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Sunday, January 25, 2004


Tuesday, January 20, 2004

As A Long-Time John Edwards Supporter . . .

I am very very happy today. :-)

Monday, January 19, 2004

The Immorality of Pro Bono Work

One of the common criticisms about John Edwards, my personal choice for the Democratic nominee for President, is that he did not do any pro bono work. Here is a representative example from the New York Times

He represented many sympathetic plaintiffs, among them some horribly crippled children. He became rich doing it, racking up more than $175 million for his clients from 1985 to 1997 and amassing a personal fortune of at least $38 million, according to North Carolina Lawyers Weekly.

At the same time, he did little or no pro bono work. Nor did he pursue public-interest lawsuits. While he speaks passionately about civil rights and the bravery of civil rights leaders, for instance, he has never used his legal skills to fight against discrimination through the courts.


Law is not like journalism, so perhaps it is not unusual that journalists do not understand that the economics are different.

If a journalist takes a day off to work in a soup kitchen, he merely racks up a vacation day, and there is no other financial effect.

If a lawyer takes a day off to help the poor, he can not bill any hours worked that day. Assume a top lawyer can bill his time out at $400 per hour. Assume that he works an 8 hour day. That lawyer, spending a day doing pro bono work, has an opportunity cost of $3,200 ($400 times 8 hours). That lawyer will earn $3,200 less if he does a day or pro bono work. But the benefits to the poor will be no better than if a public-interest lawyer (making, say, $50K per year) does the work. He probably won't do even as well as the public interest lawyer, since he is outside of his area of expertise.

Now, let us assume that instead of doing a day of pro bono work, the lawyer bills eight hours, earns $3,200, and gives it all to the local legal aid group. That $3,200 will pay the salary of a public interest lawyer for over three weeks!

So, the question is, how can the wealthy best aid the poor? The answer is rarely to actually assist the poor themselves. The best thing for the wealthy to do is to make a lot of money, and give it to the public interest groups.

If I'm the poor, do I want one day of John Edwards, or three weeks of a public interest lawyer? The answer is obvious.

For those who are paid a salary, there is little concern for what is lost when time is spent for charitable purposes. For those who bill by the hour, there is a need to weigh opportunity costs. That is why charitable giving is a better proxy for charitable intent than billable hours foregone. In fact, in such circumstances, doing pro bono work to ease your own conscience, when the poor can be better served with a cash contribution, may in fact be the more immoral course of conduct.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Press Release I'm Waiting to See

Howard Dean Endorses Every Candidate Except Himself

In an effort to stave off efforts by rivals to set themselves up as the anti-Dean, former Vermont governor Howard Dean has taken the unusual step of endorsing every candidate except himself.

"John Kerry, Wesley Clark, the all try to set themselves up as the anti-Dean," Dean said at his press conference. "Well, let's see how much traction they get after the press learns that not only are they not the anti-Dean, but they have in fact been endorsed by Howard Dean himself!"

A confident Dean continued, "Of course, I want all the Dean supporters to continue to give me their support. But more than that, I want all those Democratic voters who are looking for an alternative to Dean to see that there is only one candidate in the field today who has not been personally endorsed by Howard Dean, and that's me. Howard Dean."

Thursday, January 15, 2004

But He'll Get Frostbite Without Them Today

Today's entry in the Old Farmer's Alamanac reads, "The cat in gloves catches no mice."

I have no idea what that's supposed to mean.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Lies and the Lying Liers . . .

I was thinking about lying the other day. Specifically, lying is one of the parade examples of the problem with Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative.

"Don't lie" is a rule we would like to be universally applicable. Therefore, it is absolutely prohibited, under Kant.

But what about when the Gestapo knocks on our door and asks if we have any Jews in hiding? Kant is very clear here (although, of course, he doesn't mention the Gestapo). We may not lie to the Nazis. We must always tell the truth, and the morally correct thing to do is to say, "Why yes, there is a family of Jews living in my attic."

To most, this is enough to knock the categorical imperative down from its high horse right there. There is no absolute to the opponents, only weighing of various moral constraints. Lying is bad, except when not lying is worse. Maybe this is right, but it's not Kant.

Others, though, defend the theory while trying to wrest this example out of its grasp. "It's not really a lie," they say, "if you mean something else."

You may say, "There are no Jews here," but what you really mean are, "There are no Jews here who I am willing to turn over to you." Therefore, no lie. This is permitted under some interpretations of the Jesuitic traditions. The Catholics call this "Mental Reservation." Some versions of the Talmudic tradition takes a similar approach.

