dog, Honey, the other day about current events. After she complained to me that she was being cruelly starved (really, is it too much to ask for some lasagna and apple pie in her food bowl, too?), she brought up Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals and his actions concerning a prescription called Daraprim. Honey, the intellectual she is, informed me that Daraprim is the only treatment for humans with a parasite infection but not an immune system strong enough to fight it (an example of such a person would be a cancer patient). The medicine costs mere cents to make and was originally sold for about $13 per pill. So, Honey thought, Turing made excellent profits to begin with. But then hedge fund manager Shkreli increased that price to over $700 per pill, making him and the company exorbitant profits (imagine how many chew toys you could buy with that money!).

So, if a human were in the position that he needed Daraprim, he either needs to empty his pockets or die. So what are the people in this situation going to do? They’re going to pay it, if they can, and otherwise they have to wait on a looming death sentence as they die off slowly. Unfortunately, Honey, commented, humans aren’t as lucky as animals because they can’t be euthanized when death is imminent (an ethical discussion for another day).

So, is there a valid reason for this price inflation of Daraprim? Some people might label it greedy. Heartless, even. It’s one thing to pick on people, but to pick on the feeble and dying? That just seems so much more wrong.

Then Honey brought up a good point – people are enraged by this manipulation, but actually it’s more common than you’d think. Such price gouging already exists in the medicinal market; it’s just that many don’t think twice about it because, legally, it involves property. She was referencing herself, her animal friends and veterinary medicine. Honey and my family know the price of veterinary medicine too well. Honey was diagnosed with cancer about 18 months ago. At the time, my family was given two options: (1) let her die within the next few months or (2) treat the cancer, which could keep her alive for years. That treatment, though, would cost hundreds of dollars per month. It wasn’t a hard decision – Honey made a list of all of the good she brought into my family’s life (how else would we get exercise except for chasing her when she stole undergarments and shoes? who was going to perform the important task of shredding wrapping paper on holidays? how would we fill the silence in the morning without her whining…hem…singing?). My family didn’t need much convincing; we created a budget and started Honey’s treatment immediately.

Honey is an integral part of my family, just as many other pets are to their families. It’s not just us that are willing to go to great lengths for our four-legged friend; thousands go to veterinarians with their pets, diagnosed with life threatening conditions, and are willing to do anything in order to same them, even if it costs them a small fortune. How is this so different from when someone’s grandma is diagnosed with cancer and unable to fight off a parasite except for a prescription that costs an arm and a leg, but pay it anyways because they love her? Why are the market ethics of human medical treatment and animal medical treatment so polarized? They both have to do with living beings. Honey thinks that pet pharmaceutical companies, like Shkreli, bank on that emotional attachment to the lives that the law has so cruelly reduced to property. Why are they allowed to profit off of expensive but necessary medication for pets, but it’s taboo if the profit is a byproduct of expensive human medication? I brought up to Honey they differences between human and animal care, especially research funding and healthcare, but she still thinks that both should be approached, at least morally, from similar positions.

Honey’s story has a happy ending (maybe a better word would be continuance) – my family was able to get her the necessary treatment and she, the champion that she is, managed to beat the cancer into remission. The vet thinks that Honey has a lot of years left in her. We think that more animals should have such chances.

Upon Further Review: Ethical Controversies in Campaigning

Post 3: Bernie Sanders’ “Endorsements”

When and why do pundits, candidates, and campaign staffers cry foul during election season? As I mentioned in my introductory post, this section of the blog will serve as a sort of data collection depository for disagreements about what constitutes fair and unfair play in campaign competitions.

The issue:

Bernie Sanders’ campaign was criticized for running misleading ads in the days before the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries. One ad in particular, titled “Endorsed” (see below), contains excerpts from editorials in Nashua Telegraph and The Valley News praising Sanders. While neither newspaper actually endorsed Sanders, the viewer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise (I highly recommend watching the ad—it’s only thirty seconds long and quite cunning).

The accusation:Trump tweetCarroll, the editor of the Nashua Telegraph, called Sanders’ ad “deceptive.” Hillary Clinton’s campaign released a “briefing” outlining Sanders’ alleged habit of using misinformation. Without explicitly accusing him of unethical behavior, one of her ads on Sanders closes with the question, “Why is Bernie Sanders misleading voters?” A Newsweek piece titled “Advocacy Groups Call Foul on Sanders Campaign in Iowa, Nevada,” reports that some have accused the Sanders campaign of “playing dirty.”

The accused’s response:

During a recent debate, Sanders addressed the accusations (sort of). He said, “As I understand it we did not suggest that we had the endorsement of the newspaper. Newspapers who make endorsements also say positive things about other candidates and to the best of knowledge that is what we did. So we never said, that somebody a newspaper endorsed us that did not. What we did say is, blah, blah, blah, blah was said by the newspaper.”

Categorization:

Nobody claimed the ads were illegal. Like the Cruz mailers (a controversy I examined in an earlier post), the ads also don’t appear to be a violation of everyday moral norms. And though technically not false, the ads (especially the “Endorsed” ad) are clearly misleading—something Sanders never explicitly denied. That leaves us with unfair play. While not illegal or an egregious display of personal immorality, critics appear to believe that the Sanders campaign was ‘playing dirty.’

Other relevant information:

Interestingly, few, if any, pundits (that I know of) have questioned Sanders’ personal integrity in the wake of these controversies. In contrast, many attacked Cruz’s personal integrity after his campaign engaged in similar ‘dirty’ tactics.