Corporatocracy and Me

The East India Company was the first modern corporation,

And it is credited with introducing the world to markets that are free,

But it brought the free market enforced by the world’s largest standing army.

It was the beginning of colonialism, imperialism, and Corporatocracy.

The EIC introduced the world to spices, tea, and global slavery.

Some in the United States rebelled with a giant tea party,

It set off a revolution but didn’t bring down corporate rule,

The robber baron bosses soon controlled trade, news, and even schools.

We may think their practices went against the principles of enlightenment.

But the EIC employed such men as John Locke, JS Mill, and Jeremy Bentham.

So the first corporation took control of public attitudes and education.

Promulgating equality for all European, land-owning men.

While denying rights to all those considered less than human.

When the US tried to recognise non-white men with an amendment

Giving them equal protection from abuse and harassment,

The railroad said, “Hey, corporations are people, too,”

And the courts went along as they always do.

 

Well, what’s past is past, and now it’s all good.

We’ve grown used to the idea of corporate personhood.

Citizens United taught us money is speech

You have a voice, but Exxon’s has more reach.

And Monsanto, now Bayer, wants to feed the entire globe,

By controlling food, seeds, farming, drugs, and microbes.

You have no other choice than to just trust them,

As manufacturers lead us on a race to the bottom.

Apple computers are built in factories with suicide nets.

Because conditions are so bad workers prefer death.

Our clothes are made in sweatshops where workers burn.

We’ve no choice to buy them is all that we’ve learned.

In 2007, the financial sector destroyed the economy,

But workers bailed them out with hard-earned money.

Now we’ve cut funding for public education.

Replacing it with the public/private partnership.

Giving business control of science, arts, and research.

IF you want unbiased info, you’re left in the lurch.

But what about corporations great philanthropy?

Don’t They give developmental aid from sense of charity?

No, They buy up or steal resources and flood markets with free food,

Destroying the economy and local businesses for good.

You can scream about Trump or any other entity,

But corporations are your true enemy.

 

Slaying monsters: Ethics as a Matter of Opinion

I have the distinct pleasure of teaching ethics to many students who, frankly, do not believe the study of ethics is of any benefit to them or anyone else. From time to time, usually near the beginning of the semester, a student will express frustration that a required ethics class seems a colossal waste of time, as ethics is “just a matter of opinion.” People have to make up their own minds about what is right and wrong, and one opinion is as valid as another.

I challenge this as most ethics teachers challenge it: “So,” I say, “If someone were to kill someone, no one has any moral authority to challenge that person’s opinion that such behavior is perfectly moral.” Students will often then say, “Well, it depends.” I will then assert that whatever it depends on is the fulcrum of the student’s own moral theory—it is a creepcore moral value. With a little engagement, we usually get around to a fairly simple statement of what I do take to be a near universal moral value. It is okay for people to have their own moral opinions and to make their own decisions about their behavior so long as they are not hurting anyone.

Of course, we do hurt people. We execute people. We put people in jail. We take scissors away from running toddlers who would rather play with the scissors. We hurt people in many ways. Most students will agree that it is acceptable to hurt someone with some greater good in mind—or, for some students, it is acceptable to hurt someone as punishment. It hurts to give a child a vaccination, but the purpose is to protect the child and society from disease. It hurts to kill someone who has broken into your home to murder you, but killing the guilty to protect the innocent is considered a good by almost everyone, even as we acknowledge pacifism and non-violent resistance. This being the case, most students will agree that it is wrong to harm someone who is innocent, unless that harm is aimed at a greater good (e.g., I may violently knock someone to the ground to prevent her from falling thousands of feet to her death or give a child a vaccination to protect her from disease).

When we accept that it is wrong, generally, to hurt innocent people, we are left with two questions: 1. What constitutes harm? 2. What is a person? The first question seems easy until we try to answer it. When some information will be extremely painful to someone (say, some embarrassing photos and personal information of someone are posted in an office he is completely unaware of unlikely to ever know about), is it more harmful to tell the truth or to keep a secret? Is failing to prevent a harm the same, morally, as harming someone? Many moral dilemmas revolve around just such questions. Even with these difficulties, though, I don’t think the question of harm is what derails morality. Reasonable people with good intentions can have productive discussions about harm, even if they don’t always arrive at consensus on what harms are or are not justified.