The problem is, it doesn't pass the smell test. You may make a mental reservation, but that's not going to stop a perjury conviction. Also, it doesn't seem to have any boundaries. There's no distinction between lying about good things and lying about bad things.

There is another way, though, that I believe can save Kant from this example. It does not involve shrinking the definition of lying to exclude certain false statements like, "There are no Jews here." It expands the definition of lies to include certain types of promises -- explicit or implied.

When the Jews ask to hide in my attic and I grant permission, have I not implicitly promised, "I will not turn you over to the Gestapo"? I certainly have. If I promise not to turn you over to the Gestapo, and then do turn yo over, have I not lied in so promising? I believe that lie is just as much a falsehood as any that could be concurrently falsified.

So, when the Gestapo asks for an answer, the question is not, "Should I lie or not?" The question is "What lie should I tell?" There is simply no way not to lie here. You either put the lie to your earlier promise, or you lie to the Nazis.

By expanding the definition of "lie," we can save Kant, at least in this example. If it is a logical impossibility to tell the truth, we can look to some moral consideration other than truth-telling. Specifically, we can look at "life-preserving." Here, there is no conflict, so we know which lie it is we are allowed to tell.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Back on the Plough, Men

Today is Plough Monday. Historically, it was the day that men went back to work after the winter holiday. Women went back to work the preceding Thursday (Distaff Day). I'm not sure why the men got the extra days off.

Women liked Plough Monday, because the men would often get into trouble when only the women had to go to work.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

2004 Endorsements

With the Iowa caucuses a week away, Secular Sermons endorses all candidates in the following order:

1. Edwards
2. Clark
3. Lieberman
4. Kerry
5. Dean
6. Gephart
7. Mosely-Braun
8. Bush
9. Kucinich
10. Sharpton

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Reflections on Plato's Euthyphro, Part III

The facts of Euthyphro's case at Court that day are as much a polemic as Socrates' definition against any given definition of Piety. Specifically, the case that Euthyphro is prosecuting provides 3 distinct axes of moral ambiguity that, taken together, neither indicate that Euthyphro is acting impiously, nor clearly validate him. Consider:

Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for throwing a dependent who killed one of his slaves in a pit and allowing him to die.

Axis 1, Active v. Passive: Euthyphro's father does not kill the victim, but allows him to die of exposure when he is bound and thrown into a ditch while awaiting official orders as to what to do with him. Was this method of incapaciation common? Was the messenger gone an unusually long time getting official guidance? Was the weather unusually extreme? What is the moral distinction here between killing and "letting die"? Does the father's intent matter here?

Axis 2, Nature of Victim: Assuming what was done qualifies as a "murder", does the status of the victim here matter? The victim was himself a murderer. Seemingly, it was a reasonable to incapacitate him. This took place far from town, maybe this was the only safe way to incapacitate. Is it relevant whether the death penalty would have been a likely punishment for the victim anyway? Is it less bad to kill a murderer? On the other hand, in a class conscious society, would it be less bad that the victim "only" killed a slave?

Axis 3: Nature of the Defendant: Finally, assuming that this is "murder", and the victim's status as a killer doesn't mitigate, is it appropriate for Euthyphro, the defendant's son, to be the one to press charges? Perhaps it is pious to do what is pious no matter who is doing it. Or, perhaps, "filial piety" exists, giving a child a special duty to his father that a stranger wouldn't have. Perhaps Euthyphro should say, "It is pious to prosecute my father, but impious for me to do it."

None of the above is attempting to demonstrate that Euthyphro, in fact, acted impiously, merely that this case appears to have been brilliantly constructed specifically to evade our moral intuitions. We simply do not know whether he is acting correctly or not. We may come to our own moral conclusions on the issue, but it is easy to see a parallel moral system that would come to the opposite result without being necessarily being a "bad" result.

What this dialogue teaches us -- in a way that a mere essay cannot -- is taht irrespective of our eventual rule to define "piety", the only way to test it is against our intuitions, since a definition that leads to bad results must be faulty. But, in some cases, our intuitions, fail us. What is at first blush bad ("murder"), may be mitigated by the nature of the act (active? malicious?), the nature of the acted upon (himself a criminal), or even the nature of the actor himself (Euthyphro's father). Some of the mitigation may be enough to sway our conclusions about the crime itself.

And if the rules of moral action do not have the force of our intuitions -- if there is no external validation -- then is morality itself just an empty concept?

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Reflections of Plato's Euthyphro, Part II

Euthyphro's first suggested definition of Piety is to "Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting anyone who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or any similar crime, whether he be your mother or your father or whoever he may be."

