Posts Tagged ‘Ethics

28
Feb
11

The Common Evil

Last post I mentioned the opening scene in The Boondock Saints, in which it is declared “We must all fear evil men, but there is another kind of evil that we must fear most, and this the indifference of good men…”. It got me thinking.

A couple years ago, I saw a documentary called The Corporation– an excellently done critique of the issues of globalization, neo-liberalism, and Capitalism in general. One particularly interesting segment was devoted to looking at heads of corporations, with commentaries added by Noam Chomsky and ‘Sir’ Mark Moody-Stuart, the former chairman of Royal Dutch Shell (better known simply as “Shell”). Moody-Stuart recounts a demonstration that was held at his house, in which protesters hurled accusations at him and his involvement in the Shell corporation. Moody’s wife (the event was recorded on film) retorts “Who is the corporation?”. Moody-Stuart continues on in his narration to say “But then we sat down and talked to them… in the end what we found in that discussion was that all the things they were worried about I was worried about as well… climate, you know, oppressive regimes, human rights…”. Now Chomsky, on the other hand, had prefaced that segment with some commentary on individuals within corporations. He argues “When you look at a corporation, just like when you look at a slave-owner, uh, you want to distinguish between the institution and the individual… slavery, for example, or other forms of tyranny are inherently monstrous, but the individuals participating in them might be the nicest guys you can imagine. Benevolent, friendly, nice to their children, even nice to their slaves… as individuals they might be anything- in their institutional roles they’re monsters because the institutions is monstrous.”

And there’s the issue. GAP clothing is made by sweatshop labor in South-East Asia- who should be put on trial? Who is responsible for the atrocities that are committed? We look at the people doing the actual work- the sweatshop managers and owners and they point up asserting that they were only following orders, and that they don’t have any real power. At the top the CEOs and Executives are pointing down, declaring that they only deal with the big figures- that they’re not aware of anything that goes on at the ground level and can’t be held responsible for the treatment of workers or the environment. It’s the lynch mob scenario- because no one person does the entire murder, figuring out which one person is to blame is tricky.

Personally, I say take ’em all. Just because the guilt is spread around doesn’t mean it’s at all diminished. If Person A brings the rope, and Person B grabs the victim, and Person C points out a convenient tree, it doesn’t mean that each person’s committed a third of a murder- it means that all three are responsible. Same seems to go for a corporation- at any point someone can throw up their hands and say “**** it- I’m not going to do this anymore!”. The sweatshop overseer can walk away, the middleman can walk away, the CEO can walk away. Even if no one person can put a stop the unethical practice, at the very least they can remove themselves from it. We would expect a single German officer in the 1930s to bring down Hitler but a resignation of his post and a denouncement of the Nazis would be in order.

Of course, it’s easy to bash corporations, but guilt reaches far beyond the boundaries of corporate HQ. We, as consumers and workers alike, have to stand back and with scathing objectivity look at ourselves and question our involvement. Am I being party to exploitative or unethical systems? Am I doing all that I can to remove myself? Am I part of the problem?

And it’s not easy- we think of evil as being committed by Bond style villains with maniacal laughter and white cats, or by sadistic concentration camp guards and doctors. The idea of common evil- evil weaved into the very fabric of modern society- is an idea alien to us. However, as theologian and writer C.S. Lewis once asserted “The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens of evil that Dickens loved to paint but is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.”. In short, there is no single person who commits the atrocities that plague us. The evil is within the system- and the system has to go.

26
Feb
11

I Agree With You But…

A few weeks ago, I and some friends were protesting an unfair policy at my college. Exactly what the policy was isn’t important, suffice it gave the student body unequal treatment, depending on which class you belonged you. So as I and my friend stood in hallway, holding homemade signs, the students getting the special treatment began to file past us. Some ignored our calls for them to refuse the preferential treatment they were being offered, a few stopped to talk to us, and some even listened to us and turned around and left. For the most part, however, the students smiled at us and said “I agree with you but-“. Exactly what there justification was isn’t really important either- it tended to be something along the lines of “-but I don’t want to stand in the other line…” or “-but my friends are waiting for me in there…” or “-but they’re going to give your class something nice as well…” and so on. As I said, the justification isn’t really important- it’s the “I agree with you but-” part.

 

Now I wanted to tell them “Hey- you either agree or you don’t- you’ll either take our side or you won’t”. If you agree that killing kittens for sport is unethical (don’t panic- that not what the college was doing) then you won’t kill kittens- if you don’t agree, then you’ll have no issue with it. However, you can’t ever say that “I believe killing kittens for sport is wrong, but [insert excuse here]”. Again, you either agree or you don’t.

 

And the issue I have isn’t with which side people take- it’s with attempt to hold two conflicting positions. In the words of one of my favorite rappers, “Hypocrisy- it bothers me” (Lowkey- I recommend his song “Terrorist”). You see, this “I agree with you but…” scenario is reflective of a much greater problem we have in society. On one hand we say we believe something- most of the time we believe that we believe- but when it comes to acting on our purported beliefs we’re nowhere to be seen. I saw this issue earlier when I was going door to door collecting signatures for a boycott of Coca-Cola. I’d ask if the residents believed that sweatshop labor was wrong- they’d say “Yes.”. I’d ask them if they thought people should boycott sweatshop made products- they’d say “Yes.”. I’d ask them if they would boycott Coke and they’d say “No- we agree with you but-“. Again I want to yell at these people “No, you don’t agree with me! I don’t care if I get your signature or not- just don’t tell me you agree with me but you won’t do anything!”.