It is the second question that effectively ends progress of moral conversation. We want to say everyone deserves equal protection from harm, but we don’t always agree on who “everyone” is. The founders of the United States purportedly believed “all men” are created equal. Women, slaves, other minorities, and children did not fall under the umbrella of “all men” in either policy or practice. Everyone should be treated equally under the law, but some of us have a fairly narrow view of who “everyone” is.

Some people want only to protect rational beings, which would seem to indicate adult humans, while others want to protect, seemingly, all living things. I spend perhaps too much time trying to understand how people who seem to want to be moral can justify slavery, torture, sexual abuse, or even genocide. In most cases, the people guilty of the horrendous crimes are not amoral; they simply have a morality that does not recognize the rights of their victims. By one way or another, they have come to view their victims as less than human.

Thus, police may view those suspected of crimes as being beneath them and undeserving of respect and thoroughly devoid of dignity. People may view those of other races as being subhuman or animalistic. In the same way, too many people compare sexual minorities with animal behavior or will even refer to “those people” as animals. Women are often viewed, depicted and described as animals or even inanimate objects. The poor, too, are often described as vermin or even rubbish. People often deny the worth and dignity of many classes of people. Though we all come from the same creator (your choice who the creator is: evolution, God, spirits, or whatever), some of us manage to ignore the worth of others in our community.

Religious Friends, Quakers, have the idea that we should always recognize “that of God in everyone.” Even if you don’t believe in God, this idea is a powerful way to examine what others deserve our respect. We all share the same ancestors. We all share the same emotions. None of us is perfect, and no one is without worth. Even for those who have done the worst, dictators, terrorist, and so on, we must remember that they, too, are made of the same flesh.

It is through empathy and compassion that we can better understand our enemies. I am not saying there can never be a justification for punishment or even some defensive acts of violence, but I am saying these acts must be carried out with the full recognition of our own flaws and the humanity of our enemies, opponents, and, yes, friends.

You are not perfect. Try to love another imperfect person today. And tomorrow.

Is Bill Gates a Trojan Horse?

Bill Gates gives away huge sums of money. I could provide some links here to verify that he gives away huge piles of cash, but, really, is anyone going to claim he does not? It is obvious that he could not give away so much money if he did not happen to have enormous bank balances to begin with. So, thank goodness Bill Gates was able to become so insanely rich. And thank goodness all those corporate sponsors of aid were able to amass gigantic storehouses of funds to distribute globally to alleviate poverty and disease while promoting free markets and democracy. Except maybe it is not that simple.Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie saw philanthropy as a duty of the wealthy. The mere fact that someone was able to obtain great wealth is evidence enough for man that that person is a great judge of what should be done with the money. The wealthy must serve as role models and administer funds in ways that are good for the poorer members of society, even if their choices are not popular. Carnegie said:

“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community–the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”

Apparently, the wealthy fear giving the money directly to the poor might corrupt them or tempt them to bring about their own destruction. So, the benevolent man of means, and Carnegie does not mention women of wealth, should work for the care and improvement of the lower classes.

And in doing so, the wealthy establish not only their honor, but also their power. As Thomas Hobbes said, “There can be no greater argument to a man, of his own power, than to find himself able not only to accomplish his own desires, but also to assist other men in theirs: and this is that conception wherein consisteth charity.”  Through charity, the wealthy shape the aspirations of society, the resources for improvement, and the goals of the impoverished. The poor cannot be trusted to make autonomous decisions about what is good and proper for the course of society. In order to receive the generosity of the powerful, the weak must assume a position of obedience and servitude. The superior minds will lead with love if only the grateful masses will follow.

But it does not end there—the wealthy engage in a kind of philanthropy that actually seeks to oppress and exploit the poor. This is true in many instances, but it currently most obvious in some forms of foreign aid donations.

