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If a store provides a customer with poor service, is it moral for that customer

If a store provides a customer with poor service, is it moral for that customer to steal something and leave? Businesses cannot exist with customers, not the other way around, so if most customers are not satisfied, then the business has no right to exist.

How is this supposed to work? Suppose I go to my local grocery store and I get bad service. Would it be okay to slap the cashier? How about breaking his jaw? Or if we stick with stealing, how much? A bag of chips? A wedge of Stilton? (Could easily be $10.) A bag of chanterelle mushrooms? ($40 a pound would be a very good deal.) What's the rule that decides? Who's the authority if there's a question about what the retribution should be?

There's a reason why we don't let people do what you suggest. There's a reason why it would be perfectly fine for the store to have you arrested if you tried it. Letting people take the law into their own hands makes for chaos. Letting people do things that are against the law for "offenses" that aren't even illegal would be even worse.

You second sentence seems to be meant as an argument for your suggestion. It's true: businesses without customers won't last long. But that means businesses who give bad service are punishing themselves. You also say that if the customers aren't satisfied, the business has no right to exist. What sort of right do you have in mind? Bad service doesn't make a business illegal. And the idea is that somehow the business has no moral right to exist, neither follows form what you say nor justifies what you propose. The business may not deserve customers, but that's not the same thing as saying it's morally wrong for it to keep running and it certainly isn't the same thing as saying it's okay to steal from it.

How is this supposed to work? Suppose I go to my local grocery store and I get bad service. Would it be okay to slap the cashier? How about breaking his jaw? Or if we stick with stealing, how much? A bag of chips? A wedge of Stilton? (Could easily be $10.) A bag of chanterelle mushrooms? ($40 a pound would be a very good deal.) What's the rule that decides? Who's the authority if there's a question about what the retribution should be? There's a reason why we don't let people do what you suggest. There's a reason why it would be perfectly fine for the store to have you arrested if you tried it. Letting people take the law into their own hands makes for chaos. Letting people do things that are against the law for "offenses" that aren't even illegal would be even worse. You second sentence seems to be meant as an argument for your suggestion. It's true: businesses without customers won't last long. But that means businesses who give bad service are punishing themselves. You also say that if the...

Suppose that Google censored radical ideas without anyone knowing it because

Suppose that Google censored radical ideas without anyone knowing it because they believed that part of their role as a member of the corporate establishment was to protect capitalism. Would that be ethical of them? Is it their right?

First, a bookkeeping detail. Some people may not like to talk about corporations as having rights, duties or whatnot because they want to keep a clean distinction between corporations and persons. For anyone who thinks that way, substitute talk of management, boards of directors, owners or whatnot for "corporations" in what follows.

With that out of the way, I'm going to offer a parable and change the question. Suppose someone has read my postings on this site, followed things I've said on social media, and has decided that people with my views shouldn't be teaching in public universities. He decides to befriend me; he earns my trust and becomes a close confidant, all in the hope of finding out things he can use to embarrass me or get in the way of my career.

Does this person have a right to act this way? In various senses of "have a right," the answer is yes. Is it right? I'd guess most of us think the answer is no. What we're considering is deception and betrayal of trust. Sometimes this sort of thing might be acceptable; for example, we think that undercover police operations are often justified. But even in those cases, I think it's a mistake to see the role of the informant as entirely free of moral costs.

The first point, then, is that asking whether some person or some corporation has a right to act in a certain way isn't the only relevant moral question. And asking whether the behavior is ethical runs the risk of mixing up questions about explicit codes of conduct (say, standards of professional ethics) with more general but less systematic issues of right and wrong. It wouldn't be right for my false "friend" to do what we've imagined, whether or not he has a right to, and whether or not there's some explicit ethical code that it would violate. Absent very good reasons, people shouldn't abuse one another's trust.

In your hypothetical case, the first thing that comes to mind is that Google has earned public trust by representing itself as a neutral source of information, and it's done a good enough job of earning this trust that we've come to rely on it for honest searches. If it came to light that Google was secretly censoring searches, most of us would think that our trust had been abused. Most of us would say that it wasn't right, whether or not the corporation had the right to do it. Compare: a search engine company may have the right to order search results in a way that suits the company's financial interests rather than the user's likely needs, but when it comes to light that a company has done this, people don't react favorably. Telling them that the company has the right to do this doesn't get at their complaint. Most people, I'd guess, would feel that they had been deceived and that they shouldn't be taken advantage of in this way.

