Suicide as a Natural Right- Part I

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The act of suicide is a serious matter that has a litany of inseparable moral, physiological, psychological, and societal considerations. Unanimously, the institutional consensus is that intervention is imperative in addressing the issue of suicide. Although little consideration is given to whether intervening in every alleged suicide attempt is ethical. In most cases, intervention entails involuntary commitment orders placed upon “suicidal” individuals. There is often a wide degree of digression allotted to mental health professionals in determining who is a danger to themselves. The nuances within these laws vary state by state. It should be noted the majority of states have involuntary commitment laws. As noted in a recent Supreme Court decision has indicated that the reasonableness for involuntary commitment under due process has already been established. Citing Addington v. Texas   , O’Connor v. Donaldson, and Foucha v. Louisiana. Do the despondent nature and impending bodily harm of a suicidal person warrant them being held against their will? Despite any ethical counterarguments, the law of the land indicates that such measures are justified.

All because a specific policy is codified in statutory law or is validated in case laws does not make it moral. Our law ought to reflect a sense of justice, however, this normative ideal is seldom achieved. Often many laws appear to be a capricious byproduct of overextended digression. If the Lockean proviso people do own themselves, at the very least involuntary commitment laws present a conflict between the legal statute and our natural right of self-ownership. From a Libertarian perspective, this is a right that should not be infringed upon. The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume wrote:

A man who retires from life does not harm society: he only ceases to do good, which, if it is an injury, is of the lowest kind. All our obligations to do good to society seem to imply something reciprocal. I receive the benefits of society, and therefore ought to promote its interests; but when I withdraw myself altogether from society, can I be bound any longer? But allowing that our obligations to do good were perpetual, they have certainly some bounds. I am not obliged to do a small well to society at the expense of great harm to myself. Why then should I prolong a miserable existence because of some frivolous advantage which the public may perhaps receive from me?

This short excerpt from the large corpus of Hume’s work encapsulates the issue with mandatory commitment laws; suicide presents little harm to society. In contrast, hold a man against his will for committing no crime would be quite damaging. It also should be noted that “suicide” across the board is not universally condemned, but is permissible based upon a qualifying context. For instance, some argue that elderly people suffering from chronic illness(es) have the right to end their own lives. Predicted upon the basis that they no longer owe anything else to society and are no longer a stakeholder. If membership to a community is voluntary, then withdrawal through either suicide or self-isolation should also be voluntary, making anything else coercion. The preference towards the norms of suicide towards the elderly and sick are also reflected in our laws.  As of 2019, eight states allow for physician-assisted suicide this privilege is only permitted for those suffering from a terminal illness. There are two interrelated flaws with the logic behind only allowing the terminally ill to have legal permission to end their own lives. The first concern is that this undermines the severity of mental illness. Through sanctioning such procedures to those suffering from physical illness, a double standard has been created. For years we have heard that mental illness is also an illness, however, mental health professions do not even vindicate their own words. These individuals are actively allowing for physical illness to hold a privileged legal status over mental illness. The second fallacy is that one of the prevalent arguments for intervention in suicide attempts is that the person’s thinking is impaired by psychological distress or intoxication. To allow the chronically ill to do the same is hypocritical under this very same line of logic. Those who are terminally are generally on psychoactive pain killers or are in intense pain. Couldn’t their capacity for reasoning be questionable at best under such debilitating conditions? If mental illness is an illness couldn’t it be terminal in its own right? These are two discrepancies that few pundits in civil society would have the courage to address honesty.

If we own ourselves, we have the implicit right to kill ourselves without any interference. That does not necessarily provide a moral justification for a suicide attempt but is moral condemnation obstruct this right. Analogous to how soliciting a prostitute may not necessarily be moral, but to utilize legal institutions to disrupt this exchange is unquestionably immoral. If under Arizona statute ARS 13-1304 sustains that holding a person against their will is illegal, then the same can be said about involuntary commitment. The difference is due to a pedantic technicality than a justifiable ethical argument. 

Terri Schiavo- From the Perspective of Lockean Property Rights

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Here is a hypothetical situation that presents us with a challenging conundrum that would drive most legal scholars and moral philosophers mad. There is as a person in a vegetive state who is hooked up to a variety of life-sustaining medical equipment (feeding-tube, ventilator etc.). Let’s say that the individual is married, and their spouse has been their legal guardian since they have become clinically brain dead. Does the parents of the incapacitated person have a say over the end-of-life decision making for their child? Should this heavy burden be left to the spouse and rightful guardian? It should be noted that the moral analysis must be separated from the determination of legality. All because something is legal does not necessarily make it moral. For instance, abortion in the United States is sanctioned around quasi-arbitrary timeframes with little consideration for situational context or biological development of the fetus. The decree of legislative fiat does not automatically make a policy moral. There are many legal protections within American statutory law that prevent individuals from facing criminal penalty or ligation. If crimes against persons and property cannot be subjected to restorative justice then there is no point in calling a legal system just.  In other words, we will be reviewing this situation from a philosophical standpoint, specifically from the perspective of individual property rights.

The above scenario is not quite so hypothetical but is a concise description of the Terri Schiavo case. However, one striking difference between the scenario presented above and the Schiavo case is that :

Terri Schiavo breathes on her own. She is not on a ventilator or respirator. Although she swallows, she is sustained through a gastric feeding tube. She is not in distress or imminent danger of death.(P.5).

Despite Schiavo’s lack of cognitive functionality for the most part she was able to “live” in the most basic sense of the term.  It should also be note that prior to her cognitive impairment she made no will directing her “wishes” for medical treatment. Also including end-of-life decisions. Therefore, leaving the variable of individual consent obscured by Schiavo’s incapacitated state. There was a rift between Schiavo’s husband/ guardian wanted to remove her feeding tube while her parents staunchly disagreed with this decision. Ultimately, the courts sided with the husband and Terri ended up dying after having her feeding tube removed. This may have been the legally permitted course of events, but was it moral from the paradigm of individual property rights?