In the current political climate in the United States, we often hear that aiding people engenders a culture of dependence. Most people imagine that the recipients of aid become too lazy to work for their own improvement, but that is not how aid creates dependence. Rather, it can create dependence by destroying any possibility of self-sustaining local markets. Economist Dambisa Moyo sums up the problem of aid to Africa when she says, “One wonders how a system of flooding foreign markets with American food, which puts local farmers out of business, actually helps better Africa.” Michaela Schieesl made a similar point, saying, “The United States spends $1.2 billion on food for the world’s hungry, making it the biggest provider of food aid. It is also the biggest contributor to the UN’s World Food Program (WFP). But this seemingly charitable commitment comes with a major hitch: Instead of donating money, the United States donates food, almost all of which it produces itself.”

The US donates food not as a means of helping struggling societies, but rather as a means of subsidizing American farmers and agribusiness. By dumping free food grown in the US, farmers in foreign countries are put out of businesses. Of course, if they turn to alternative crops such as poppy, coca or even tobacco, the farmers are condemned for contributing to the global drug trade and supporting violence and addiction.

The ETC Group in Canada now warns us of another scheme to use philanthropy to help entrench monopoly powers of transnational corporations under the guise of aiding poor farmers:

“The world’s two richest men – Bill Gates and Mexico’s Carlos Slim – are working with CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) to make bargain GE seeds and traits available to farmers in the global South. The notion that farmers will benefit from a post-patent regulatory regime and Gene Giant charity is patently absurd.”

This international aid effort has the effect of ensuring more and more of the world’s food production will be controlled by transnational corporation promoting market-based “solutions” to global food insecurity. The ETC Group notes that the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture, which includes all the giant gene producers, describes itself as working with G8 and G20 to “foster multi-stakeholder collaboration to achieve sustainable agricultural growth through market-based solutions.”

Not all aid is bad, however, and giving can save and improve lives. Moyo and other critics of aid are quick to point out the difference between rescue or relief aid and aid that permanently alters economic structures. My opinion is that smaller donors tend to choose charities based on how they relieve suffering rather than how they either guide, manipulate, or oppress the poor. Modest earners give a higher percentage of their income than the super rich.  In an article for The Atlantic, Ken Stern noted,  “In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income.”   Stern added that among donations from the wealthy,  “Not a single one of them went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.” More modest earners are more likely to look out for the interest of the poor.

Addressing income inequality would have two positive effects: First, it would help alleviate the need for any aid. Second, it would help more modest earners to give more and give more effectively. And, no, lifting people off the floor will not make them behave as those at the very top (in the stratosphere of wealth disparities). Rather, as the poor enter the middle class, they give more than the super wealthy and give with an aim to relieving suffering and not to creating monopoly power or consumer dependence.

Also, be sure to read Peter Buffett’s comments on the same subject here.

Finally, for an example of a charity operating from the ground up, please see Shoulder to the Stone.

Teaching Ethics to Greedy Bastards

When a corporate executive, high-powered lawyer, or well-funded medical researcher is exposed for egregious unethical behavior, we often say it would have been a good idea for that person to have had a class in ethics with some follow-up training. We’d like to think that with the proper ethics training even the most heartless sociopath could be encouraged to at least follow some of the rules.

And if we can’t (note: we can’t) encourage bad people to be good people, what are ethicists worth? Well, our roles fall into several categories: 1. Providing ethical answers to dilemmas. 2. Offering ethical analysis of a particular problem. 3. Teaching ethical decision-making, which makes a good-faith assumption that the decision maker is sincere in wanting to be ethical. 4. Holding wrongdoers accountable for their behavior.

The first category is offered to clients who don’t want to take complete responsibility for their ethical decisions. Once a professional ethicist has offered an opinion on whether something is above board, an organization can say, proudly, “All our policies and procedures have been reviewed by someone with extensive training and expertise in ethics and found to be compliant with all ethical and legal codes.” Indeed, it can be a very good idea for an organization to get an outsider to review policies for possible ethical problems.

The second category is related, perhaps a subset of the first. When institutions encounter a particularly sticky issue, they might ask an ethicist to help them work through all the ethical considerations and explore how various ethical theories can help them solve the dilemma. Again, a useful role for the ethicist.