 

Maybe it’s a post-modernist thing- values are held for the aesthetic qualities, not for their application. When you get a poster of Picasso’s Guernica, it’s because the picture fits well with the general decor of the room you’re hanging it in- not because you espouse an anti-war view. In the same way, you might have (or rather, claim to have) an anti-war view because it looks good- not because you’d ever act on it.

 

Or maybe I’m over thinking it. Maybe the “I agree with you but…” is just a human problem.

 

Not too long ago, I was listening to a Socialist give a lecture on human nature. She made the claim that in times of disaster, humans didn’t immediately turn on each or hunt each other down. Melodramatic, yes, but her point was that even when you strip away government, the police, the army, and all social constructs for the protection of humans against each other, people didn’t start murdering each other left and right. She argued that this disproves the belief that human nature is inherently evil. Of course, while the points she offered are correct, the conclusions she drew are all wrong. Humans aren’t basically evil because we do terrible things to each other- humans are basically evil because we do nothing. One of my favorite movies, The Boondock Saints, opens with a priest giving a sermon on the murder of a young woman who was killed in public, with no one responding in any ways to her calls for help. The priest declares “We must all fear evil men, but there is another kind of evil that we must fear most, and this the indifference of good men…”.

 

Maybe the problem is here. Maybe we’re just too egocentric to imagine anything as unfair unless we’re being affected. Maybe we’re just naturally apathetic.

 

Of course, that’s no excuse. Just because we have a proclivity towards selfishness, hypocrisy, and laziness doesn’t mean we should get away with it. Is it right to tolerate injustice and oppression? Of course not. Should we resist, engage, dissent, and fight for what is moral and right? Naturally. So we’re going to shake ourselves out of apathy?

 

Well, I agree with you, but…

18
Jan
11

What’s It Going To Take?

At my college, I’ve been trying to get a number of products (made by immoral companies or through unethical means) boycotted, both by the campus and by the students. It hasn’t been going so great.

My fellow students are more than willing, when I come knocking at their doors, to sign my petitions, but overwhelmingly that’s as far as they’ll go. More often than not they sign without even asking what I’m trying to do or tell me that they need time to think it over (which has been just a euphemism for “go annoy someone else”). It’s not that I’m ungrateful for having as many signatures as I do, but the real issue here is getting my peers to make a conscious change to the way they live their lives- to make an ethical statement. In all honesty I’d rather have them not sign at all than sign without actually joining the boycotts.

But that’s a bit off topic- here’s the real problem.

I don’t think the moral lines could be more clearly drawn in such a situation. We have companies that have killed for profit, selling their products here on campus, and in the stores and markets across the world. These two companies make junk food, their products are easy to substitute or give up entirely. I and my fellow activists merely ask that our peers stop spending their money to these unethical corporations.

And yet we’ve had almost no response.

It’s not an issue of necessity, where our peers are forced to buy certain products. It’s not an issue of availability- there are plenty of perfectly good (or at least, less harmful) substitutes to the boycott products. It’s not an issue of trust- we don’t want donations. The issue is that my peers just don’t care!

And here seems to be the problem- people don’t care much either way if the beverage they’re drinking came from a sweatshop in Colombia, or if the chocolate they’re eating was harvested by ten year-old slave-laborers in Central America. Perhaps it was best said in the film Hotel Rwanda, when one of the characters comments “…When people turn on their TVs and see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then they’ll go back to eating their dinners.”. Other than a shallow, fleeting expression of shock or sadness or horror, no one seems to be moved to action.

Perhaps it’s that my peers (and Westerners in general) simply don’t expect anything from the third world other than disease, poverty, starvation, war, and genocide. Just a couple days ago, I saw this advertisement for the New York Food Bank (linked here)- in it, one of the spokespersons states “hunger happens in the third world- not in New York City”. Granted, the statement was made to make a point about the very real presence of hunger in New York, but it bugged me nonetheless. I appreciate them dealing with the issue of hunger in New York, but are they saying it’s acceptable elsewhere? I want to think it was just a poor choice of words on their part, but this kind of mentality does indeed exist. It’s a kind of unconscious racism- the idea that these places always have been miserable and always will be. The idea that there’s no hope. Again, Hotel Rwanda hits the nail on the head when a UN colonel says to the protagonist “You’re black. You’re not even a nigger. You’re an African.”. Perhaps the reason we can’t get people to care is because they just don’t believe the oppressed peoples of the world are capable of ever living in better conditions.

Or maybe that’s not the case. Maybe it’s that people are just distracted by other things. We’re bombarded every waking moment with messages telling us to lose weight or to gain weight or to lighten our skin or to darken our skin or to get a better clothes or a house or a better car and better insurance to protect those things. Perhaps it’s easy to lose track or get our priorities confused, and we start valuing a specific brand of soda over the lives of farmers in India.

Or maybe it’s that people just won’t care unless they themselves are the ones being oppressed and exploited. Maybe we’re so selfish and self-centered that the only motivation we’ll ever have to make the world a better place is when we’re the ones bruised, bloody, and starving. Maybe that’s the only wake-up call I and peers will ever really respond to- a lashing from the sweatshop overseer for falling asleep at our station, or the jab of a soldier’s bayonet for having been born the wrong race. Is this how things are going to be? The people who can help don’t care, and the people need help aren’t able?

