Monday, November 21, 2005

Ethics, Locks and Lawyers

I was cleaning out my email inbox when I found this essay I wrote to myself in summer. I don't remember what prompted it, but I decided to post it instead of delete it, even though it meanders to its point:

There are many constraints under which humans operate. Ethics are only one of them–but they permeate our lives.

We have pure physical constraints–I cannot fly like a bird or run 60mph because gravity and physics will not let me.

Legal constraints prohibit people from burning tires in parks or stealing from each other. Legal constraints are enforced by the state’s ability to punish those who do not respect the law. Even though the likelihood of detection and prosecution is low, the threat and fear of criminal punishment is a strong deterrent.

Social restraints deter people from flirting with the edges of legal behavior. There are many, many, many ‘anti-social’ activities that people could legally engage in, but are unpleasant to others. Social restraints are often much more of deterrent than the actual law. There are no laws which require people to wait in turn at grocery stores, yet people overwhelmingly stand in line to conform with the social expectations of the situation.

Finally, there are ethics. Ethics are not the law. Nor are ethics enforced by society. Ethics are derived from a person’s sense of right and wrong. Many people obtain their ethical code from their religion. But while ethics and religion may overlap, ethics and religion are not be the same. There are unscrupulous religious people and saintly atheists.

Many people have trouble understanding the concept of ethics. They confuse ethical behavior with legal behavior and this leads to messy thinking.

Consider this: you are walking in a secluded area and see a person whom you can easily physically overpower. Maybe the person is very old, or young or small or weak. There is something that the person has that could benefit you or bring you pleasure. Maybe an expensive watch or diamond ring; their sexuality; or maybe just the experience of hearing bones crack. Whatever the benefit is, you understand that you have the ability to take it. Let us also assume that the seclusion guarantees your privacy and will cover whatever action you take. The chance of getting caught hovers near zero, especially if you end the other person’s life.

Does this sound tempting? Hopefully not. This is where ethics come in. Sure, robbing, raping, beating and killing a person are illegal–but the example negates those concerns. Also, the seclusion nulls the scorn from society. The laws of physics and gravity will work in your favor. I expect that it wouldn’t even cross most people’s minds to strike out violently at another human being simply because they are weaker and you feel no fear of retribution. The thought is abhorrent. I expect/hope that most people would be disturbed if an inclination for this sort of violence even crossed their minds.

This means that our system of ethics is working to at least some degree. We have determined that other people’s lives have value and deserve respect. Not because the law requires it, but because we have internalized this concept and are bound by it. This is an extreme example, but certainly there are many smaller examples in our daily lives whereby we might be able to ‘get away’ with certain behavior, but don’t consider it because it goes against our ethics. Fear of life in prison does not deter me from murdering my neighbors–it is respect for their lives.

There are some areas where the law is actually more strict than societal expectations. We find that these laws are broken with abandon. The easiest examples come from driving: speeding, unnecessary honking, lack of signaling and improper parking are all against our laws–but accepted by society. This causes these activities to be engaged in frequently. Smoking is an example of shifting social expectations as it becomes less and less acceptable (although still legal). Drunk driving is an issue that encompasses law, social constraints and ethics. Some people are most deterred by the legal ramifications, others do not drive drunk because of peer pressure, while still other people will not drive drunk because they consider it threatening to others.

Technology, and the internet in particular, have created situations where average people now have available a huge range of activities that are legal, but not necessarily ethical, at their fingertips. Since they can engage in these activities anonymously, the social restraints also fall away. The results of this intersection are not very pretty and have wrecked havoc on privacy and honesty. Apparently many people’s ethics are not as high as I hope they would be.

Privacy. For many years there have been public records of various transactions and situations. It was possible to go to the Clerk’s office to discover how much your neighbors paid for their homes along with their criminal background. This however took time, energy, money and the risk of social stigma, because few people want to be the ‘nosey neighbor.’ Now this same snooping has become easy, free and anonymous. To engage or not engage? I personally think it is a violation of privacy–not an illegal violation, but a violation indeed. Learning things about your friends, neighbors and co-workers that they choose not to disclose to you and is None of Your Damn Business is a violation. I consider this equal to finding a friend’s diary and reading it.

The flip side of delving into friend’s public records for private information is publishing other’s information. We bloggers should take care with this, in both words and photos. Certainly the freedom of speech is an invaluable right. However, discretion, tact and fairness need not be discarded simply in an effort to push the bounds of this right. Speech is not a finite resource–there is no prize for using this right to its extreme. People are free to insult every person whom the walk by on the street–but most of do not because of ethics and social constraints. People have also been free to take unflattering pictures and publish them in newspapers. However, once again that would be creepy and cost money. But the internet removes these barriers and people jumped at it. In my opinion though, It Is Still Creepy and Inappropriate. Just because it is legal and easy, doesn’t mean it is right.

My parents and I had this conversation last year. They were screening potential tenants and part of this process involved them researching court records. One applicant had a long criminal rap sheet, and my parents almost immediately removed her from the pool. However, they continued to read the various charges against her and the jail time and fines she served. I thought this was inappropriate, because their purpose for researching her had already been filled. Now it was only curiosity that drove them. I implored them to stop but they argued that it was legal. I accepted that it was legal, but I still didn’t think it was right. My mother’s only reply was that it was legal. She couldn’t understand the distinction between ethics and law.

Unfortunately, I don’t think she is alone. Loopholes in laws are sought out to evade the purpose of the laws. A lot of people also seem to think that so long as you don’t get caught, you haven’t done anything wrong.