The economist and Libertarian Philosopher Walter Block provides a remedy to this quandary squarely from the standpoint of Lockean property rights. A grown adult who has lost their cognitive faculties is analogous to a child and exist in purgatorial grey area when it comes to the prospect of Lockean ownership (p.5).Block takes the Rothbardian approach to addressing a parents required commitment to child rearing, which in fact allows parents to relinquish this right (p. 6). Much like how Lockean homesteading does not preclude an economic agent from taking ownership of an abandoned patch of land, this analogy can be applied to raising children. If an adult within the community is willing to devout the resources to raising a child discarded in dumpster, this should count as a transfer of guardianship (p.7). Based upon the premise of Lockean homesteading the Supreme Court of Florida was morally wrong in assigning the right to end Terri Schiavo’s life to her husband. Through wanting to end her life with no prior record or request of her wanting such measures taken, he effectively relinquished his guardianship. Clearly he did not do so in the modern legal sense, but he did so within the context of Lockean property rights. If her parents were willing to assume guardianship of their daughter then the court’s decision is nothing more than perverse.

And if they are, then whoever is at first control of her must maintain her; if he refuses, her guardianship reverts to the second closest party, her parents. If they will not homestead her, then perhaps her siblings. If not them, then anyone who wishes to take up this burden. Based on the number of protests at the callous way she is being treated ( Block, 2011, p.7)

The Syllogisms of Social Darwinism

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  • If Darwinism can be applied to gene selection, then the logic of “Darwinism” can be extrapolated to other fields of intellectual inquiry.
  • If Darwinism can be applied to biology, then it can be applied to social sciences such as sociology and economics.
  • If  Darwinism applies to the genetics of humans, then it can also be applied to socialization and social institutions.
  • If Darwinism is axiomatically true, then its applicability can be proliferated through the sound application of a priori reasoning.
  • If  Darwinism is true and cannot be applied to certain situations, then this is a condition of moral caveats more so than a judgment of truth.
  • If correct logic is only applied selectively, then the circumstances under which the concept is omitted would be an incorrect application.
  • If Darwinism is omitted in the analysis of the social sciences, then then this is a  selective application of the concept.
  • If a concept is being selectively applied, the reasoning behind this restriction in extrapolation is generally normative rather than positive.  

Against Self-Discover: The Irrationality of Finding Your True Self

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Frequently we hear about people undergoing the process of “finding themselves”. This concept is kind of preposterous once we truly contemplate it. This is not to say that it is impossible for an individual to not know “thy self”. Denying our true essence through methodically crafted facades acts as a social survival mechanism. Effectively shielding us from censure and other forms of social opprobrium. Self-deception being as common and conformity highly valued it would be foolish to question the desire for self-discovery. How much of our sense of self is truly a byproduct of internal processes and is absent of external influence? That is a question that remains to be satisfactorily answered.

It is more reasonable to question if the process of self-discovery is even worthwhile. It does seem to be somewhat of a hapless endeavor. Why? Simply because we are not stagnating. Our thoughts, opinions, and values are always being tested. Almost as if we are nothing more than the organic personification of Bayesian probability. Sure, we may have some attributes, normative preferences, enduring opinions. Do these semi-fixed characteristics truly signify resistance to the dynamism of existence?  No. When people do not adapt to new information, they merely find new ways of justifying their old beliefs. Holding the same premise, but adapting their reasoning. Someone may be a lifelong gun-rights activist, but their rationale for maintaining their principles may have evolved.

Self-exploration fails to capture the true quiddity of ourselves because we are ever-changing. Attend all of the vision quest retreats and peyote ceremonies you like, these experiences may very well lead you down a dead-end. Your perception of these experiences will likely change over time. Your opinions of the experience may even change while you are engrossed in such enveloping sensory journeys. The very malleable nature of man, especially from a psychological perspective, it is difficult to find a fixed sense of self. Layered upon the various cultural and normative identities we ascribe to ourselves, it possible that we perceive ourselves differently at various times and in divergent contexts.

Eg.) A man can be an American, veteran, Grandfather, Father, son, friend, baker, neighbor all at various times to various people.

All of these various categorical titles that can be ascribed to an individual may mean different things to them at different times.  Placing a get weight on the temporal and contextual influences driving our sense of selfhood.  To a certain extent, we may not even be the same person we are today that we will be tomorrow. The alterations may not be drastic, but although subtle substantial enough to cause minor qualitative changes in personality, cognition,  thought processes, normative values, etc. Colloquially we often hear young people talking about the need to “find themselves”. This analogous to Sisyphus perpetually rolling a boulder up a hill.  Due to our dynamic nature which is highly adaptive from an evolutionary perspective, progress is illusory.  This perceptual stalemate is only compounded by the fact that we often perceive ourselves incorrectly. Typically,  in an exaggeratedly positive light. Validating Adam Smith’s observations in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). People do not want to believe view themselves in a negative light. Making self-depiction a form of self-pacification. The futility of attempting to pinpoint our selfhood cannot be understated. Unfortunately, our sense of self is subject to the illusions and psychological coping mechanisms that afflict human perception.

Cooperation and Conflict

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Staying within the structure of methodological individualism it is important to see how Smith’s Pin factory example (p.54-55) exemplifies the coordination of a group of economic agents. All working in unison towards the common goal of producing pins. All of these individual works comprise the overall assembly line. The totality of all the adjacent departments related to manufacturing makes up the internal structure of the firm. Any social institution whether it be a hobbyist club, social club, buyers club (e.g. Sam’s Club, BJ’, Costco), government, business, trade association, private governing bureau/authority (e.g. homeowners association), charitable foundation, research institute, study group, etc. are comprised of multiple individuals forming the group. It is flat-out erroneous to speak of the entire organization without any consideration for its members. The collective action of all the group members acting harmoniously to achieve the same ends is much more complex than treating these collective efforts as lumped together aggregate.

