Archive | August 9, 2011

Flaming Toadstools of Justice

Here are some ethical conundra I’ve been pondering. Thoughts?

1. Consider the following three cases:

Journey to the Center of the Earth

a. I invite you to my house for dinner. When you arrive, I serve you a casserole made from (what I know to be) poisonous toadstools. You eat it, and consequently die.

b. We encounter each other in the forest. You mention that you’re hungry. I point to (what I know to be) poisonous toadstools, and ask why you don’t eat some of those. You say you can’t tell which things of that sort are safe to eat and which aren’t. “Oh, I’m an expert,” I assure you, “and I can guarantee that those ones are safe.” So you eat some, and consequently die.

c. I post a picture of (what I know to be) poisonous toadstools on my blog, and announce: “Some people think these are poisonous, but in my opinion they’re perfectly safe.” So when you come across some toadstools that match the picture I posted, you eat them, and consequently die.

Let’s say (though of course you needn’t) that I violate your rights in case (a), where I lead you to eat a poisonous substance without your knowledge, but not in case (c), where I merely exercise my right of free speech to state my opinion, and leave you to make your own judgment.

But what about case (b)? Does it involve a rights-violation or not? In other words, is it more like case (a), or more like case (c)?

On the one hand it seems more like (a), because I’m offering you a kind of assurance. Yet it’s not exactly a contract; I receive no good or service in trade from you. And what about:

d) I tell you, “I’ve received a revelation from Zeus, and if you recite the following formula for 90 minutes a day, I can guarantee that you’ll get into heaven when you die.” So you waste 90 minutes every day reciting my formula – and when you die you go to hell like the stinker you are.

Have I violated your rights in case (d)? If not, how is case (b) different? (Do reasonable expectations as to what people are in a position to guarantee come into it?)

2. The usual libertarian explanation as to why it’s a rights-violation to yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre is that doing so violates the theatre owner’s property rights. Or, if the owner is the one doing the yelling, then her doing so violates her implicit contract with the customers.

house and truck on fire

But what if the theatre is unowned? What if it’s even a never-homesteaded natural structure – some sort of narrow, thickly wooded canyon through which a bunch of (non-contractually-bound) people are travelling – where yelling “fire!” would have the same destructive effects as in a theatre?

And is this like case (1b) above, or are they different?

3. For this one, assume IP is illegitimate. You write a novel, and Warner Bros. makes a movie out of it without your permission.

Is it wrong for you to sue the studio, because you’d be practicing censorship? Or is it okay for you to sue them, because they sue people over IP all the time (and indeed will sue unauthorised distributors of this very movie), so you’re just giving them a taste of their own medicine – or liberating some illicitly held property?

And does it make a difference whether you’re suing to demand a) money, b) an injunction to prohibit the film, or c) the film’s release under a Creative Commons license?

Thinking Outside the Box?

I don’t think the following counts as a spoiler, since it’ll be virtually impossible for any Doctor Who fan to avoid knowing it for long.

Amy and Rory

We’ve had plenty of evidence that Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill (Amy and Rory) are leaving the show. (They’ve each accepted other roles, and they’ve each referred to Doctor Who in the past tense in interviews.)

Yet as I’ve previously reported, we’ve also had good evidence that they’re not leaving, or at least that Karen isn’t – namely, Karen’s explicit statement that she’s coming back after the end of the current series.

This news item clears up the confusion. (CHT TARDIS Newsroom.) You know me, I love the reconciliation of A and non-A.

The Thin Black Line


In Britain, street gangs queue up to loot shops.

The linked article is wittily titled “Anarchy in the U.K.” Of course the most anarchistic thing the gangs did was the queuing, not the looting. All the same, there is an anarchistic moral to be drawn from the story: it’s an example of how social mores continue to produce social order in the absence of government police.

Secessio Plebis

Have you noticed that whenever mention is made of secession, establishment types always say, “that issue was settled in 1865”?

Even leaving aside the absurdity of the suggestion that military victory could settle a legal issue (let alone a moral one) – isn’t it another establishment mantra that the Civil War was solely about slavery?

They seem to be trying to have it both ways. If the Civil War was solely about slavery, then the most that it could have settled is the illegitimacy of secession-to-protect-slavery, not the illegitimacy of secession per se. After all, present-day secession advocates are not exactly trying to protect slavery (unless Kirkpatrick Sale has a secret agenda we don’t know about).

Saying It Again

The following letter appeared in today’s Opelika-Auburn News. Regular readers of this blog will find no surprises here:

To the Editor:

D. W. St. John (“Regulations often needed in today’s world,” Thursday) blames both the BP oil spill and the financial crisis on a lack of government regulation.

On the contrary, both disasters were caused by pro-big-business regulations.

BP took unnecessary risks because they’d been given a liability cap of $75 million. Small wonder that they engaged in riskier behavior when they could count on regulations limiting their victims’ right to sue.

Alan Greenspan

As for the financial crisis, Fed chairman Alan Greenspan’s manipulation of interest rates distorted price signals and encouraged unsustainable investments, thereby making a collapse inevitable. Calling this longtime regulator a messiah of unregulated markets is ludicrous.

Most government regulations are pro-plutocracy in their effects, regardless of how they’re marketed. Both liberal and conservative politicians are reliable supporters of the big-government/big-business partnership that dominates our economy, though of course they’re careful to wrap that support in anti-big-business rhetoric and anti-big-government rhetoric, respectively.

It’s no coincidence that most of the supposedly anti-big-business legislation of the Progressive Era was lobbied for, often even drafted by, the corporate elite, who understood that big businesses thrive when small businesses are choked by regulations.

The grain of truth in the idea that crises are caused by deregulation is that when government grants special privileges to banks and corporations, and then removes restrictions on how these privileges are exercised, perverse incentives take over and catastrophic results predictably ensue.

But the problem is the initial regulations that create the privileges in the first place.

Unchaining a state-privileged entity is not a decrease in state intervention; rather the contrary.

To learn more about why government regulation systematically serves the interests of the wealthy at the expense of everybody else, check out the websites of the Alliance of the Libertarian Left and the Center for a Stateless Society.

Roderick T. Long

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