At this point in the post, I’d usually throw out some kind of appeal or call to action, but I just don’t know what to say. What is it going to take to wake the world up? What’s it going to take to spur people into action? The movies, the poetry, the charity, the music- it helps for a while and briefly seizes our attention, but we soon get bored and forget. The powerful stay powerful, the powerless stay powerless. The rich get richer and the poor get left further behind. Again, what do we- what do I need to do?

29
Dec
10

Corporations To Boycott (Part I)

While we’re increasingly aware that the majority of products in stores are the results of sweatshop labor or other unethical practices, we tend to be not aware of which corporations are responsible. To help combat this, below I’ve listed some major corporations and a couple descriptions of their more heinous crimes.

 

Nestle:

While you probably wouldn’t associate a company whose logo is a nest of baby birds with anything but sunshine and joy, Nestle will probably make the top ten of anyone’s list of evil corporations. Among Nestle’s major crimes are:

  • Marketing infant formula to developing nations, despite the fact that many water sources (water being used in the preparation of the formula) in the third world are polluted or otherwise unfit for drinking. Many third world women are either illiterate or unable to read the language the formula instructions are written in, leading to babies essentially being fed toxic formula. Nestle has been aware of this since the late 70s but continues to aggressively market it’s products to the world world, even in the face of the 1981 World Health Organization regulations on infant formula advertising. Even with formula that is properly prepared, non-breastfed infants are at a much higher risk of disease.
  • In addition to marketing infant formula to the third world, Nestle has also begun to “freely” offer it’s infant formula in some maternity wards and hospitals. Once new mothers start their babies on the formula, the lactation process in interrupted and the babies must continue to use formula, even after they leave the hospital (and the formula, no longer free, must be bought).
  • Buying dairy products from farms seized and controlled by the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, despite the country being under international sanctions.
  • Contributing to the deforestation of Borneo in order to attain palm oil, used in a number of Nestle products.

Now Nestle is by no means limited to the baby formula market- and has a vast array of subsidiary companies and brands, ranging from Wonka candy to L’Oreal cosmetics. Fortunately, Nestle has a habit of boldly displaying it’s logo on it’s various products, so it’s not especially difficult to figure which products not to buy.

 

Coca-Cola:

Like Nestle, Coca-Cola is one of the corporations you’d never suspect. Among their long list of crimes are:

  • The creation of a subsidiary company (“Fanta”) in order to continue selling products to Germany during WWII. Allow me to say that again, just to make sure you get it. Coca-Cola, an American company, created a subsidiary so they could continue to sell carbonated drinks to the Nazis, during the second world war! Forgetting the fact that Coca-cola advertised itself as a patriotic company and the choice soft-drink of American soldiers and then turned around and built manufacturing plants in country America was at war with, they sold to the Nazis. Even before the second world war it was common knowledge that Fascism wasn’t the greatest thing in the world.
  • A large amount of water is used in the creation of a number of Coke products. In Kerala, India, a Coca-cola bottling plant used so much water that a miniature drought was created, devastating the lives of the local farmers. The plant was eventually shut down, but it still demonstrates the companies lack of concern for the impact the manufacturing of it’s product has on the environment and locals.
  • In both Gautemala and Colombia, union leaders have been murdered by paramilitary groups- contracted by Coca-Cola– for attempting to improve deplorable conditions of the manufacturing plants there. Similar anti-union oppression has occurred in Turkey, China, and El Salvador.

While again like Nestle, Coca-Cola profits from a wide range of brands and products, it’s much more difficult to find out which. Some Coca-Cola products include: Dasani bottled water, Snapple, Heineken, Bacardi, Dr Pepper, Minute Maid, Powerade, and many others. You can see a full list here.

 

Monsanto:

Monsanto is the closest thing we have to James Bond villain’s empire. It’s a massive biotechnological agricultural corporation- in simpler terms, they study, manufacture, and sell genetically engineered crops, hormone growth treatments for animals, and herbicides. Most prominent in their long list of crimes and unethical activities are:

  • The creation of terminator seeds- seeds that have been genetically modified so that after producing a crop, the seeds that crop produces will be sterile (farmers will be unable to use those seeds to plant more crops). Essentially what this means is that farmers must continually buy seeds from Monsanto in order to grow crops. This isn’t so much monopolization as it is enslavement.
  • Monsanto’s animal growth hormones have been alleged to be linked to a number of a verities of cancer.
  • In Anniston, Alabama, Monsanto was documented to have knowingly disposed of mercury and PCB for forty years into creeks serving as the local drinking supply. Monsanto has similarly dumped toxic waste in landfills in Britain.
  • Monsanto was one of the creators of Agent Orange, a defoliation product used during the Vietnam War with horrific effects on both the Vietnamese people and US veterans.
  • In an attempt to escape investigation of the impact it’s genetically manufactured cotton had on the local Indonesian environment, Monsanto bribed a high level Indonesian official.
  • In France, Monsanto was found guilty of falsely advertising it’s herbicide Roundup as being biodegradable- however one of the chemicals used in the herbicide extremely bad for the environment.
  • Monsanto has both a very large and powerful lobbying group and a number of American public officials are former Monsanto employees, including (but not limited to): Michael Taylor- former Monsanto Lobbyist and now senior adviser to the FDA commission on food safety (if you look up “Conflict of Interest” in the dictionary, you’ll find this cited as an example), Donald Rumsfeld (former Secretary of Defense), Linda Fisher- assistant administrator for the EPA, and Clarence Thomas- a justice of the Supreme Court.

In short, Monsanto doesn’t even pretend to be anything but evil.

 

So what’s to be done?