Each member of an organization has their internal objectives, thoughts, feelings, and desires. It can be said that all the active participants have their utility functions (p.25-26). Meaning that to some extent their wants, needs, and desires align with the overall group goals. For example, very few people like their jobs, but they voluntarily consent to the terms of employment because of their desire to earn money. Whether it is for the intrinsic satisfaction of possessing money or what currency can be redeemed for. Keeping within the theme of a Smithian analysis of social institutions, it is important to note that more than tangible goods are exchanged through interaction with others. We exchange ideas, culture, skills, knowledge, friendship, guidance, sympathy, morality, and moral support among other forms of desirable forms of social currency. Political activities tend to be a form of social association that is frequently marred by corruption and various forms of abuse. However, is the dynamic of politics overtly a zero-sum game? Not necessarily. As it can be viewed as a form of exchange, individual actors engage in various exchanges for mutual benefits (p.25). One example being logrolling the practice of lawmakers trading votes/favors.

The intangible exchange of social commodities cannot be understated in formulating effective working relationships. One crucial assumption of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that we seek the “approbation” of others. In other words, we seek to praise and approval from others. We are constantly seeking the acceptance of our peers. Being well-liked on the individual level wields a significant amount of social currency. If the ability to seek acceptance and cooperation is applicable on the individual level, couldn’t it also apply to the harmonious relationships between groups of people? After all the scope of social and economic interactions operates on a continuum of scale, what is applicable on a minuscule level should also work on a larger scale. The principle is a general maxim governing social interactions, therefore it should be transferrable. One of the best ways to overcome cultural barriers is through finding a form of social exchange desired by both parties. It does not mean that it must take the form of economic exchange. It possibly manifests itself in alliances and treaties among nations. Special agreements, pacts, contracts among nonpolitical social units. Most often it takes the form of economic trade between foreign nations. The necessity of unilateral trade agreements is refutable. Consumer sovereignty is the true impetus of international trade. Despite the bluster and theatrics of vociferous diplomats and other garden variety elected representatives.

Why voluntary association over other coercive means do we yield harmonious interactions? There isn’t a magic bullet answer to this question. However, some insights from Public Choice pioneer Gordon Tullock may help elucidate a potential variable that sheds some light on this occurrence. It is the ability to choose our partners in voluntary social arrangements that reduce the instance of Prisoner’s Dilemma. If our trading partner is not being cooperative, we can easily do business with someone else. Because of the mobility of free association (which is purportedly protected under the First Amendment) we do not need to be held captive by aggressive or hostile social relations. Due to this consideration, it is easy to see the original sentiment behind antitrust laws, but much like all laws, they suffer from loopholes and other issues. Even from the standpoint of the definition of a monopoly. One of the common attributes of monopolistic market behavior is assessed by is market concertation. However, this is problematic how do we determine which market is categorically correct for the assessment of market concentration? Nevertheless, we can freely choose our partners whether in trade or other forms of social situations it reduces the occurrence of the perverse incentives to be noncooperative. Sullying our reputation deprives us of the esteem that Adam Smith surmised we all crave.

Considering that trade is one of the forms of association that fosters cooperation. Even if free trade is not the key to world peace, it still makes us less apt to raise the sword to our geographic neighbors. To repudiate the previous administration’s trade policy, international trade should be encouraged. It is only natural to perceive David Ricardo’s concept of comparative advantage as an extension of Smith’s pin factory.  The premise of comparative advantage is that it can make production global and explains why we tend to import higher-order goods to produce commodities domestically. No one climate can best produce glass, grapes, and corkwood in the Cognac region of France. However, all of these components are required for assembling a commercially produced bottle of Cognac brandy. This specific region in France has some of the best grapes in the world for brandy production. The climate is wholly inappropriate for cultivating and harvesting the wood used in the stopper placed in every Cognac bottle. To avoid placing great restrictions on our ability to manufacture sophisticated goods, we need to trade with other nations. We can only truly achieve this through peaceful relations. Free trade in itself helps to facilitate peaceful relations.

Calibrating Our Impartial Spectator is An Ongoing Process

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In my previous blog post, I address the role of social distance in moral development. Per Paganelli’s interpretation of Smith’s TMS (1759), we reduced our self-command when we are around people we are emotionally attached to (p.12-13). Much of our moral development arise from socialization. Making our self-restraint a combination of learned behavior and social conformity. The schoolyard may be the proper environment for individuals to fine-tune their social awareness. Does our moral development stop once are no longer school age? I would suggest not. If anything it a continual and lifelong process that is always in progress. If anything as we grow older, the expectation of others and social norms become much more intricate. Some of the basic principles learned on the playground are social conventions that are applicable in any social dynamic. The etiquette learned in the schoolyard is too rudimentary to comprehensively cover all the social nuisances of professional situations.

For instance, what is the proper attire for a job interview? How do I politely reject my boss’s dinner invitation? These are just a few examples of social scenarios of greater complexity that cannot be learned even in High School (arguably even in college). The reserved awkwardness of new hires fresh out of college exemplifies this deficit in workplace social skills. Outside of there being a likely age gap between the new employee and the rest of their co-workers, they are afraid of making a faux-pas. They are deathly afraid of being the person who takes the last of the breakroom coffee without making more (this individual is universally hated). They do not want to be disliked by their new pool of peers. To not look like a self-absorbed young person, it going to take time. The new employee will go through an acclimation process. The primary drive of this adjustment is going to be the feedback of their co-workers.

I would go so far as to even suggest that each new social environment requires some duration of social learning. The phrase “.. reading the room..” comes to mind. For example, even if an individual has worked as a salesperson for twenty years, as soon as they take a job at another company they now become the “new guy”. A new job entails new co-workers, a new boss, new corporate policies, new corporate culture. Despite this individual’s extensive experience they still need to go through an adjustment period. This seasoned salesperson now has to learn to adapt to the personalities, culture, and rules in their new work environment. Even in social situations where we are familiar with the location and the people, various factors lead us to constantly adjust to the feedback from others. If you were attending a dinner party at your brother’s house (only family members were in attendance) you would still have to mold yourself to the social conditions of the moment. You will taper your behavior to the dispositions of the other dinner guests. Social settings are dynamic and even the slightest change to one variable can profoundly alter the course of events. To a certain extent, we are always fine-tuning our Impartial Spectator to maintain social harmony. Social situations much like all complex systems have a loose structure with a set of informal rules. Although there is a resolute structure the one altered variable can drastically change the trajectory of the interaction. As the expression goes “high school never ends”, actually we never leave the playground.