The third category involves training. Rather than giving answers to ethical questions, the ethicist can teach motivated individuals to analyze various conflicts on their own. Most people know how to think ethically, but they sometimes forget some of the considerations that professionals might find to be second nature.  Developing a more thorough approach to ethical approaches can benefit individuals and organization alike. It cannot, however, turn a bad person in to a good one. Evil people don’t lack ethical tools—they lack a conscience.

So, what do we do about the evil people? An important role for ethicists, in my considered and passionately held opinion, is to cry foul when individuals and institutions engage in egregious behavior. And when ethicists disagree on what is an egregious action, fervent debate erupts in the public sphere, benefitting the public and everyone involved, or so it should be. When ethicists sound the alarm that some behavior is abhorrent and shameful, a public chorus against such actions can at least ensure that the bad actors confront public scrutiny.

Think it doesn’t work? Remember in 2011 when executives at Transocean received bonuses for their safety record after the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 and sent millions of gallons of oil streaming into the water? After public outcry, the executives thought better of keeping those bonuses and donated them to the Deepwater Horizon Memorial Fund. Social regulation pushes and pulls behavior through honor and shame. In responding to abhorrent behavior, Kwame Anthony Appiah says, “Shame, and sometimes even carefully calibrated ridicule, may be the tools we need. Not that appeals to morality—to justice, to human rights—are irrelevant.”

Most of us evaluate ethical theories in the following way: Knowing that I am an ethical person, which ethical theory best fits my behavior? Following this method, we can all justify our actions through theoretical ethics as we simply seek out the theories that validate our behavior. Given that we all have justification for our behavior, public outcry is not likely to immediately shake our perception of what is appropriate, and, indeed, the public rarely speaks as one voice. Further, the common view is often wrong, or so I judge it to be. Bertrand Russell once said, “In view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” Indeed.

Many people, especially those in power, feel their behavior is beyond reproach. They seem to think they could not have gained power if they were not deserving of it. Public outcry and public discourse, can remind them that they are, in common with the rest of us, flawed and fallible human beings. What this means is that we must raise our voices, express what we find shameful and honorable, and join or create a conversation over morality, dignity, and justice. Only when we suppress our voices do we lose. Only our common humanity makes our salvation possible.

What is Bioethics? Environmental and Economic Justice

Like many people, Peter Singer was the first bioethicist to occupy any space in my consciousness. He first got my attention with his concern for animal welfare and calls for vegetarianism. I suppose he is best known for saying we should not eat animals but that it is sometimes acceptable to kill our babies, which many people find upside down, especially if they haven’t actually read all his arguments, and few of his critics seem to have read his arguments.

But Singer has also spent a great deal of effort offering suggestions on relieving the problems of globalization, wealth inequality, and further destruction of the planet. One can offer reasoned objections to his suggestions, of course, but his choice of topics and concerns helped define what bioethics was for me.

Singer’s concerns fit nicely with the term “bioethics” as originally conceived by Van Rensselaer Potter in 1970. Potter said bioethics should be “a new discipline that combines biological knowledge of human value systems.” Potter saw bioethics as a systematic attempt to ensure the survival of the planet and all the people on it. One of Potter’s goals was to eliminate “needless suffering among humankind as a whole.”

Van Rensselaer Potter

Unfortunately, by the middle of the 1970s, the term “bioethics” had already been co-opted by the medical establishment and applied primarily to medical ethics. Concerns for ensuring the well-being of humankind were replaced by concerns for patients and doctors, with a strong emphasis on patient autonomy. Today’s bioethicists tend to ignore problems that have nothing to do with healthcare or medical research, but millions of people in the world have no access to healthcare and so escape any attention from bioethicists at all, which is itself an injustice.

To be sure, bioethicists are still in the world working for justice and, in some notable cases, the survival of the planet, but those working on themes outside of healthcare or medical research are outsiders at best. (For a couple of examples, see Martha Nussbaum and Thomas Pogge.)

I will continue to argue that this is the wrong approach to bioethics. Potter’s and Singer’s concern for promoting the health of the earth and all its inhabitants is the only reasonable way to think of bioethics, and those who disagree are the ones who should defend their positions.