 

While, as the title of the post suggests, boycotting products from these companies is ideal- stemming profits to these companies will give more ethical companies a chance to compete, and if nothing else makes a good ethical statement. Another good move is simply spreading the word- the majority of corporations build of a facade of PR so they can engage in immoral activities behind the mask of decency. The more the public is made aware of the actions of these corporations and Capitalism’s amoral nature, the more likely they will be to take action.

 

As with most lists, this post is by no means exhaustive and will be continued in the future- any comments or suggestions are welcome.

03
Apr
10

Live Long and Prosper?

If you were to look up “Communism” in a philosophy book, you’d probably find it under a section dealing with “Materialism”. The problem with this is that the popular meaning of the word “Materialism” has changed radically over the years. In terms of philosophy, the original meaning of “Materialism” was a category of philosophies primarily concerned with the concepts of property and their effects on human society/history. If I were, however, to use the term “Materialist” today, it would commonly be assumed that I was referring to the idea that the end goal of life is to accumulate wealth (radical hedonism, essentially). This is a recurring problem with many terms connected to Communism- in Marx’s day, “Socialism” meant a society embracing shared property and rejecting the class system, today we use it to refer to a politico-economic system where the majority of property is owned and managed by a massive government- but perhaps that’s off topic.

The issue with trying to categorize Communism in philosophy is that Marx was rather critical of philosophy as a whole. He asserted that analyzing the world should not be an end but merely a means to bring about change and advancement (“Philosophers have merely interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it!” -Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”). While Communism definitely does offer a socio-politico-economic perspective, to claim that Communism is an all-out philosophy wouldn’t be quite correct. While most philosophies make some basic assumptions about the purpose of life (hedonism, as much pleasure as possible; Socratic philosophy, preparing for death;  aesthetic realism, finding harmony in life; the list goes on and on), Communism on the other hand functions more like a scientific theory than a code of ethics or an understanding of existence (indeed, one of the reason people find Marx so hard to read is the fact that he treats economics almost like a branch of physics). Don’t misunderstand me- Marx did have convictions. He saw the exploitation of the proletariat as the principal factor in the toppling of Capitalism and the class system and believed that the toppling of the Capitalism and the class system would propagate justice and equality. It’s like a scientist discovering that running electricity through a gas filled bulb not only creates light but it is his moral imperative to run electricity through a gas filled bulb and create light. As a result of all this, you’ll find no single, coherent Communist philosophy but rather a number of philosophies espousing Communist political theory. On one side you have philanthropic, altruistic humanist communists who have become Communist out of love for their fellow man. On the other side you have cynical and bitter antisocial communists who have become Communist out of a belief in morality rather than man (the author falls into this category). And between these two extremes you’ll find any number of other philosophies- religious Communism, green Communism, Anarcho-Communism, etc. If there’s a mainstream philosophy out there, you’d be safe to bet that there’s a Communist version of it (baring, perhaps, Ayn Rand-style Objectivism).

Now one might argue that the exact same rules apply to Capitalism. “Capitalism is a socio-economic theory too. You can hold any philosophy or worldview and still be a Capitalist!”.

Now this is partly true. You can indeed be a Capitalist and hold the purpose in life to protect and preserve the earth and all its natural wonders. The problem is that if you also accept Capitalism, you have to maintain that it is perfectly legal (and indeed, a basic human right) to purchase a mountain, to prevent anyone else from walking on it, and if the owner so chooses, to blow it to pieces.

“Alright, so Environmentalism and Capitalism don’t mesh so well- but there’s still a ton of other philosophies out there.”

Absolutely, and they too don’t seem to mesh well with Capitalism. If you hold the purpose of life is to live honestly and decently, then you’re presented with a number of challenges (the primary of which is that in Capitalism, the highest profits come from underpaying and overworking your employees and overpricing your products- not exactly honest or decent, is it?). If you declare that the end goal in life is to live long and prosper and see your family happy and secure then you have to deal with the fact that this is the wish of not only you but a large percent of humanity and since in Capitalism there’s only so much room at the top you’ll have to viciously compete with your neighbors for this lifestyle (unless you’re born into it, in which case you just have to worry about the huddled masses eying your house and pool. Even if you believe that the sole purpose of live is to live in decadence and luxury, you have to contend with the very definitions of the words. Do two houses in Monaco count as decadence and luxury, or should you get a yacht as well (or more importantly, will you be any more happy and fulfilled with the yacht than you are now?).

So essentially, no matter what your philosophy is, it has to be accepted that in all likelihood, you’d be able to pursue it better in a society free from Capitalism. You want peace and happiness for your family? Maybe you should opt for a system where a starving homeless man is going to gun down your wife/husband for her/his necklace/wallet. You want to be able to do whatever you love doing? Maybe you should opt for a system where you aren’t forced to take whatever job pays the bills, no matter how painful or bland. You want to be able learn everything there is to know about a subject? Maybe you should opt for a system where education is a high-priced commodity available only to some.

Maybe you should opt for Communism.

01
Dec
09

The Myth

Perhaps the greatest lie originating (and arguably, perpetuated by) Capitalism is the idea that the wealthy are wealthy because they are intelligent, disciplined, and hardworking and the poor are poor because they are ignorant and lazy. As a result, if a man in a business suit and flawless grammar knocks on your door and asks if he can use your bathroom, chances are you’ll let him. You probably wouldn’t do the same for a man in a ragged bathrobe whose grasp of the English language was sub-average. Indeed, the quality of treatment you offer people is usually determined by what social class they hail from. We make assumptions about people based on whether or not they seem to be poor, middle-class, or wealthy.