Social Distance: The Foundation of Our Morality

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Adam Smith is arguably one of the most misunderstood thinkers in all of philosophy. The public reduces the corpus of his work to a one-dimensional caricature of The Wealth of Nations (1776). Such characterizations of Smith’s work are carelessly painting with a broad brush. It can be suggested that when to draw new insights from Smith’s work we should be even more cautious. So much has been written on the body of his work, as Donald Boudreaux keenly points out, it is difficult to formulate any new meaningful insights (p.487). This issue is only compounded by the fact that new interpretations of Smith’s work run the risk of misrepresenting his brand of moral philosophy. Which is equally as shameful as representing a shallow representation of his insights.

One development springing from modern interpretations of Smith’s philosophical ideas comes from professor Maria Pia Paganelli. Back in 2010, she wrote a paper entitled The Moralizing Distance in Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments as Possible Praise of Commerce. In her paper, professor Paganelli analyzes smith’s emphasis on the impact of relational distance and moral development. As Smith points out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments because we are subject to “self-deception” due to our immense self-love (Paganelli [TMS III.4.2–6], 2010, p.6). Due to human nature, who wants to view their conduct in a negative light? In many regards, the moral tuning of our impartial spectator occurs due to social influences (Coase, 1976, p.5-7) It exceedingly difficult to admit when we are wrong. Never mind disclosing an outrageous oversight or a profound moment of weakness. Both are humiliating and are the kind gaffs we attempt to bury. The true interest insight from Paganelli is the fact that Smith contended that if our relationship is too close to a person, we do a poor job of shaping their moral development.

Surely, this does not apply to parents? After all, aren’t parents one of the greatest impetuses of moral development of children? Per Paganel’s research Smith’s TMS does emphasize that socialization is a byproduct of the impressions of others (p.7). It is unquestionably true that our emotional attachment to an individual has the potential of skewing our impartiality. The more emotionally attached we are to a person there is greater the aptitude we will perceive the course of events from a similar perspective (p.8). Paganel points out that Smith believed that parents were too “partial and indulgent” of their children to be the prime mover in facilitating their moral maturity (p.9). There is some qualitative validity to this observation. Anecdotally we have all heard a parent proclaim “… not my child..” in regards to the potential of their son or daughter engaging in unruly behavior. Most parents want to hold their children in high regard and implicitly view them as a genetic extension of themselves. To acknowledge the unpleasant truth little Johnnie is capable of stealing Mr. Johnson’s car is excruciatingly painful on two accounts. First, there is the discomfort of acquiescing your child’s capacity to engaging in morally abject behavior (despite years of the parents’ efforts to socialize their child). The second and more damaging pressure point is a sense of having failed as a parent. This extension of yourself is presenting you with challenges that could easily be interpreted as a sign of personal failure.

The emotional distance to aid children in developing moral precepts also cannot be too far. Helicopter parents fail to help their children erect a strong moral foundation. Smith also observed the same being true of children that are sent away to boarding schools. A parent being too aloof can have the same effect as being too indulgent, a child with a lack of respect (p.9). This phenomenon parallels what happens in foreign countries with opposing interests. If there is too much social distance between the two nations, factions will form (p.10). Creating a self-congratulatory echo chamber where there is not any room for negotiations or compromise. Rather the ire is driven by unconstrainted passions shouting the valiant chants and battle cries of nationalism. Too often nationalist fervor results in actual battle cries. Firmly illustrating how social distance has an impact on both the micro and macro scale of social interaction. Achieving the precarious balance of the correct social distance between various groups and individuals is key in achieving stable relations.

According to Smith what is precisely the correct amount of social distance? It is too herculean of a task to determine this balance at the level of nations. If this could have been achieved in a philosophic treatise back in 1759, wars would become a relic of the eighteenth century. Smith does suggest that the best platform for moral development is a child’s peers. Through a child adjusting themselves to the expectation of their fellow playmates, they gain a sense of self-command (p.11). Above all, we tend to have better deportment around strangers than we do our own family (p.12). This goes right back to the concept of social distance. When we are closer to someone on an emotional level we exhibit less self-command. One example would be a small business that attempts to foster a family-like dynamic. Most observers’ prima facie impression would be that such an ethos would create a “hospitable work environment”. Even though the idea of a workplace that creates a culture of close-knit comfort may sound endearing, it possesses a lot of pitfalls. For example, if an employee makes an error the business owner may take it personally. Since the business proprietor is not constrained by the formality of a corporate environment, they are free to curse and scold the offending employee. Like how a parent censures a misbehaving child. Demonstrating how the voice of the impartial spectator becomes more salient when others are in the room. A CEO of a company has their conduct limited to the expected deportment that the employees and board of directors find to be acceptable. Behavior outside of these norms will result in disapproval.

Can Adam Smith Help Us Recover From COVID-19?

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Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely turned society upside down. Plagued by uncertainty the entire planet was alarmed in went into full panic mode. Leading us to the immediate question of how do we contain a novel virus when its origins are shrouded in mystery? Many of these reactionary policies may have modestly slowed down the spread of COVID-19, however, most of the state-sanctioned restrictions ended up causing unforeseen problems. The shelter-in-place orders resulted in the highest recorded rate of job loss since The Great Depression. The economic ramifications of various lockdown measures go beyond the immediate consequences. There was a November 2020 study conducted by USC projecting an overall GDP loss of $3-4 Trillion over the next two years.

Lengthy book treatments could be composed to fully detail all of the intricacies of the economic carnage of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the fall-out of the pandemic reaches well beyond the economic repercussions. Our overall health has been impacted. Not necessarily by the direct symptoms of COVID-19, but by a result of the lockdown orders. People have been less active leading to weight gain, which may lower an individual resistance to the virus. While physical health may be most salient to us because it can be observed by the naked eye, what about mental health? It is well documented that social isolation is a contributing factor to depression. A multitude of stories has been published describing the psychological struggles of Americans during the pandemic. The hardnosed statistician may be quick to dismiss these narratives as being purely anecdotal. However, many of the risk factors for suicide have been magnified since the beginning of the pandemic. There has been a notable increase in the suicide rate from 2019 to 2020.