What are some of the issues we need to address? Just to get us started, we can look at environmental justice, war, climate change, worker’s rights, wealth inequality, access to water, human rights abuses, women’s equality, and children’s welfare. Too broad? The problems that threaten life and health are vast. Medical practice requires an enormous cadre of professional ethicists to develop policy and practice guidelines, of course, but bioethicists following the vision of Potter should be welcome at the table as well.

Bloomberg, human rights, and the ethics of soda

Recently, a New York court blocked New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to limit the sale of sugary drinks of more than 16 ounces. The court and many individuals feel it is not up to the government to regulate the choices of individuals, even if those choices lead to death. And lead to death they do. A study at the Harvard School of Public Health claims that sugary drinks lead to 180,000 deaths worldwide each year, with 25,000 of those deaths in the US.

It isn’t at all clear whether limiting the size of drinks would reduce the disease burden, but I have to commend Michael Bloomberg for at least saying that the drinks are dangerous, which may help to raise awareness of the problem. The Harvard study links the drinks to the rise in diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. The beverage industry, of course, challenges the methodology of the study.

No one claims, however, that consuming large quantities of super-sweetened sodas is in any way healthful. People can choose to kill themselves with soda, but they should at least be aware of the danger. Perhaps warning labels, similar to those that appear on cigarettes, are in order. Smokers still choose a slow form of suicide, but they can’t claim they didn’t know what they were doing.

One problem with the large drinks, besides the harm, is the pricing structure. I’ve noticed that the largest drinks are often only slightly more expensive than the smaller sizes. Forcing retailers to sell the drinks on a per ounce basis might help achieve Michael Bloomberg’s objectives, though I’m sure this solution would not satisfy free-market libertarians, who are more concerned with private profit than public good.

But this focus on public health ignores a larger problem with the food we eat. As part of its Behind the Brands project, Oxfam recently released a briefing paper on food justice and the big 10 food and beverage companies (Associated British Foods, Coca Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, Pepsico and Unilever). The report notes:

“Today, a third of the world‟s population relies on small-scale farming for their livelihoods. And while agriculture today produces more than enough food to feed everyone on earth, a third of it is wasted; more than 1.4 billion people are overweight, and almost 900 million people go to bed hungry each night.”

The report goes on to say, “The vast majority of the hungry are the small-scale farmers and workers who supply nutritious food to 2 – 3 billion people worldwide, with up to 60 percent of farm laborers living in poverty.” The inexpensive food and drink we buy demands conditions that are often horrific for the people who farm and produce the food. Many of us buy drinks sweetened with real sugar to avoid the perceived harms of high-fructose corn syrup, but note that Coca-Cola is the world’s largest buyer of sugar cane, which is associated with rampant use of child labor and unconscionably low wages.

According to CNN, the International Labor Organization “estimates 2.4 million child workers are in the Philippines. Many of them, according to the ILO, are in rural areas working in fields and mines. The organization estimates 60% work in hazardous conditions.” According to Coca-Cola’s website, “A grant from The Coca-Cola Foundation funded the construction of a high school in Bukidnon, which has the country’s highest incidence of child labor and the highest number of school-aged children not working or attending school.” The idea is that the children who are in school will not be in the fields. Also, educated children will be empowered to seek and create better economic conditions and wages.

If efforts to educate children used in the supply chain for sugary drinks actually do reduce the amount of cheap (nearly free) labor, the price of sugary drinks is likely to rise, which may in turn reduce demand for the diabetes/heat disease-inducing drinks in the first place, achieving Mayor Bloomberg’s initial objectives. Will the drop in demand eliminate job prospects for the world’s farmers? The ethics of food, and drink, is complicated.

What Makes the Trayvon Martin Case Different From Other Murders

I did not intend to make any comment about the Trayvon Martin case as I thought there was plenty of thoughtful commentary on it already, but I’ve been reading too  many blogs on it today, and it seems to me that many people are missing the point. As I see it, it does not matter whether George Zimmerman is Hispanic. It doesn’t matter whether Trayvon got into trouble in school (how many teenaged boys never get in trouble at school?), wore gold fronts on his teeth for a camera, or tried to act tough. If Trayvon’s problems make him deserving of death, then many people I love and admire would fall in the same category. How many of us want to be judged for the decisions we made when we were 16 and 17 years old? And it doesn’t matter that many other teenagers are murdered every year. This case is different.