Quite simply, we’re bigots.

And not without reason either. If a person is less willing to let a homeless man into his house than a man who is (or at least, seems to be) doing quite well for himself, then the person’s fear is not completely unfounded. A wealthy man has less reason to rob you than a poor man. Crime rates, alcoholism, and drug abuse are highest among the lower classes. Likewise the poorer classes tend to have the lowest levels of education. Statistically speaking, yes, you are more likely to be mugged by a poor person than a rich one, but so what? Bigotry is never tolerable, no matter what. So what if you’re more likely to be mugged if you get a poor guy into your house instead of a rich one? You don’t know either man. Maybe the man in the bathrobe is an honest, honorable person who’s had a run of bad luck. Maybe the man in the suit is a sociopathic murderer or a con artist. Judging people according to how wealthy they are is, no matter how you look at it, wrong!

So why is it that we’re prejudiced to trust the middle-class and wealthy rather than the poor? Is it because the poor are ignorant and criminal while the wealthy are intelligent and decent? Of course not! The poor aren’t poor because they’re criminals; the poor have high crime levels because they are poor. Sure the poor man is more likely to mug you, but is that because of him or the fact that he’s cold and hungry? Obviously there are those who are poor because of their own issues- all humans have a propensity towards greed and indolence. At the same time, it is ridiculous to claim that the poor are only poor because they’re lazy. It’s the poorest of the poor who have the heaviest workload. Across Africa, Asia, Latin America and yes, even Europe, Australia, and North America there are millions of those who for ten hours a day for wages of less than a dollar a day! There’s a reason we call them the Proletariat– the working class! It’s because they’re the ones doing all the actual work. They do the farming, the mining, the sweeping, the building, the cleaning, the producing and manufacturing! Why on earth would we even dare to consider these people to be lazy?

Because we’re lazy.

As I’ve said, humans are lazy. More often than not we don’t take the time and effort to investigate something for ourselves; we simply make assumptions or believe whatever our leaders and the media feed us. Since the poor are poor and unable to afford decent (if any) healthcare, we immediately assume that the poor are simply dirty. Since the poor can’t afford decent (if any) educations, we immediately assume that the poor are ignorant and stupid. Since the poor are poor and can’t always afford food/medicine/etc., many are forced into lives of crime- we immediately assume that the poor are naturally criminal. But laziness isn’t the only reason we don’t ask why the poor live in poverty.

Humans are also naturally arrogant. The idea- no, the myth– that the poor are poor because they are lazy makes us feel better about ourselves. We’re where we are because of our efforts! We’re wealthy because of our intelligence, our skill! We’re where we are because of our work-ethic, our self-discipline, and our decency!

Egotistical lies.

We’re where we are because of our own efforts and the efforts of our parents and their parents before them and because of the state of the world we live in and the class we were born into. Personal effort makes up about ten percent of it- the rest is accident of birth and dumb luck. A person pulling himself to the top from nothing is such a rare event that we make a major Hollywood film out of it. If you’re born poor, chances are you’ll stay poor no matter how hard you work unless you get not one but a whole chain of lucky breaks. If you’re born into a middle-class family, you’re probably going to stay middle-class unless you get a bunch of lucky breaks (though less than if you were poor). If you’re born into wealth and privilege than you haven’t done anything to deserve your life and don’t have to do anything to maintain it. Like I said, it really comes down to accident of birth. If you’re lucky, you’re wealthy, if you’re not, you’re poor and probably will be poor for the rest of your life. The Caste System isn’t exclusive to Hinduism.

So in short, don’t believe in the fairy-tale that the wealthy are the best of society and the poor are the worst, or that the poor are poor only because of their own efforts. We are, for the most part, fixed in our place by statistical chance- individual effort has very little effect on us.

It isn’t fair, is it? Only a sadist or an idiot could honestly state that this is an ethical system. Most of us simply shrug our shoulders and say that “life isn’t fair” or “that’s just the way things are…”. I say that when someone’s been murdered, we can’t stick our hands in our pockets and say “life isn’t fair”. I say that when any injustice has been committed, no matter on what scale, the only ethical course of action is to establish justice. Yes, life isn’t fair- but maybe that’s because no one’s doing anything about it!

27
Aug
09

Et Vox Dei… (Part 2)

In the previous post, I described human nature and the supply-and-demand system- specifically how the supply-and-demand system is flawed since many of the demands that humans make should never, never be supplied. This of course goes against the fundamental principles of Capitalism, bringing up yet again the question of whether or not Capitalism and morality are compatible. Now there are two solutions to this issue (1) do as some (such as Ayn Rand) have done and redefine morality or (2) attempt to replace Capitalism with a system that can co-exist with ethics.

It is frequently said of Communism that the theory was based on the idea that humans are perfect- that Communism expects people to put away sin and selfishness and work solely towards the benefit of the whole. On the contrary, Communism was created because of human envy, murderousness, and depravity. It is because humans have a natural tendency to demand genocide, gluttony, and greed that Communism was created as a way of combating injustice, racism, exploitation, and imperialism.

For you see, therein lies the greatest difference between the Capitalist and Communist code of ethics. Capitalism fully acknowledges humanity’s issues- the greed, the  hate, the fear. Capitalism takes an almost-casual “come-as-you-are” attitude. Greed? Greed is a natural human feeling, don’t fight it, use it. Deception? Deception can be used against your fellow competitors to get them to slip up- deceive away. In short, selfishness, self-interest, and egoism aren’t treated as vices but rather as assets.

