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September 2015 posts

Is Honesty for Suckers?

By Jonathan B. Wight

The Volkswagen fiasco has led the New York Times to promote a debate on “Is Honesty for Suckers?”

Tyler Cowen thinks dishonesty is bad, but our anger is misplaced.  Our errors cause many more deaths than Volkswagen’s deliberate manipulation of pollution controls on its diesel vehicles.  Cowen knows enough Smith—or should know enough Smith—to understand why motive is important for justice.  Someone who unintentionally (and not through negligence or design) causes the death of another is not held to same standard of culpability because there is no motive.  It's moral sentiments at work.

Like William Damon and Anne Colby, I fall definitely into the camp of virtue ethics: we cannot give in to cynicism and throw up our hands in despair.  We must keep at the task of helping mold young people to value honesty for its own sake, and provide role models for that.  It is hard when there is a vicious cycle of acts of dishonesty breeding lack of trust, breeding more dishonesty, and so on. 

Some people are lucky to live in a society with a virtue cycle going in the opposite direction (think Norway).  Just remember: it is not an accident!  Previous generations had to work very hard to build up that social and moral capital.

And for God’s sake don’t think that the market, left to its own devices, can build enough social capital through reputation effects alone.  As Paul Heyne, Kenneth Boulding, and many others have noted, the market, to function well, badly needs the social capital of the family, the church, and the spirit of other civic groups.


Muslim in the White House

By Jonathan B. Wight

Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson opines that a person of Muslim faith is not fit to serve in the White House.

What makes him so sure?  It is because Islam, he believes, is incompatible with carrying out one’s duties as described in the Constitution.

This is so ludicrous as to make me laugh uncontrollably.  Perhaps Carson has not been reading the newspapers? A devout Christian would also not be fit to serve in the White House, if that meant she would defy a Supreme Court decision on orders from God.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims would all be equally unfit to serve as President if they failed to adhere to their oath to uphold the Constitution.  


A Pluralist Perspective in Policing

By Jonathan B. Wight

For nearly 4 hours Friday I shared time with a group of 25 police officers—black, white, female, and male—from around the Commonwealth of Virginia.  They had come to campus to hear ideas from a liberal arts perspective.

I felt honored to talk about the challenging dimensions of pluralist ethics.  An ethical leader is expected to be virtuous in motives and character, must obey duties and rules, and must forecast the consequences of their actions and make decisions that produce the best outcomes while adhering to duties and virtues.  A tall order!

In discussing virtue ethics I brought forth Adam Smith’s moral sentiments model. These non-traditional “students” read passages on justice from Smith that could have been pulled from the horrible headlines in recent months. 

Police leaders must empathize with line officers, and line officers must empathize with community members, I said, in order for trust to form. People cannot work with others unless there is a baseline of shared feelings. Copoutburst

Several officers pushed back—and rightly so. Where were the obligations of the community members to empathize with the police?  While we hear repeatedly about police brutality, police officers are also in the line of fire.  

We tend to think that police have more of an obligation to show restraint because they have the power of the state and the gun backing them up.  The excessive militarization of the police over the past ten years, as we ramped up to fight terrorism at a local level, has tended to make this issue of police restraint even more urgent.

But lots of bad guys also have guns and are willing to use them without provocation.  Police are hampered in their work in multitudes of ways, and all are vilified when a few bad apples on the force lose their cool or display their ignorance. 

What emerged from this meeting was a lament that many officers are feeling psychologically overwhelmed, under-appreciated, misunderstood, and afraid to even drive their police cars home from work for fear that neighbors would find out about their profession. 

Lesson to me in teaching: empathy is a two-way street. 


Sign of the Times?

By Jonathan B. Wight

Last week I went to an upscale grocery store in a posh part of town.  After eating I went to the back to use the restroom.  When I came out, behind a stocking dock was a thin, elderly man, stuffing his face with the Imagesbreakfast sandwich he had picked up at the ready-to-eat counter but obviously hadn’t paid for.  He shot me a look of quiet desperation. 

What should I do?  Point him out to the management?  Make a citizen’s arrest? I felt like a character in Les Misérables.

I walked on by. 

Any other responses?


Slippery Slopes and the Right-to-Die

By Jonathan B. Wight

The right to die has often been on my mind, mainly from an encounter teaching alongside Dick Lamm for a semester back in the early 1990s.  Lamm, a three-term Colorado governor, spoke his mind regardless of whose toes he stepped on.  He is famous for saying “We have invented more health care than we can pay for,” with the clear implication that we as a society needed to learn to say “no” to the medical establishment. 

 His approach seems more needed than ever, as not-for-profit health entities have converted in droves to for-profits, with ever-wider dangers of moral hazards.

 Learning to say “no” has to start with individuals, even as health care insurance almost always provides an incentive for “give me, give me, give me” mentalities, especially for patients with terminal illnesses.

 Giving patients a financial incentive to say “no” might mean sharing some of the cost-savings from not taking expensive last-ditch efforts to prolong life a few months.  Allowing terminal patients the right to bring closure to life on their terms seems humane, even as there are risks of abuse.

“Life, however, is inevitably lived on multiple slippery slopes: Taxation could become confiscation, police could become instruments of oppression, public education could become indoctrination, etc. Everywhere and always, civilization depends on the drawing of intelligent distinctions.

--George Will, on physician-assisted suicide (http://tinyurl.com/wapo-will)