So to sum up: a company might well have a right to do what you've described, but that's less morally interesting that it seems to be. We often do better in thinking about such things to concentrate less on high-flown notions like "rights" or what's "ethical." More familiar and less theoretical idea like honesty, deceit, trust, and the like often do a better job of getting at what worries us. Using that approach, there's no obvious reason to doubt our sense that what you've imagined would be wrong.

First, a bookkeeping detail. Some people may not like to talk about corporations as having rights, duties or whatnot because they want to keep a clean distinction between corporations and persons. For anyone who thinks that way, substitute talk of management, boards of directors, owners or whatnot for "corporations" in what follows. With that out of the way, I'm going to offer a parable and change the question. Suppose someone has read my postings on this site, followed things I've said on social media, and has decided that people with my views shouldn't be teaching in public universities. He decides to befriend me; he earns my trust and becomes a close confidant, all in the hope of finding out things he can use to embarrass me or get in the way of my career. Does this person have a right to act this way? In various senses of "have a right," the answer is yes. Is it right ? I'd guess most of us think the answer is no. What we're considering is deception and betrayal of trust. Sometimes this...

Many of those who favor online piracy (or who oppose restrictive laws meant to

Many of those who favor online piracy (or who oppose restrictive laws meant to combat piracy, at least), argue that piracy does not actually hurt movie and music producers. They claim that most pirates would be unlikely to buy the products in question even if they were unable to download them for free. In restricting piracy, we aren't actually restoring revenue to the producers or anything of the sort. Those producers would be just as successful or unsuccessful whether piracy were allowed or not. Is this sensible? Let's say that I download a movie. If it is really true that I would not buy the movie in any case, does that make downloading it okay?

Great issue. If you think about it on an individual level, of course "piracy" is wrong: you are stealing that work from its producer. (The word "piracy" pretty much reflects that!). And as long as there are specific copyright laws that forbid it, then doing so is obviously wrong (at least in the sense of violating the law), whether or not you would have purchased the work anyway. But maybe we should think of it on a collective level, and ask questions such as "Are the laws in question themselves good/just laws?" (which I take Allen to be raising) and "Would a better system overall allow free downloading?" (where "better" obviously has many facets, including ethical ones). To be sure, part of answering those questions involve empirical considerations: do "producers of work" collectively do better, make more money, etc., when one allows liberal copying of their work? Think Grateful Dead, just for one select example: the 'bootleg' industry they themselves supported seems to have worked out pretty well for them, although how well it would work for others remains to be seen. Did the introduction of cassettes ultimately harm the music business (I remember taping many dozens of albums back then), or the introduction of VCRs the movie business -- or did they ultimately help those businesses, by spreading free samples of their wares and ultimately leading more people to purchase what was available for purchase? These days similar issues are playing out in the e-book world -- and of course it's often seen as an excellent business idea to provide a certain amount for free (a free chapter, some free songs, etc.) in order to entice people to purchase. So -- empirically -- maybe a certain degree of 'free downloading' might actually be good for the business -- and indeed, as the questioner suggests, empirically it may be that some high percentage of people who "pirate" really wouldn't have purchased the work anyway, and so cannot be actually said to be harming the producers of the work -- and maybe even HELPING them, since when people like a song (movie, book) these days they tend to post on Facebook and Tweet it etc., thereby spreading its audience. And who knows -- as Allen hints -- maybe overall it WOULD be better if all these things were free -- maybe if free downloading were acceptable (and qua social practice, it's practically the norm anyway), then only those people who were fully committed to their art would pursue them, and the overall quality of artistic work would improve ... (On the other hand, then, only those people who could afford to work for free would be able to do so, which might introduce class elements into the equation ...) So, my point: when viewed from "the big picture," it's not at all obvious to me that (a certain, perhaps high degree of) free downloading might actually be a good thing -- but also that answering this question will involve a good amount of empirical research as well ....