It is different because of the police response to it. It is different because the police say they did not have enough evidence to arrest anyone, but they do not appear to have made much effort to gather evidence. They seem to have spent more time trying to find evidence Trayvon was up to no good than they spent trying to find out whether he was the victim of stalking and murder. The police seem to have dismissed the case as just another death of a young, black criminal. They seem surprised that anyone cared enough about Trayvon to pursue the case and try to get the facts.

Yes, it is a tragedy when anyone is murdered, but it is an outrage that young men of a particular color are viewed as disposable human beings by many in our society. That someone’s life could be of so little value that it is deemed unworthy of investigation is appalling.

Citizens United, Unions, and Corporate Persons

We’ve all heard that the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling by the Supreme Court opened the door to unlimited and undisclosed spending to influence elections. It is widely presumed that the court’s decision granted first amendment rights of free speech to corporations by declaring them to be “natural persons.” But corporations have had rights as persons for a long time. By most accounts, the court has recognized corporations as having all the rights of natural persons since 1886. For a detailed discussion of the 1886 ruling, see Thom Hartmann’s Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became “People” and How You Can Fight Back.

The Citizens United ruling did not establish corporations as people but declared that spending on speech cannot be limited because such limits would deny flesh and blood people the right to hear all points of view. For an in-depth discussion and analysis of the ruling, see “The problem with Citizens United is Not Corporate Personhood” by Rob Hager and James Marc Leas.

Further, if the ruling established corporations as person, it also established unions as persons, given that it removed any restrictions on what unions could spend. People on the right are quick to point this out. The Facebook group called Individual Rights and Government Wrongs wrote:

“According to OpenSecrets.org, twelve of the top twenty donors to political campaigns since 1989 are unions. And their donations have overwhelmingly gone to Democrats—only one union donated as much as 10 percent to Republicans, and eight gave less than 5 percent to Republicans. Further, of the top twenty donors, OpenSecrets ranks only one as leaning towards Republicans in their donations. Apparently, donations from unions do not ‘drown out the voices of everyday Americans,’ even though less than 12 percent of the American workforce is unionized.”

The rightwing sees hypocrisy on the left for decrying the ruling without offering any criticism of the influence of unions, which the right feels is as pernicious as what the left fears from corporate influence.

At least one person on the left sees Citizens United as part of an elaborate union-busting scheme. Douglas Webster wrote on Daily Kos, “the next step after Citizens United — giving more freedom to use more money more clandestinely to business and unions — is to launch a full-scale attack on unions…and especially those in the public sector.” Indeed, since the time he wrote that (February 2011), attacks on unions seem to have grown more intense.

This discussion does not answer the question of whether the speech of unions is equivalent with the speech of corporations. I once heard an explanation of why corporations had the right to spend money to exercise their free speech rights that claimed corporate speech was analogous to a group of people pooling their money to buy a megaphone to amplify their voices. My immediate reaction to that claim was that some corporations were using money they got from me to promulgate speech I find highly objectionable. I do not expect corporations to speak for me. I do not want corporations to speak for me. They are not extending my right to free speech.

On the other hand, I join a union precisely because I do want the union to speak on my behalf. When I pay money to a union, I am hoping to amplify my speech to help balance what I perceive to be unfair corporate control of almost all media in the world. If the union begins to express views I find objectionable, I can and will withhold my money. I would like to withhold my money from corporations that express views I find objectionable, and I do withhold most of it from such corporations, but, like you, I buy products and services from people who do not always share my values and views.

So, I do not find the speech of unions and corporations to be equal. I am not saying the activities of unions should not be regulated and monitored, but I do feel our obligation to regulate corporations is greater. In either case, I believe spending on elections should be disclosed. Transparency promotes more ethical behavior generally, and I cannot think of an instance where transparency would harm the function of democracy when it comes to financing elections. If you can think of exceptions, please let me know.

Will technology destroy heroism?