The pandemic has also fractured relations between us and our fellow citizens. Clinging to our inner circles to avoid spreading COVID-19, we begin to become more tribal. The trust we once held for our neighbors has become eroded over the past year. Anytime someone sneezes we give them the side-eye. Fostering a climate of distrust and paranoia. This distrust has manifested itself in actual hate crimes and discrimination. Some reports estimate that hate crimes against Asian-Americans increased by 150 percent in 2020. What does this have to do with COVID-19? Quite a bit. It is speculated that the outbreak originated in the Wuhan province of China (p.2). Leading some to erroneously blame people of Asian ancestry for the spread of the virus. Creating friction between various communities across the country and only serving to make an already tumultuous situation worse. Asian Americans much like all other Americans have been grappling with the stresses of the pandemic. Adding racial tensions to the mix only serves to create more division and distrust. We need trust to have a stable society. 

Could a voice from the past help us navigate these difficult times? Provide us direction in helping us heal from the carnage caused by a global pandemic? I would argue yes. That voice of reason comes from no other than The Enlightenment-era moral philosopher Adam Smith Many readers are probably thinking to themselves “… isn’t this the guy that told us to follow our self-interest. In other words, to be selfish?”. In a sense, yes. However, limiting the body of Smith’s work to the following passage is nothing more than a caricature of his overall contributions to economics, never mind moral philosophy.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but their advantages. (The Wealth Of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II, p. 456, para. 9)”

The above paragraph may be the most famous one ever written by Smith, but it does not wholly define his breadth of work. Smith believes that markets and morality were inseparable, and you could not have one without the other. At the crux of voluntary trade is interaction. If we treat each other poorly and do not foster a good-working relationship trade cannot take place. To foster strong relationships, we as a society need a firm moral backbone. Morality provides us with the precepts to facilitate just and fair interactions despite conventional wisdom, this is crucial to success in business. If you are not running your enterprise justly your client will eventually find out and choose to do patronize another vendor. 

Business ethics and social morality are intimately interconnected, one cannot exist without the other. That is why the two great works of Smith were meant to be read in tandem. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) addresses social morality and The Wealth of Nations (1776) details the inner mechanics of economic exchange (catallactics). Both books dovetail together so well, reading one leaves you with a missing piece of the puzzle. COVID-19 has unquestionably harmed society economically and socially and both books contain the wisdom to help us get back on the right track. I am a great admirer of economist Don Boudreaux, but I do have to take issue with his recent assessment of Smith’s possible perception of the impact of social isolation resulting from COVID-19. Dr. Boudreaux states that Smith could certainly empathize with and rationally understand the distress caused by social isolation. I do not disagree with his inference, but I would surmise that Smith would want us to draw lessons from his work. To apply the concepts in both books to help us as a society overcome the hardships imposed by COVID-19. His work was not intended to be confined to the postulations of lofty ivory tower discussions, but also for practical application. What good is moral philosophy if it is never put to practical use? Why not look to the works of Adam Smith for guidance and solutions to help us navigate the uncertainty that is the COVID-19 pandemic?

Suicide As A Property Rights Issue- Part II

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PART I

The moral argument for a right to suicide is firmly grounded in property rights. To many readers the very notion that suicide and ownership of tangible objects are interconnected is farfetched. Upon a superficial assessment of the premise, it is easy to jump to this conclusion. Once we get to the philosophical taproot of the concept of ownership the overlap between the two concepts becomes much more apparent. Fastened to the pillar of natural rights, the right of ownership is crucial in establishing all other rights. The ability to retain, transfer, and exclude others from one’s property lays down the framework for all other negative rights we cherish. For example, if a dinner guest offends us with an off-color joke at our house, we have the right to ask them to leave. The right of excludability. If the dinner guest is aware, we are offended by specific kinds of jokes, they fully consent to the conditions of the dinner party by opting to attend. Due to this variety of informal rule creation, there is no need to implement laws prohibiting offensive speech. Individual property owners can decide what types of jokes or language will be tolerated in their household.

The basis for ownership of tangible items goes back to an even deeper principle of self-ownership. If we do not own ourselves how can we possibly possess physical property? Either in the title or tangible form. The philosopher who bridges the gap between self-ownership and ownership of objects, locations, and intellectual property is no other than the great John Locke. At the most rudimentary level, we must own ourselves before we can possess any additional property. The extent to which this self-ownership is applicable is debatable. We can legally own ourselves. We have autonomy over (in most cases) our corporeal vessel that holds our inner organs. An individual can also exert control over their mind. Where does the right of an individual to own one’s self arise from?  This merely the abstract pontification of an out-of-touch philosopher? Most who have read Locke would staunchly disagree with the prior inference. Locke developed a concise explanation linking self-ownership to an unwavering natural right.

In Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689) he further expounds upon the natural basis for self-ownership. Arguably laying down the nascent substrate for the ethical arguments against slavery later on in the 19th century. The right to self-ownership is the result of divine providence. In Locke’s view, God gives us life and we are born free. For those who have more of a secular view of the world, it could state we are born free by our humanity. There is no grand authority that we must oblige by involuntarily transferring self-possession to as a result of cohesion.  

“…Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. (p.11)..”

Locke establishes that no one person has the right to own another human being. The implications of the above quote go beyond the abstract conceptualization of self-ownership. Due to a person owning themselves they also possess the fruits of their labor. If you work and toil to harvest lobsters in the icy waters off the coast of Maine, whatever you catch is rightfully yours. Providing you are not capturing so many lobsters that you are preventing others from having a chance to obtain the seafood delicacy. Nor are you procuring so many they will go to waste (p.12-15). Through self-possession and possession of our labor and the results of our labor, the natural rights argument for property ownership is pithily conveyed.