One thing is clear: if everyone downloaded for free, content producers wouldnt be able to profit from their labor. One reason why I don't downloaded pirated music, movies, etc. is that I think filmakers, musicians, etc. should be able to make money by doing what they do, and I can't see what's so special about me that I should be entitled to benefit for free from what they do. That's a long-winded way of saying I think it would be wrong for me to download pirated copies. Even though the filmaker would never get Freddy Freeloader's money, if. All did as Freddy does, the filmaker would suffer and in the long run, so would we all. Having said this, I think there's an awful lot wrong with contemporary copyright and intellectual property law. It could even be (though I'm not in a position to say so) that copyright law as it stands does as much harm as good. It could even be (though I doubt it) that we'd be better off if there were no intellectual property laws and we just depended on people's sense...

Can someone explain how making someone an offer can be exploitation? I realize

Can someone explain how making someone an offer can be exploitation? I realize it's not exactly charitable to offer an impoverished Indian a $3/hr job in a sweatshop, but how can this be any worse than not offering the job? If the Indian is capable of deciding which option she prefers, why force her to not take the job?

I'm going to stick with the first bit: how could making an offer be exploitation?

Suppose I seek out someone in desperate circumstances and make them an offer that I know they can't afford to refuse but that I also know isn't fair and that they would never take if they weren't so desperate. I am taking deliberately taking advantage of their dire circumstances. That's exploitation. There's room to argue about cases, but the general idea seems clear enough.

I'm going to stick with the first bit: how could making an offer be exploitation? Suppose I seek out someone in desperate circumstances and make them an offer that I know they can't afford to refuse but that I also know isn't fair and that they would never take if they weren't so desperate. I am taking deliberately taking advantage of their dire circumstances. That's exploitation. There's room to argue about cases, but the general idea seems clear enough.

Is it immoral for a health insurance company to refuse to cover a person with a

Is it immoral for a health insurance company to refuse to cover a person with a pre-existing condition?

Timely! I'm inclined to tinker a bit with the question.

First, I think it's a scandal that in the USA, people with pre-existing conditions often can't get health insurance. Other developed countries have figured this out; it's about time the US caught up.

However, given the way the system works at present, we might get a fix on your issue by asking this. Suppose I'm in a position to set up a not-so-large company that provides health insurance, but I'm not willing to take on the risk of insuring people with certain pre-existing conditions; I'm worried that if I do, the company will be bankrupted and then won't be able to insure anyone. (I'm not saying this is actually the case for most big health insurance companies, but bear with me.) So long as I'm upfront and honest about what I'm offering, it's not clear that I do wrong by offering my more limited product. It's in the nature of private insurance schemes that the companies are in the business of risk management. Companies that don't make appropriate risk calculations in deciding what premiums to charge and whom to insure probably aren't going to last long and arguably aren't responsible businesses.

So far, then, the fact that a company won't offer policies to people with pre-existing conditions doesn't automatically make the company itself immoral. Note the word "automatically" here. I'm not suggesting this hypothetical scenarios is a good fit for typical big insurers. But to repeat what I said at the outset, there's something very wrong with the real-world situation: the US, the world's wealthiest nation, leaves large numbers of its citizens people in this awful situation.

It's worth adding: the very idea that the market is the best way to deal with health insurance is eminently questionable, as this essay by Nobel-Prize winner Paul Krugman points out. Where to place the blame and what we do about it is not easy to sort out, but if health care reform gets bogged down in the sort of mindlessness we've seen of late, then there will be a long list of villains whose names should live in infamy.

Timely! I'm inclined to tinker a bit with the question. First, I think it's a scandal that in the USA, people with pre-existing conditions often can't get health insurance. Other developed countries have figured this out; it's about time the US caught up. However, given the way the system works at present, we might get a fix on your issue by asking this. Suppose I'm in a position to set up a not-so-large company that provides health insurance, but I'm not willing to take on the risk of insuring people with certain pre-existing conditions; I'm worried that if I do, the company will be bankrupted and then won't be able to insure anyone. (I'm not saying this is actually the case for most big health insurance companies, but bear with me.) So long as I'm upfront and honest about what I'm offering, it's not clear that I do wrong by offering my more limited product. It's in the nature of private insurance schemes that the companies are in the business of risk management. Companies that don't make...

Here's my challenge for those who think we have the right to sell our bodies (i

Here's my challenge for those who think we have the right to sell our bodies (i.e. prostitution): Suppose Travis, a hardworking businessman who is too busy to have a romantic relationship, calls Elise, a prostitute he finds on Craigslist. Elise tells him that she would love to service him, but he'll have to wire the money in advance (she's been taken advantage of too many times). Travis complies, and the two agree to meet next Thursday night. That night Elise thinks about her career and has a change of heart. When Thursday rolls around, she comes to Travis's house and explains that she cannot go through with the act. She offers to refund the money, but Travis refuses. Travis, you see, has already invested more than the money. For one, he set aside a night for Elise that will be wasted if she leaves. And he's already accepted some risk to his reputation by contacting Elise. More importantly, Elise agreed to a contract, and contracts are not reversible on the whims of a single party. If Elise had sold...