Communism, on the other hand, demands more of humanity than to act according to our base appetites. Just because Marxism accepts humanity’s inherent evil as natural doesn’t mean it considers it to be acceptable. Not remotely. Communism has no easy way out- there’s no cheating or deception and greed is never rewarded. If we take away greed then how do we motivate humanity to better itself, to be more than just animals in the jungle? A love of doing things for their own sake, a love of justice, a love of truth. Freedom from greed, is what is truly needed, not slavery to our weaknesses. And to those who would state that attempting to advance humanity beyond what we have now is a blasphemous attempt to become gods, I simply respond “I’m not a theologian but isn’t that what God would want? I doubt- as Galileo did- that the same God who has endowed us with sense, intellect, and reason would have us forgo their use!”. All in all, Capitalism states that humans ought to be greedy while Communism states that humans should be more- the voice of the people is not the voice of god. I for one would rather have a system that matches morality, than have to shred morality to make room the system.

24
Jul
09

The Many Faces of Capitalism

Throughout the blog I have been discussing various aspects of Capitalism, however, one must keep in mind that Capitalism isn’t so much an economic theory in and of itself but rather a general category of economic theories based around capital (money). For one to describe Capitalism without making note of the various schools of thought within the system would be the equivalent of describing Christianity without mentioned the beliefs of Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, or describing warfare without noting the invention of gunpowder. So, in the interests of clarity, listed below are the descriptions of the major classes of Capitalism.

Classical Capitalism

While the actual term “Capitalism” was coined by Karl Marx, the first comprehensive work on the subject of Capitalism (or “commerce”, as it was simply known as) was penned by British economist Adam Smith, in his The Wealth of Nations (considered by many to be the “Bible of Capitalism”. Smith’s essential argument was that humans ought to work in their self-interests which would create a strong and healthy society. Smith stated that if one person owns a product and attempts to sell it, the purchaser will buy it for whatever he deems it to be worth, leaving both seller and buyer richer and happier than before their transaction. Throughout his work, Smith advocates this concept of self-interest as the foundation of commerce, stating that “We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”. Additionally, Smith claimed that it is in the best interests of the economy and the government for the government to interfere as little as possible with the economy (see “Free Trade” below).  Today, Adam Smith is viewed by many as the founding father of Capitalism and one of the most important economic theorists in the history of the world.

Laisseiz-Faire

Laisseiz-faire (literally “Hands-off” or “Let-do”) can perhaps best be described as an aspect of Capitalism (Classical Capitalism, to be precise) rather than a school of Capitalism. Based on the works of Adam Smith, Laisseiz-faire is a philosophy that states that the government should never interfere or attempt to regulate the economy which- according to the advocates of Laisseiz-faire- functions best without outside influence. While developed separately from Adam Smith, the philosophy of Laisseiz-faire and Classical Capitalism are often combined or associated with each other. While Smith primarily objects to government tariffs, Laisseiz-faire has historically opposed government interference in the form of anti-monopoly laws, minimum wage, and unions.

Christian Capitalism

While the US and much of Europe has never had any theocratic rule since the end of the Renaissance, it is undeniable that in the West, a Christian concept of Capitalism has existed for some time. Of course, this “Christian Capitalism” by no means applies to all Christians, but the fact remains that this philosophy does indeed exist. Christian Capitalism attempts to reconcile the self-focused, competitive tenets of Classical Capitalism with the rather community-focused, anti-materialist teachings of the Christian religion. The end result is what one might call a “moralistic Capitalism”, where competition and materialism do exist, but are tempered by ethics. Those within the system are free to make a profit, but gouging the buyer, deceiving the competition, or tricking the seller is considered to be unacceptable. Charity is advocated but not mandated (as opposed to other religious economic theories to be discussed later). While this form of Capitalism is often considered to be the ideal, there are many split on issues of what is and is not moral (what are the limits when trying to outsell a competitor, for example).

Regulated Capitalism

Contrary to common belief, regulated Capitalism is not a form of Communism or Social but simple government interference. Regulated Capitalism, like Laisseiz-faire, isn’t so much a theory of Capitalism but an aspect of Capitalism. Teaching the very opposite of Laisseiz-faire, regulated Capitalism states that economies require some form of control in order to flourish. This “control” can range from basic laws on minimum wage and worker-safety (such as in post 1940s America) to major government control (as in 1920s and 1930s Italy). While regulation is often confused with Socialism, one must keep in mind that so long as the state does not own the company, the products it sells, and the revenue generated, it does not count as Socialism.

Keynesian Capitalism

British economist John Maynard Keynes could perhaps be described as the most anti-Capitalist Capitalist the world has ever known. Keynes held that Capitalism is “the astounding belief that the most wickedest [sic] of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”, and yet was himself a Capitalist. From a philosophical standpoint, Keynes despised Capitalism and yet saw it as the only option. As a result of this, his economic theory (known as “Keynesian economics”) attempts to protect the public from Capitalism’s costs while maximizing its benefits. Keynes advocates government regulation to protect the public while stating that the public, in order to prevent recessions and depressions, should spend their money without excessive investment or saving. Currently, Keynesian economics are often criticized by other schools of Capitalism as requiring too much collective and government interference.