John Locke was correct about all people being born free and having possession of overall commodities, lands, and intellectual property that they have rightfully obtained through their labor. Where he went astray was asserting that natural rights are inalienable. Regardless of whether we procure these rights from god or as a result of our personhood, you can alienate these rights. Whether or not it is ethically justifiable is completely contingent on the consent of the individual. We have a natural right to free speech for example. While at work we temporarily or indefinitely suspend (for the duration of our employment) our right to unfettered speech as a condition of employment. There is nothing illegitimate about this arrangement because it expresses a form of tacit consent.  If you truly disagreed with the rules of the company you otherwise would not accept the job offer. Agreeing to conditions of employment can operate as a form of selling our natural rights. If we truly own ourselves and possess all of the natural rights we are guaranteed in the Constitution, why couldn’t we sell the title to our rights to other people? That is effectively what we do when after signing an employment agreement. Our natural rights cannot be transferred or relinquished unless we willingly agree to conditions or arrangements that nullify these rights.

One particularly controversial example of this concept was formulated by the Austrian economist and political theorist Walter Block. Dr. Block postulates that voluntary slavery is not incompatible with individual freedom. Such a position sounds antithetical to liberty, however, understanding the context is key. There is a difference between being forced at gunpoint into slavery and choosing to be a slave. Why would anyone choose to be a slave? They or a family member may owe an astronomical amount of money to a private individual and the only means of making restitution on their debts would be a lifetime of unpaid servitude.  It highly unlikely that anyone in modern times would consent to such an arrangement. Being able to sell one’s self to another person demonstrates an unfettered view of self-ownership. The laws prohibiting voluntary slavery are essentially are equally as unjust as keeping involuntary slavery legal. We can’t say that we truly own ourselves if we cannot do as we please with our bodies. That includes opting to sell ourselves into slavery.

The question becomes how does the argument for voluntary slavery apply to suicide? Logically it is predicated on the very same principle of self-ownership. If you truly own yourself and no one else has possession of your body and mind, then you have a right to kill yourself.  As jarring as this statement maybe it is nevertheless true. If we truly possess an object or an idea we can do as we please with it. We can sell the item or bit of intellectual property, or we can dispose of it. Nothing is stopping us from purchasing the latest iPhone at full retail price and then upon receiving the device, abruptly throwing it into a trashcan. While by the assessment of convention sensibilities such an action would irrational or foolish, no one has a right to prevent this behavior from occurring. Regardless of the perception of others, the notion of ownership prevents others from intervening. Some may criticize this example because it is comparing a replaceable item with the irreplaceable essence of human life. This critique is a fair one, however, that does not make this a false analogy.  The operative condition is the concept of ownership not what the individual is choosing to dispose of.  Regardless of the origin of where we obtain our natural rights from we do own ourselves. Much like anything else we own we have a right to dispose of ourselves. This is not making a moral judgment about the act of suicide in-of -itself. Nor is this a tacit endorsement of suicide. However, legality is no measure of morality. Nor is pressure to conform to societal norms.  If we legalized heroin use and prostitution tomorrow, these activities would not necessarily be moral.  But they would be legal. While these activities may be immoral, inferring an individual’s right to poison their body or engage in infidelity is also immoral. Immoral on a grander scale. When victimless crimes have codified sanctions, they are generally backed by the threat of incarnation, fines, or state violence.  

The decision to commit suicide is a deeply personal decision that should not be felt in the hands of doctors, psychologists, and especially nor legislators.  Attempts to intervene in suicide attempts are naturally transgressive against the individual’s property rights.  If indeed, we truly possess self-ownership.

Machiavelli in the Office – Part VI- Don’t Hire Mercenaries

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Machiavelli could easily be considered one of the most misinterpreted thinkers in political philosophy. His name has become synonymous deceit and other vices of public office. This marred image of Machiavelli has sullied his reputation as a philosopher for centuries. Despite Machiavelli’s image problem, his insights extend well beyond the provincial mode of retaining tyrannical authority. He expounded upon immutable truths about human nature. Truths that need to be acknowledged anytime you are navigating any kind of social hierarchy. Whether naturally developed or systematically contrived.

 

By Machiavelli conveying these truths in his works of political philosophy, he distinguishes himself on a deeper level than a mere political theorist. Rather, he transcends that restrictive title. Embarks upon detailing the more convoluted and perplexing realm of human nature. His observations at times even veer into the territory of practical advice.  Hence why the application of his work isn’t just limited to the sly trickery that characterized the Florentine royal court back in the 16th century.

 

In terms of applying  Machiavelli’s lessons to the workplace, this insight is a unique one. That requires some abstract thinking to foresee the application but conceptually is similar enough that it works. This is about hiring managers utilizing contracted employees from employment agencies. This is colloquially known as “using temps” or temporary employees. Some individuals may question what hiring temps over fully company employees has to do with mercenaries. Hiring mercenaries is something that Machiavelli advises all shrewd rulers to avoid doing so.

And by experience one sees that only princes and armed republics make very great progress; nothing but harm ever comes from mercenary arms. And a republic armed with its arms is brought to obey one of its citizens with more …. (Machiavelli, 1532, P.50. Trans. Mansfield 1985) [1].

 

And because with these examples, I have come into Italy, which has been governed
for many years by mercenary arms, I want to discourse on them more deeply, so that, when their origin and progress have been seen, one can correct them better. (Machiavelli, 1532, P.52. Trans. Mansfield 1985) [2].

 

Let him, then, who wants to be unable to win make use of these arms, since they are much more dangerous than mercenary arms. For with these, ruin is accomplished; they are all united, all resolved to obey someone else. But mercenary arms, when they have won, need more time and greater opportunity to hurt you since they are not one whole body and have been found and paid for by you. (Machiavelli, 1532, P.55. Trans. Mansfield 1985) [3].

 

All three quotes from The Prince exemplifies the perils of hiring soldiers. At the end of the day, the soldier of fortunate only has his eyes set on fortune. There isn’t any sense of pride, heritage, community, kinship, or other forms of social cohesion bonding them to the kingdom they have been paid to defend. Even if native-born soldiers are receiving a salary and other benefits (in the modern era; health insurance, education) they still have a bond to the country they defend. They joined the military out of nationalist or patriotic convictions.  There is more of an emotional and philosophical bond to there defense of the homeland. Money can motivate people to do unfathomable things. To truly and consciously commit to taking a bullet for a cause is an act based upon strong convictions. This is the kind of loyalty that cannot be bought. Some historians have even speculated about the folly of England utilizing Hessian mercenaries in the Revolutionary War. Ultimately, providing some credence to the assertions of Machiavelli.