I'm having a bit of trouble finding the argument here. Let's take a "transaction" that most of us think is just fine: accepting a proposal of marriage. If Pat agrees to marry Robin and then gets cold feet, Robin can't force the issue. But what of it?

Or take another example: I agree to buy your house. I sign the contract. And then I back out. In most jurisdictions, far as I know, you can't sue me for specific performance; you can't force me to buy the house, though there are various damages that you would be entitled to recover from me.

As things stand in most places, a contract for an act of prostitution isn't enforceable, and so Travis has no legal claim against Elise -- particularly if she gives back the money. But suppose that these sorts contracts were legal, since your issue is presumably with people who think they should be. In that case, there's still no reason to think that Travis has some sort of right to rape Elise, though depending on the legal regime, he might have a civil claim against her that would allow him to recover monetary damages.

In fact, there's a strong whiff of red herring here. All of us agree that some kinds of consensual arrangements are legitimate, and the law recognizes a good many. That means we'll always face the question of what someone is entitled to if the other party reneges on a legitimate agreement. The answer will depend on the case. It might be nothing at all; not all private agreements amount to enforceable contracts. It may be that some sort of monetary damages are in order. It might be, depending on the case, that requiring the original agreement to be kept is the remedy. It all depends. But the fact that people sometimes go back on consensual agreements tells us nothing at all about whether private acts between consenting individuals should always be permitted. In particular, someone who thinks prostitution should be legal doesn't need to be committed to the bizarre view that a prostitute who has a change of mind should be required to submit to rape.

I'm having a bit of trouble finding the argument here. Let's take a "transaction" that most of us think is just fine: accepting a proposal of marriage. If Pat agrees to marry Robin and then gets cold feet, Robin can't force the issue. But what of it? Or take another example: I agree to buy your house. I sign the contract. And then I back out. In most jurisdictions, far as I know, you can't sue me for specific performance; you can't force me to buy the house, though there are various damages that you would be entitled to recover from me. As things stand in most places, a contract for an act of prostitution isn't enforceable, and so Travis has no legal claim against Elise -- particularly if she gives back the money. But suppose that these sorts contracts were legal, since your issue is presumably with people who think they should be. In that case, there's still no reason to think that Travis has some sort of right to rape Elise, though depending on the legal regime, he might have a civil...

We can think of a monetary system without banknotes or coins, where people would

We can think of a monetary system without banknotes or coins, where people would only have their money in banks, using it with credit cards and the like. Of course, there would be nothing in banks except for information on the amount of money each person would have. Now, I think that in this system there would exist nothing of which we could say "That is one euro" or "one dollar" (or whatever). But still it would be true that some people would have, say, one million dollars. My question is: if there is nothing which is one dollar, how can somebody have one dollar or a million dollars?

If having a dollar means having some thing or other, then no one could have a dollar if there weren't any. But bits of language of the sort "have a ___" often don't call for filling the blank with the name of a thing. If someone has a cold, or an idea or a worry or a lot of work to do, there isn't some thing they're carrying around in their nose or their head or have stored in their office.

Unlike colds and good times, dollars once were bits of stuff and mostly still are -- at least in one sense. But having a dollar has never been simply a matter of having a bit of paper. What makes the piece of paper a dollar is that the person who has it has a certain amount of economic power, so to speak (which, by the way is another example of "having" something that's not a thing.) Money is already a lot more abstract than the creased bits of cash in your wallet let on. And so in the cashless economy you're imagining, that's what having a dollar or a euro or a million such would amount to: having what we're calling, rather crudely, a certain amount of economic power; having the capacity to acquire goods, services, whatnot with a certain value.

And as you in effect point out, we're already quite comfortable with this idea. If you're anything like me, most of your financial transactions these days consist of swiping debit cards, filling in online forms and signing on various dotted lines. Most of my available cash exists only in abstract form. When I get paid, it's by way of an electronic transaction between my university and my bank. I don't even get paper notifications anymore.