The response to this definition is obvious: Euthyphro has not defined piety; he has merely given an example of it. Socrates is seeking a general rule, and says so.
But the unspoken criticism here of Pietists like Euthyphro is that, for them, piety really is often is defined empirically -- through some sort of reverse induction. Rather than saying, "I do what I do because it is pious," the more common pseudo-analysis is, "I know what Pious is by looking at what I do." And without Socrates there to point it out, many are happy to leave it there.

It is the belief in our own inherent goodness (and who, other than Shakespearean villains like Iago or members of the "Legion of Doom" don't actively believe that they are "good") that Socrates initially calls into question. And Euthyphro's first definition (or, more precisely, the fact that it comes first) shows how dangerous it is. Analysis through self-observation is inherently circular: Do what good people do. We can see why it is wrong in Euthyphro, but many of our own moral judgments are based on just as flimsy a framework. I enjoy it and do it, so how could it be wrong?

Socrates likely believes that Piety is a term without any meaningful content at all. Or, rather, it is meaningful only to the extent that others believe that it has meaning. Socrates may be the first to suggest the counterintuitive theory that belief follows action, not (as we would all like to claim) that our actions follow from our beliefs. Either may allow internal consistency between action and belief, but the first is a pretty hollow consistency. It may be necessary to prevent cognitive dissonance, but it doesn’t lead to moral action.

On the other hand, unless one believes oneself to be a saint, any definition of Piety (or morality) will necessarily cast the speaker as immoral. If we are all impious (and we can all agree to that in the abstract, at least), then any preaching about piety is always hypocritical. Think of Bill Bennett and his gambling problem. Bennett likely thinks himself a moral person, and apparently he has never actively preached the evils of gambling. He may not personally view gambling as immoral, or may place it on a lower level of morality. But, when his gambling was exposed we (who do see moral failings in big gamblers) quickly called him a hypocrite. Yes, OF COURSE he was a hypocrite, but I could have told you that before I heard about his gambling or any other alleged sin.

Name your moral crusader. Billy Graham? Joe Lieberman? Either sinless saints or hypocrites, every one of them. And since no one's a sinless saint (although the current Pope is piling up tons of alleged exceptions), they are all hypocrites. And, what's more, except for some general "We are all sinners" pablum, none of them will actually believe that they are hypocrites until the rare occasion that one or the other is forced by random circumstance to look their hypocrisy square in the face.

So, for the moral crusader, it may necessarily be infinitely more important to look at the message than the messenger. If the message is sound, recognize that the messenger is a hypocrite and move on before the Breaking News headline confirms what we already know. If the message is unsound, perhaps enjoy the moment of the schadenfreude during the fall from grace, but recognize that he, like Euthyphro and the rest of us (and likely even Socrates), probably really believed that he is a good person on a just quest.


Monday, January 05, 2004

Reflections on Plato’s Euthyphro, Part I

I have recently been re-reading Euthyphro, an early Platonic dialogue about the nature of Piety. It doesn’t get discussed too much, I think, primarily because it is “unfinished” -- not in the sense that it trails off into silence, but in the sense that we never get to an adequate definition of what Piety actually is. Instead, we get each seven different suggested definition -- all shot down by Socrates -- until finally Euthyphro looks at his watch, claims he has a plane to catch, and scurries off into Court to try to put his father in jail.

Another reason it is often ignored is that it is often offered in the “Trial of Socrates” collections as Chapter One, where Socrates is waiting to find out about his trial, but it really has nothing to do with his own predicament except for the background that he is talking to Euthyphro while awaiting his turn in Court. We then hurry off to get to the heart of the Trial.

The fact that Socrates never offers his own definition leaves the student of Philosophy a little bit at a loss. Should we conclude that Piety has no meaning? Should we try to continue the dialogue and come up with the "right" definition that eluded Euthyphro? Does that even matter today when Philosophy and Religion are considered largely separate pursuits? If I am an atheist or an agnostic, should I even care?

In my view, the best way to read Euthyphro is from a modern perspective. And I will examine it from the perspective of both law and psychology. The questions that the dialogue ask are often more relevant today than they were to Socrates/Plato, but not necessarily to Philosophers (of which I am NOT one, aside from a college minor in the distant past. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing . . .).

I will not be “teaching” or “studying” Euthyphro as much as using it as a springboard for other reflections. The important point will not be what the “real” meaning of Piety is (damnedifIknow), but what the right way to go about thinking about it is, and how are choice to think one way or the other reflects more on us than it does on Piety (or secularly: ethics, morality, law) itself.

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