 

Temporary workers hired from an employment agency provide similar issues. From my observations, temps tend to be fired for much more frivolous reasons than full employees. If you are hired directly, in most instances, your boss will understand if you are having car trouble. If you are a temp you could very well be fired over the incident. If you were directly hired by the company you would be subject to the rules listed in the “employee handbook”.Such document details policies that provide specific parameters for proper conduct. Meaning you can be three times versus once before you are terminated. Temps are technically considered employees of the employment agency. So they are not insulated by these measures. Paralleling the premise of being paid to be a foreign soldier.

 

The pretense of lacking stability and lack of uniform policies for temps skews incentives away from productivity. We all know that “temp-to-hire” arrangements are an exercise in carrot dangling. Your manager doesn’t ever treat you like part of the team. What is the point in killing yourself for a company that will never outright hire you? It presents a problem of mutual investment. The employer doesn’t feel invested in the temporary employee. The temporary employee does not feel invested in the company.  Creating a disconnection that is a very similar dynamic to that of mercenaries. A lack of connection and commitment does not yield good results.

 

 

 

Pascal’s Wager- Gambling For God?

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Gambling has long been perceived as an imprudent activity. Outside of being seen as unwise, it has also been labeled as sinful. Casinos ranking among opium dens, brothels, and saloons as notable dens of iniquity. Gambling parlors have long retained the reputation for attracting a “seedy” clientele. Ironically, one man believed that, despite the unrighteous nature of gambling, we should be hedging our bets for salvation. That individual was a mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal. This notion of wagering in favor of salvation is best explained in what has become known as Pascal’s Wager.

 

Pascal’s flagship postulation is really quite simple. A rational individual does not need proof of God to believe that God exists. Rather the consequences alone of disbelieve are so severe that it would be absurd to not wager on the side of religiosity. I suppose that the prospect of eternal firey damnation is a persuasive factor in motivating religious belief. The eminent risks of uncertainty and atheism are quite vividly depicted in the Abrahamic religions. However, despite the potential of devasting repercussions, there are several objections to Pascal’s Wager. One of the more notable counter-arguments being the Many Gods Objection. First posited by philosopher Denis Diderot, it contended that with all of the religious traditions in existence who is the correct god to venerate. This is certainly a fair consideration. Every religion proclaims that their deity or deities are the only true higher forces in the universe. Making the contingency for eternal salvation much more intricate. Clearly, a lot of these other theological traditions must be wrong if there is only one true faith. How is the correct god that will ensure salvation determined? That is a cosmic mystery and a firm point of refutation for atheists.

While the other arguments against Pascal’s Wager may be compelling, the moral considerations are most important. Personally, I am an agnostic. Meaning I do not have a horse in the race. I am not incentivized to defend theology or atheism, but rather honestly engage with the question of faith. I would question the insincerity of faith fostered by the potential of abhorrent outcomes. Is it really genuinely having faith in God if you are incentivized by the fear of being tortured next to Hitler in a fiery chasm for the rest of eternity? Especially when many fervent Christians speak of having an actual relationship with God. Rather than opportunistically treating their deity as a spiritual insurance plan. It does appear as if I have some company in being incredulous of individuals who hold faith motived by outcomes.  The philosopher and staunch atheist Voltaire suggested that acceptance of the Wager merely supports self-interest and would not lend itself to proper worship of a holy deity. Personally, this is the firmest moral objection to Pascal’s Wager.

 

Granted, we could embark upon a length semantical debate about what actually constitutes faith. However, it does seem at least from the Judeo-Christian point there is a firm difference between faith and belief. The below excerpt from a Christian apologist website clearly makes this distinction:

However, the unstated assumption in the wager is that belief in God guarantees one a place in heaven. With regard to Christianity, the assumption is false. Belief in God, in and of itself, is not sufficient to ensure entry into heaven, since the demons also believe, but are condemned:

You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. (James 2:19)

The reasons that the demons shudder at the thought of God is that they know that they are destined for hell.1 Why don’t they repent and come back to God? God has set different criteria for salvation for angels (including the demons, who are fallen angels2). Whereas those who have never seen God directly can come to sincere faith at any time in their lives,3 those who have direct evidence of God’s existence are condemned by any act of disobedience.4

 

 

 

Believe in itself is clearly not enough to guarantee salvation.  Clearly believing in the existence of God isn’t enough. Rather you must also act in accordance with the prescribed tenants of the religion. A theological satanist (there are forms that are atheistic) does believe in the Christian God, but will never see the gates of heaven. I would also apply this logic to a lot of “paper Christians”. Individuals who attend church and provide lip service to Christian values. In action, they are textbook hypocrites. Often sanctimonious and the first individuals to project their transgression upon others. Empty accusations always make for useful distractions. It should be overwhelmingly obvious that belief alone without taking faith in the heart is a recipe for self-deception. Could potentially land you in a fireside torture chamber until the end of time.

 

I suppose that the counterargument could be that a blatant disregard for Christian values isn’t true faith. Also, if one is to come to god out of fear for spiritual salvation and then end up coming to know him then it is true faith. Both are fair refutations. However, if an individual behaves in accordance with contingencies their motives are suspect. It one thing to undergo a spiritual metamorphosis even if it is spurred initially by frivolous self-interest. When there isn’t any further or spiritual or moral development within a person that is when their belief in God becomes inconsequential. Protesting moral virtue and living moral virtue should never be transposed or conflated. A righteous person does not need to advertise their good deeds. Anyone who has taken to heart the moral teachings of a specific theology already understands this on a personal level. Do you volunteer at the soup kitchen to help the homeless or for your own self-image? Even to secure your own position heaven?