Ayn Rand Capitalism

Also called “tooth-and-claw Capitalism” “Anarchist/Anarcho-Capitalism”, and “Social Darwinism”, this form of economics focuses on individualism to the point of egotism (or as Rand dubbed it, rational self-interest). Theorized by novelist Ayn Rand (most famously in her books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged), this form of Capitalism is perhaps the most brutal. Rand’s philosophy vehemently opposes all forms of government interference, charitable aid, altruism, and religion. While never explicitly stated in her works, Rand’s economic theory holds that the wealthy and privileged are wealthy and privileged because they earned it, while the poor and proletariat are at the bottom of the economic food-chain because they are lazy or simply choose to be poor. In her book Atlas Shrugged, Rand submits that the wealthy and powerful are the most productive and useful members of society, capable of bringing the world to a sudden halt by going on strike. While Rand’s theories are essentially Capitalist, many other schools of Capitalism look down on Rand’s theories as barbaric, excessively anti-charity, and basically flawed. Despite public criticism, many hold that Rand’s Capitalism is by far the most pure form of Capitalism.

Free Trade

Free trade, like regulated Capitalism and Laisseiz-faire Capitalism, is a concept- not a theory. Free trade essentially is the belief that international trade should not be regulated or controlled by governments. Outsourcing, the import/export of resources and goods, multinational corporations, and international investment are all aspects of Free Trade that its advocates state will produce higher profits, lower production costs, more jobs, more demand, and generally stronger economy.

Protectionism

Protection (perhaps more of a political concept than an economic one) demands the very opposite of Free Trade. Protectionists believe that jobs should go to citizens of the country the company is in, that resources and products should be obtained and produced locally and that massive export and import tariffs should be maintained for the purpose of preserving jobs for the citizens of the country. Protectionists will often also oppose immigration for the same reason.

13
Jul
09

The Hypocritical Hippocratic Oath

Since the time of Ancient Greece, doctors, physicians, healers, and surgeons have sworn the Hippocratic Oath- a solemn vow to “To hold him who has taught me this art as equal… if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine, and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers in male lineage and to teach them this art—if they desire to learn it—without fee and covenant… I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice…”.

Or at least, this was the oath that was taken in the time of Hippocrates- to whom the authorship of the oath is attributed. Of course, the modern Hippocratic Oath has changed greatly over the past two and a half millennia. The contemporary text, adapted in 1964, focuses primarily on treating patients not as “a fever chart, [or] a cancerous growth” but as actual people, while also promising respect the privacy of patients and to not “play God”.

So what’s the issue? While the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath makes good points, it lacks certain fundamental elements found in the original oath. While the original oath made doctors obligated to teach each other’s children (if willing to learn) free of charge. Today, learning to become a doctor takes eight years (minimum) and costs a small fortune (medical university is far from cheap). The original oath also ordered doctors to protect their patients from “injustice”. Not disease, not infection, but injustice. This part of the oath is nowhere to be found in later versions.

Now the first section discussed- the section concerning the mutual instruction of the medically aspiring children of fellow doctors- is perhaps understandable. With today’s advances in the fields of medicine, surgery, and pharmaceuticals, it is understandable that this part of the original oath is no longer applicable- after all, there’s only so much any one doctor can know. Nevertheless, one can’t help but imagine what society would be like if doctors- all doctors- were obligated to teach. If anyone willing and diligent enough to learn medicine could study medicine regardless of how rich or poor he was, what would our world look like? Would we have eliminated cancer by now? Would we have the cure for the common cold?

One can really only guess. This is, after all, the great, good, and glorious Capitalist system where a person’s quality of education (or very existence thereof) is determined by the size of his wallet (though the issue of Capitalist/Communist education has been covered in previous posts).

And what of the section concerning a doctor’s duty to protect his patients from injustice? One can easily see why this part would be taken out of newer versions. This is a Capitalist society where medical treatment, like almost everything else, is merely a commodity to be bought and sold. If a patient is dying but cannot afford the treatment that would save him, the doctor is left with an irresolvable quandary. On one hand the doctor has a patient who cannot afford the treatment he needs to live, on the other hand, the laws of Capitalism state that anything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it. So the doctor is presented with a single, impossible option. If he goes along with the “purchase-worth-price-paid” logic, he’d be forced to conclude that since the dying man will not (because he cannot) pay for the treatment, he would rather not live and is therefore suicidal and best committed to a mental institution. Since the man clearly isn’t suicidal, the doctor must either (1) state that the Hippocratic Oath is fundamentally flawed or (2) state that Capitalism is fundamentally flawed. Fortunately, the doctor will not decision. Since, as the advocates of Capitalism would have us believe, Capitalism is completely compatible (perhaps the only system compatible) with justice, the entire situation is a logical paradox and therefore this situation can never exist.

Yeah, right.

Despite [deeply flawed] logic, these situations exist all across the globe, not only for life-or-death situations but almost any medical issue, from cough medicine to prosthetic limbs to brain surgery. The Hippocratic oath, so long as it is practiced in a Capitalist society, will always be a sad hypocrisy. The ugly truth is that Hippocratic oath- even the contemporary Hippocratic oath- will never be able to mesh with Capitalism. There will always be a conflict between ethics and economics, and frankly, if there’s a choice between the two I think it’s pretty obvious which option I’ll take.

And for this reason I submit that we do away with the Capitalist system and replace it with something better. A system where anyone who chooses to be a doctor can be a doctor and have the best medical education available. A system where any person sick, injured, or dying has the opportunity to be treated, and by doctors who are doing so out of the love of their profession and sense of justice and humanity- not self-interest and greed. A system where doctors are never forced to choose between economic feasibility and the Hippocratic oath.