Honesty also is a huge problem on the internet. How many people shamelessly lie and possibly hurt others for their own amusement? Obviously this is not illegal, but it concerns me that it is so accepted. How does this affect people’s regular life? Can a person be upstanding and honest in their personal, face-to-face life, but then lie easily and often to people on-line? What about the results of their lies? I engaged in on-line dating for a brief period of time about two years ago. Some of the men I met were appalling in their deceit–nothing unusual, just the standard outdated, 20lbs lighter picture along with extremely flattering descriptions of themselves that even their mothers would not believe. Another man I know has had similar experiences with women. Apparently it is par for the course. When did lying become acceptable?

Besides a personal code of ethics, many people often take oaths of ethics as part of their profession. I am under an ethical duty to my clients and to the courts. I take it seriously. However, it really doesn’t seem burdensome to me, because most of it is second nature (once the idea of a fiduciary is firmly grasped). To others it is a hurdle to wiggle around and gnash their teeth at. How very bizarre.

The free market is a very strange place, because it has all but abandoned ethics. Aside from the occassional boycott or successful lawsuit with punitive damages, companies are bound only by the rule of law–laws it both tries exhaustingly to maneuver around and lobbies to draft to its benefit. There are interesting cases where corporations were sued for not being as ruthless as possible and for donating money to charity. The rationale was that the corporation’s function is to make a profit–anything else is unnecessary or improper.

This never-ending search for profits is disgusting. Look at the way our huge multi-national corporations behave in developing nations: sweatshops, child labor and environmental degradation are rampant. Their actions in nations where protective laws are weak displays the amount of respect they have for human life, human health, human dignity and the environment. Corporations are the model of how an unethical entity, constrained only by laws, behaves. It isn’t pretty.

Does this reveal the true nature of humans? Do we really prefer to live in a dog-eat-dog world? Are we just as likely to spit at each other as we are to share our resources? Does our inclination towards war and violence not only depict our history, but also cast our future? Am I simply soft, one of those to be treaded upon, instead of one of the ‘winners’ because I don’t condone this behavior? Are ethics the refuge, the justification and the crutch of the weak–or do they have a legitimate place in humanity?

I understand that talking about ethics to a strict Darwinian is about as effective as a Christian trying to persuade me with bible quotes. I feel like I am forced to resort back to my law school discourse when I make the case for ethics in general by framing it in terms of efficiency. Yes, efficiency is the direction that the invisible hand purportedly points. Efficiency, the alter upon which economic theory bows down. Efficiency, that cold, hard goal that shows no mercy and knows no sympathy. Efficiency is the only mode of discourse available when debating with a free market freak.

So here goes: Rampant, unchecked capitalism which plays upon the fields of free markets is not, and cannot be efficient. Traditional Ethics are necessary for true efficiency.

Valuable resources such as raw materials, time, effort, money and most importantly, opportunity costs are sacrificed when there are no regulations to dictate the terms of play and no ethics that bind entities to those terms.

Think of all of the things in our lives and all of the time we spend simply dividing up goods and then guarding our spoils. I lock my bike every day to prevent assholes from stealing it. I also lock my home. I have a home to keep my stuff. I have passwords to protect my digital world and bank accounts. My office is locked. Almost all of my work is spent fiercely protecting the assets of individuals or companies from other individuals or companies who want what they have.

All of these protections are reasonable once we have accepted the dog-eat-dog framework of assumptions and behaviors. We explicitly condone and promote this behavior. We are not taught mercy or empathy, but instead to be ruthless and grab for the brass ring. When this fierce winner take all behavior is displayed, it confirms our theory that competition is natural. Once we have decided it is natural, we illogically decide that it is also good. Competition extended to its natural conclusion is domination, homicide and on a grander scale–war. This Hobsian explanation of the world is only a theory–not an absolute and certainly shouldn't be accepted meekly as inevitable.

Imagine another paradigm whereby competition is not exhalted, but instead compassion and sharing were the real virtues of society. Not lip-service to the idea of compassion as virtue, but a structure where the goals are kindness and understanding. Would behavior be different or would people simply compete covertly to be adjudged the most compassionate and kind. Would cut-throat competition even be possible in this paradigm, or would it simply mutate into a different form? This concept is so startlingly different that I can't even begin to wrap my mind around it.

I don't know what a non-competitive society would look or act like, much less how its individual would think. However, I don't accept as fact that the hyper competitive world both observed and promoted by free-market idolizers is absolute. Haven't we seen that of all of its functions, the free market is best at concentrating wealth and causing those at the losing end to scramble harder for their ever-shrinking piece of the pie?

Yet this is considered efficient and good. More and more money and time is wasted slicing and splicing our resources. A considerable percentage of society's smart individuals will never endevor to produce anything. We instead become lawyers and MBA's. Though our crafts are different in technique, for the most part we work to hoard, divide, protect and realocate resources. So much energy is spent playing these high-powered zero sum games that it is mind-boggling to think that this system which supports such a massive army of parasitic managers is considered to promote efficiency.

Necessary does not mean efficient. This culture that is so dependant on locks and lawyers would be improved by reappraising its ethical code. Or maybe defining efficienty to prohibit this wasteful squandering of resources would also help. Whatever the solution, I see an inherent problem with endorsing a free market that purports to increase efficiency while at the same time creating evermore demand for locks and lawyers. I also suspect that such a system is supported by a code of ethics that is rotten at the core or absent altogether.


At 5:55 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of Man


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