While heroism is a concept without rigid definitions, I will loosely define it as putting one’s own life at great risk for the benefit of others. We may say that someone who developed lifesaving technology is a hero, but his or her laudable actions may or may not fit the description of heroism I’m trying to describe. For example, developing a life-saving vaccine is a laudable achievement for anyone, but some people have developed such vaccines by their willingness to first try inoculating themselves, knowing that their inoculations could kill them.  Similarly, those who may fly test aircraft they designed put their own lives at risk in order to benefit others.

In the past, technology created a heroic elite of sorts. Not many people had an opportunity to be the first person in space. Also, not many people had the education or experience to dream of how to inoculate someone against smallpox. People with the most advanced training would put their lives on the line to test new technology, leading to even greater advances in both knowledge and skill. These people saved lives, won wars, and opened the wonders of the universe to us all. They used technology to expand their opportunities to demonstrate their courage and commitment to human advancement.

It seems to me that something has changed, though. Unmanned spacecraft are now going deeper and deeper into space to return information we only dreamed of before, but the risk to humans has now been minimized. The space explorer now sits comfortably on earth as a machine takes all the risks of space travel. Unmanned drones now conduct what would have been extremely dangerous operations only a few years ago. We still need humans to fly and take great risks, but we can now imagine a time when all flight operations may be automated. The fighter pilot and astronaut may both become obsolete.  In medicine as well, new developments are frequently mechanized with risk to humans greatly reduced.

It is hard to find a reason to complain about this development. I would much prefer to have a robot disarm a powerful explosive than to have a human risk being blown to bits. Technological advances that reduce risk are welcome, and they will never eliminate heroism. What they do, though, is shift an emphasis from the elite heroes of the recent past to the more mundane heroes known throughout history. People will always risk their lives for others without the benefit of advanced aircraft, space travel, or obscure scientific knowledge.

People will continue to rescue others from fire and drowning. Foot soldiers will continue to fight battles on the ground, often in primitive forms of combat our ancient ancestors would recognize. People with brilliant but controversial ideas will continue to express them in the face of public hostility and aggression. And people will continue to put their lives on the line to defend democracy, freedom, and human dignity.

My question for Ron Paul: Autonomy and health care

Earlier this year at the Tea Party debate, Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul if a person who chose not to buy health care should be left to die. Paul responded that this person’s friends and community could support him and pay his bills. Many in the audience seemed to be all right with letting this person die.

Conservatives and libertarians both express a strong commitment to autonomy, which they sometimes refer to as freedom. The new health care law is unacceptable they say, because it requires individuals to purchase insurance. People should not be required to purchase insurance, but they should be responsible for the consequences if they do not have insurance. Of course, this scenario is rarely a problem for anyone, and Blitzer asked the wrong question.

I would want to ask a different question. I want to know about the person who has worked all her life and been successful. After 20 or 30 years, she decides to expand her opportunities by starting her own business. Remarkably, her business is profitable in its first year. She can afford to buy insurance, but she cannot buy adequate coverage because she has preexisting conditions that every major insurance carrier refuses to cover. When she contracts a serious illness, she is driven into bankruptcy because of medical bills that are astronomical but quite common. Should our country let her die? Should she be permitted to slide into bankruptcy?

Autonomy is not quite as simple a question as it apparently seems to Republicans and libertarians. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin described two types of liberty: one is negative and the other is positive. For conservatives, it is imperative that individuals not be forced to do something they may not want to do and no government intrusion is acceptable. This is negative liberty. For liberals, such liberty is meaningless if one is unable to make the choices he or she desires, which is positive liberty.

Describing the liberal view of positive liberty, Berlin says,

“It is true that to offer political rights, or safeguards, against intervention by the state, to men who are half-naked, illiterate, underfed, and diseased is to mock their condition; they need medical help or education before they can understand, or make use of, an increase in their freedom. ”

While conservatives will not force someone to purchase insurance, liberals want to ensure that everyone has the option to have health care. Everyone who needs health care and cannot obtain it becomes a liberal in an instant.

The number of uninsured in the United States is said to be around 50 million, but many more than that have inadequate insurance. Unfortunately, most people do not realize they are underinsured until it is too late. Many people only learn that their treatment will not be covered by insurance after they have received the treatment. What kind of autonomy is this? What is the value of liberty if it leaves one with no options to avoid bankruptcy, untreated illness, and death? Is this really what we want to be?