The Capitalist health system is terminally ill, and I believe that this is a physician unable to health itself. Yes, the Capitalist system is in place and has been for a long time, however, as time goes on and the line between justice and injustice becomes more distinct, more pronounced, it is only a matter of time before the people revolt against a system based on flawed-logic and hypocrisy.

26
Jun
09

In Defense of Free Healthcare

One of President Obama’s campaign promises was major healthcare reform and lately, that promise has been repeatedly referenced in the news (primarily on Fox). While opinions on the subject are vary, in general they have tended towards the negative- a common fear voiced is that a “bureaucrat” will be placed between the patient and the doctor (though others have submitted that they’d rather have a bureaucrat between them and their doctors than an insurance company). Conservative icon Glen Beck, for example, argues that this reform will be costly and inefficient in a brief animated video (linked here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkGhn3LfbyM&feature=related). The video depicts a man who, after being hit on the head by a falling anvil, has to wait six weeks for treatment due to free healthcare. The clip ends with the warning “Offer applies after voting Democrat and not listening to the Glen Beck Program”. Some might call this video a patriotic attempt to maintain an effective and productive system.

I call it propaganda.

What we are actually presented with is an exaggerated and implausible scenario which the creator threatens will happen unless we abstain from the Democrat party and watch his program. Now, purely for the sake of the argument, let’s ignore the insultingly simplistic message and focus on the admonition. Firstly, we are told not to vote Democrat (or risk waiting six weeks for medical attention). People have been voting Democrat for over a century now and no free healthcare system has been implemented. Millions of Americans do not watch the Glen Beck program (some shameless self-advertising), and nationalized healthcare yet to be instated.

“True,” one might argue, “It’s fear-mongering and agitprop, but the core principle is true- free healthcare would be expensive and unproductive.” Now granted, free healthcare would mean that it would take longer to see a doctor however, to say that it would take “six weeks” is simple misrepresentation. Hospitals do have their busy days, but it’s nothing like the crowded mayhem represented by television dramas. In the US, there are hundreds of thousands of public and private hospitals, not to mention an almost countless number of private clinics. Yes, with free healthcare the numbers of people seeking medical attention would skyrocket, but almost assuredly not beyond the country’s capacity to help.

Besides, even if hospitals do become more crowded, how is that a bad thing? More patients don’t mean more disease but more coverage. Those who were unable to afford medical attention before are now able to seek treatment- universal coverage means universal treatment which means a healthier, more productive society (for anyone who isn’t satisfied with the fact that more people are being given medical care).  As for the wait- I’d rather wait six weeks for free medical care than be turned away instantly because I’m not wealthy enough.

And that of course leads us to an important question: why should only the wealthy be healthy? We live in an age of medical miracles that before the 20th century would’ve been inconceivable. We’ve developed vaccines, medicines, and antibiotics to fight off or even cure us of diseases and infections that would otherwise kill us. We’ve created artificial limbs to replace severed ones, and with artificial respirators and pacemakers we can keep humans alive well into their nineties.

If you’re wealthy, that is.

The poor are lucky to benefit from these miracles. If a wealthy man loses an arm, he can purchase an artificial one. If a poor man loses an arm, then there’s nothing that can be done about. If a wealthy woman has complications with her pregnancy, she can hire a midwife, a private physician and so on. If a poor woman has complications with her pregnancy then there’s nothing that can be done about it.

And why is this? When did the wealthy become entitled to longer, healthier lives? Why should the number of green cotton-papers a person has determine when and whether he gets to live or die?

Maybe some of the rich worked hard for their wealth. Maybe some inherited it. Maybe of the poor are poor because they’re lazy. Maybe some were born poor, and for all their hard work remain poor. Sure, the advocates of Capitalism will tell you that the poor can work hard, seize opportunities, move up in life. So if a man works hard his whole life, but his alarm clock’s battery dies and he’s late to work and his co-worker (who works just as hard, but was lucky enough to have a better clock) gets that promotion (and the money for better healthcare) instead of the man who was late, does that mean the late man is somehow less deserving of decent medical attention? Are those who simply missed opportunities (or never had opportunities presented) somehow less-than-human? The Declaration of Independence states that among humanity’s inalienable rights is “the right to life“! How then can we demand that the poor, the wealthy- anyone– pay for life? I defy even the most brutal Capitalist or Social Darwinist to look a person in the eye and tell him that he’s not wealthy enough to deserve good healthcare.

So why would anyone oppose free healthcare? Who in their right mind would trade a little wait for free and universal healthcare?

The answer can be found in another Glen Beck clip (linked here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mq9zfTEtfI)

The clip, while short, is telling. The show’s guest, Dr. Steve Neeleman- after criticizing America’s “addiction to HMOs”- goes on to describe the virtues of his own company, HealthEquity. What the show doesn’t mention is that HealthEquity is simply another insurance company- and it’s insurance companies that stand to lose the most through universal healthcare. In the interests of full disclosure, it should be mentioned, the subject of the show was Hilary Clinton’s proposed healthcare plan- not free healthcare, but nevertheless the clip serves an excellent example of why insurance companies so staunchly oppose free healthcare. Why would the public pay for something they can get for free? What Glen Beck has done here would be the equivalent of interviewing a horse-and-buggy company owner on the evils of Henry Ford’s Model-T automobile.

In conclusion, yes, free and universal healthcare does have disadvantages. Some taxes would have to be raised and in some places, waiting lines would increase. Nonetheless, the benefits of free healthcare greatly outweigh the disadvantages. Yes, insurance companies would be virtually wiped out, but how does that measure in comparison with the countless lives that could be saved?

It just doesn’t.