Of course, somehow this doesn't stop me from ending up with pointless pocketfuls of pennies, which I'm told are worth more these days as copper than as cash!

If having a dollar means having some thing or other, then no one could have a dollar if there weren't any. But bits of language of the sort "have a ___" often don't call for filling the blank with the name of a thing. If someone has a cold, or an idea or a worry or a lot of work to do, there isn't some thing they're carrying around in their nose or their head or have stored in their office. Unlike colds and good times, dollars once were bits of stuff and mostly still are -- at least in one sense. But having a dollar has never been simply a matter of having a bit of paper. What makes the piece of paper a dollar is that the person who has it has a certain amount of economic power, so to speak (which, by the way is another example of "having" something that's not a thing.) Money is already a lot more abstract than the creased bits of cash in your wallet let on. And so in the cashless economy you're imagining, that's what having a dollar or a euro or a million such would amount to: having what we're...

One of my favorite rap artists used to be a drug dealer and a pimp. He is not

One of my favorite rap artists used to be a drug dealer and a pimp. He is not apologetic, but regularly brags about it. If I buy his albums, am I supporting drugs and pimping?

Perhaps, as you'd expect, it depends on what we mean.

One scenario: the artist used the profits from his musical career to underwrite drug dealing and prostitution. In that case, you're supporting drugs and pimping at least in the sense that you're helping to provide the cash that keeps it running.

Another scenario: the artist isn't dealing drugs and pimping, but his fame and the reach of his CD sales helps him encourage others to do what he used to do. In that case, your money is still supporting criminal activities, though quite a bit less directly.

I'm guessing the most likely scenario is this: far as you know, he isn't still carrying on any criminal enterprises. Far as you, he probably does mean to glorify those things, and far as you know, he probably does have at least some marginal success in encouraging others to do the things he used to do. In other words, even if he's no longer an active criminal, there's something unsavory here, and the more successful he is financially, the more that's so. But I'm also guessing that you just like his music and aren't interested in promoting drugs or pimping. Where does that leave you?

Nowhere particularly clear. On the one hand, most of us spend money that supports businesses whose practices may be undesirable even if not criminal, and many of us even know some specific cases. Corporation X sells a product I want, but contributes to causes I deplore, or engages in labor or environmental or business practices that I oppose. These days, purity isn't easy to come by. A few years ago, for better or worse, the town where I live declared itself a "nuclear free zone," meaning that they wouldn't do business with any company that had a stake in the nuclear industry. Turned out this was almost impossible to pull off without tying themselves in knots.

But there is a difference. I may buy something from a company whose practices I don't like. But when I do, I may be doing it with my nose held, so to speak -- in spite of what I don't like about them. I'm not vicariously indulging in their vices. That's where the music case seems a little different. The connections among the artist, the message and what the consumer expresses by supporting the artist seem tighter and more intimate. If someone spouts whole-heartedly misogynist lyrics, the excuse that I'm buying their records just because I like the music is a bit malodorous. Hiving off the obnoxious content from everything else and putting it in a box might be possible, but I have a feeling I'd suspect myself of bad faith.

Here's a case. Suppose that I stumbled across some artist whose language I didn't even speak. I start buying hisCDs, and then a friend who knows the language points out that what he's singing amounts to Nazi propaganda. I don't think I'd feel good about where my money went, and I don't think I'd want to put any more in the artist's coffers.

So: buying this artist's CDs isn't the worst thing you could do. But it doesn't seem entirely pure and innocent either. And the less incidental the glorification of crime to the music, the harder it is to claim that you've stayed on the unsullied side.

Perhaps, as you'd expect, it depends on what we mean. One scenario: the artist used the profits from his musical career to underwrite drug dealing and prostitution. In that case, you're supporting drugs and pimping at least in the sense that you're helping to provide the cash that keeps it running. Another scenario: the artist isn't dealing drugs and pimping, but his fame and the reach of his CD sales helps him encourage others to do what he used to do. In that case, your money is still supporting criminal activities, though quite a bit less directly. I'm guessing the most likely scenario is this: far as you know, he isn't still carrying on any criminal enterprises. Far as you, he probably does mean to glorify those things, and far as you know, he probably does have at least some marginal success in encouraging others to do the things he used to do. In other words, even if he's no longer an active criminal, there's something unsavory here, and the more successful he is financially, the...