 

The best answer to Pascal’s Wager pre-dated the life of Pascal. That was the wise words of Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

 

In all honesty, it is the best advice you can give to anyone. Regardless of what god/gods you pray to it is never a substitute for doing the right thing. If someone is using religiosity as a cloak for their true nature such subterfuge will be foiled. Sincerity goes a long way. Sincerity cannot be fabricated for one’s one callous gain. Hence why humans are quite adroit at picking up on someone putting on pretensions in a social situation. Eventually, those pretending to be moral will lapse back to old habits and those who are will continue to be virtuous. Which why we should focus more on being than believing.

Praise Needs To Be Earned (Wisdom From Adam Smith)

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A few months ago, I was sitting among my co-workers in a meeting reviewing the previous quarter’s sales numbers. My manager just recently completed our quarterly performance reviews. Unbeknownst to me, my well-meaning superior would give me an unwarranted shout out. I had completed an optional industry-related training course and happen to mention this fact to my boss during my quarterly review. My motives being demonstrating my willingness to be a self-directed learner. Surprise, surprise!  My boss decides to articulate my achievement publicly to my team during our team meeting. All 30 of my co-workers, a nice composite of salespeople and pre-sales staff.

 

The natural consequence being applause, most likely a byproduct of social convention. Right, in-synch with all of the social cues that it is almost a semi-automatic response. However,  I did not feel good about this moment of unsolicited praise. As I looked around the room I see slow clapping that mirrored all the signs of a conditioned response. There was something insincere about as gazed at the blase demeanor of my coworkers.  A fitting demeanor coupled with irritated looks skepticism. For some, clear unspoken opprobrium was being expressed by their frustrated glares.  A silent censure. Unarticulated disapproval, not the kind of response I  was intending to invoke. Especially considering I am a very reserved person at work who avoids the spotlight at all costs.

 

Where my coworkers being unreasonable? That is a debatable question, however, their frustration was understandable. At the time I hadn’t even been with my current employer for a year and my workload was lighter than that of my coworkers. The new guy getting praise when everyone else is working circles around him is a recipe for contempt. While I  have many disagreements with my coworkers this was one point we all had some common ground, I didn’t deserve praise. Hence why my stomach sank when it was announced that I had completed the previous referenced training course. I only mentioned it to my boss for any potential exculpatory benefit for my lighter workload. In the end, this ploy only ended up backfiring.

 

My grief and the annoyance of my teammates is far from a new behavior phenomenon.  Rather is an enduring fixture of the human condition and how guilt weighs on our psyche. No other than the great moral philosopher Adam Smith expounded this in his initial book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Yes, Smith did write a book prior to his classic 1776 The Wealth of  Nations. While The Wealth of Nations focused on behavior patterns on more of a macro level,  The Theory of Moral Sentiments concentrated on human interrelations on the individual level. Smith through the book analyzes the dichotomy between self-interest and the common good. The “impartial spectator” often clashing with the “that passion arises in our breast”.

 

Smith in his first treatise does address the human need for praise and admiration. However, praise is the only gratifying and comforting if it is justifiable. In other words, praise must be obtained under conditions in which we do something that is praiseworthy.

 

As ignorant and groundless praise can give no solid joy, no satisfaction that will bear any serious examination, so, on the contrary, it often gives real comfort to reflect, that though no praise should actually be bestowed upon us, our conduct, however, has been such as to deserve it, and has been in every respect suitable to those measures and rules by which praise and approbation are naturally and commonly bestowed. We are pleased, not only with praise, but with having done what is praise-worthy. We are pleased to think that we have rendered ourselves the natural objects of approbation, though no approbation should ever actually be bestowed upon us: and we are mortified to reflect that we have justly merited the blame of those we live with, though that sentiment should never actually be exerted against us. The man who is conscious to himself that he has exactly observed those measures of conduct which experience informs him are generally agreeable, reflects with satisfaction on the propriety of his own behaviour. When he views it in the light in which the impartial spectator would view it, he thoroughly enters into all the motives which influenced it. He looks back upon every part of it with pleasure and approbation, and though mankind should never be acquainted with what he has done, he regards himself, not so much according to the light in which they actually regard him, as according to that in which they would regard him if they were better informed. He anticipates the applause and admiration which in this case would be bestowed upon him, and he applauds and admires himself by sympathy with sentiments, which do not indeed actually take place, but which the ignorance of the public alone hinders from taking place, which he knows are the natural and ordinary effects of such conduct, which his imagination strongly connects with it, and which he has acquired a habit of conceiving as something that naturally and in propriety ought to follow from it. Men have voluntarily thrown away life to acquire after death a renown which they could no longer enjoy. Their imagination, in the mean time, anticipated that fame which was in future times to be bestowed upon them. Those applauses which they were never to hear rung in their ears; the thoughts of that admiration, whose effects they were never to feel, played about their hearts, banished from their breasts the strongest of all natural fears, and transported them to perform actions which seem almost beyond the reach of human nature. But in point of reality there is surely no great difference between that approbation which is not to be bestowed till we can no longer enjoy it, and that which, indeed, is never to be bestowed, but which would be bestowed, if the world was ever made to understand properly the real circumstances of our behaviour. If the one often produces such violent effects, we cannot wonder that the other should always be highly regarded. (Page 104, Para 2, The Theory of Moral Sentiments )

 

As it is clearly demonstrated from the excerpt above, by the convention of our conscience we know when we have earned praise. Our peers can ascertain when our actions align with proper virtue are in-turn worthy of admiration. Undeserved praise for most people is an empty gesture devoid of any true satisfaction. By virtue of our norms,  our unwritten but universally understood societal rules, displeasure is experienced by both parties. The individual who receives undue praise is overwhelmed with guilt.  In contrast, the observing peers are frustrated by this minor but notable injustice. There are two principles at play eliciting both responses. The party who receives unearned accolades feels guilty as they know they didn’t rightfully earn them. It mirrors the concept that you appreciate more what you work for than what is given to you. Deep down in your subconscious, you know you are cheating someone who is deserving out of their time in the spotlight. Your disgruntled peers know that they got cheated out of justifiable recognition for their hard work. Unjust violation of norms constitutes cheating. Even if the  “cheating” wasn’t intentionally perpetrated. Cross-culturally humans in general adversion to cheating.