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I have talked to some friends after reading a book on materialism and I have a

I have talked to some friends after reading a book on materialism and I have a question. Don't companies have a right to push their products to us? Would it not be the weakness of our minds at fault for being consumed by commercialism? Many people I have talked to constantly reiterate that the companies are the cause of this but I would say otherwise. What would you say?

This is a great question touching on many deep issues. Much empirical research shows the incredible extent to which we are manipulable, and manipulated, by marketing. The degree to which this happens to us without our knowledge, w/o our explicit consent, etc., is the degree to which this may be morally objectionable. Now you may be right in suggesting that our decisions are not (entirely) without our consent -- often we are quite conscious of our decision-making process, no one forces you to go into a store or online, etc., and in the end we must take responsbiility for our behaviors etc. But when you read about how thoroughly manipulated we are by advertising, marketing, not to mention social pressure, you may start to feel differently. I'd recommend the work of Dan Ariely, to start -- in particular his bestseller Predictably Irrational ...

good luck!


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 ....

Mutual funds differ in their investment targets but more and more they are just

Mutual funds differ in their investment targets but more and more they are just indexes and in aggregate they essentially bet the entire market all the time. They must do this because of their size and inability to hold to much in any individual stock. Does this not turn the stock market and Wall Street into a total sham or time bomb when there is no real connection between investment and business fundamentals. This is not the question of dart boards this is the question of an unending river of money showering down on firms fortunate enough to get into the listing. In general firms do not pay dividends. Clearly this is nation trying to subsidize its base of firms but what does it do to consumers? Is this not a Ponzi scheme?

I don't know what mutual funds you are thinking of, but many of them are totally different from your description of the market as a whole. You can invest in a vast variety of different kinds of funds, including those that pay big dividends. There is a close connection between the health of the real economy and the stock exchange and funds which are broadly invested will go up and down with the general market. It is not like a Ponzi scheme where the underlying assets are negligible compared with the investments in them, if you invest in a railroad or a store you own a share of something real, as you do with financial institutions and the streams of income they generate. Occasionally these investments prove to be bad, over-priced, managements make mistakes, and investors lose money, or we just buy high and sell low. That is the nature of the free market, you take risks and sometimes things do not work out, but that is no reason to condemn the market as a whole.

There are perhaps other good reasons for condemning the free market, but the existence of a vast variety of mutual funds should not be one of them.

Are spousal hires unethical? Do companies have an obligation to consider job

Are spousal hires unethical? Do companies have an obligation to consider job candidates on their merit as individuals alone? I would have thought that spousal hires were obviously unfair, and therefore objectionable. But I've talked to many people who think that they are often legitimate.

This is an interesting and difficult question. One might start with the presumption that a company's hiring may be conducted in whatever way its top officers deem most advantageous. Thus imagine a company that has two positions to fill and is considering four candidates. The hiring officers rank these candidates in the following order: Alice, Ben, Celia, David. So they would like to hire Alice and Ben. But unfortunately Alice is married to David, and she will decline unless David is also made an offer. So the hiring officers discuss whether the firm is better off with Alice and David or with Ben and Celia. They determine that the Alice-David combination is more advantageous, and so they promise Alice that, if she accepts, David will also be hired.

Does Ben have a complaint in this case? I don't think so. It is true that, other things equal, he would add more value to the firm than David would. But other things are not equal: if Ben is hired over David, then Alice will decline; whereas if David is hired over Ben, then Alice will accept. The firm prudently prefers Alice-David over Ben-Celia, and Ben has no good claim that the firm should reward some specific merit that is distinct from contribution to the firm's overall success. In the relevant sense, David does contribute more than Ben after all because he ensures Alice's services for the company.

Despite this presumption, spousal hiring might still be deemed unethical on two distinct grounds. First, participation in a hiring practice might be unethical because of its large-scale effects. Here is a clear-cut example. Firms have reason to hire people whom their customers will like. If most customers have some religious or racial prejudice, then the practice of preferring job candidates whom customers will like constitutes systematic discrimination against job candidates of the disliked religion or race. Firms ought not to participate in such a pattern of discrimination even if they are legally permitted to do so. Does this example have an analogue in spousal hiring? It might. There might be in some society a group of people held in low esteem -- short males, say -- who find it hard to find a spouse. The social disadvantage of this group would be compounded by a practice of spousal hiring: while short males are very rarely beneficiaries of spousal hires (nearly all of them are involuntary bachelors), they would much more often lose opportunities on account of spousal hires. If such a situation obtained, firms have a moral reason not to engage in spousal hires, at least in cases where the passed-over candidate would be a member of the disadvantaged group.

The second ground for judging spousal hiring unethical despite the presumption is connected to the fact that those insiders who can influence the hiring process do not always act in the best interest of the firm. Imagine a case where three candidates have applied for a job opening. In terms of qualifications, it seems rather clear that the candidates should be ranked in the order Frank, Gina, Henry. But Henry's wife Edith is already working for the firm, and she lets it be known that she would leave if someone other than Henry were hired. Now Edith is actually less qualified than Gina; if Frank were hired and Edith left, the firm would -- with Frank and Gina -- be better off than it would be with Edith and Henry. So the firm would be well advised to ignore Edith's threat. But Edith lobbies the people she knows in the firm and pressures them to help her get Henry hired. If the relevant people succumb to this lobbying and damage the firm by offering the job to Henry rather than to Frank, then their conduct would normally be unethical by violating their fiduciary duty to the firm in a way that also unreasonably deprives Frank of a job offer he merits.

I have sketched reasons of two kinds that, if present, might make a spousal hire unethical. I don't think such reasons are decisive -- there might always be further morally significant reasons in play on the other side (e.g., Henry needs the job to survive because his daily medicine is unaffordable without the company's health insurance policy). But I do think that these reasons typically support the conclusion that a spousal hire is unethical -- and that most cases of unethical spousal hiring involve self-dealing by insiders (reasons of the second kind).

Couldn't all marketing that implements psychological techniques to influence

Couldn't all marketing that implements psychological techniques to influence behavior without the subject realizing it be considered unethical? It seems to me that advertisers have an unfair advantage over consumers who have not had the opportunity to study the psychology used in marketing campaigns.

That's a great point, but of course partly it depends on what it means to "have the opportunity": in the general sense everyone is free to study whatever they want in this country .... (of course in practical terms not everyone is free to do very much, perhaps, but at least in principle; and anyway even if far more people were "freer," in practical terms, how many would actually choose to study the psychology of marketing?) .... And, anyway, a lot of the fascinating results exploited by marketers are pretty robust: ie they persist even AFTER the people are informed .... (For great examples see Dan Arielly's book Predictably Irrational and Daniel Kahneman's recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow) .....


Why is prostitution considered immoral, as long as it is a service that is

Why is prostitution considered immoral, as long as it is a service that is provided, just like the service of a driver or a cleaning person? Why is a prostitute seen like a person of low value and why do we think it's immoral that she sells herself for money, because, if we think about it, any person who works and gets paid is also selling himself for money. Thank you!

Kinda depends on what you think is OK to buy, sell or rent, doesn't it? We don't accept slavery, because we don't think people should be for sale or should ever be owned--though we accept that it is OK to pay for the labor that people can perform in some cases.

So I agree with the premise of your question: in general, we seem to be OK with paying for services. Is sex something that we should (or could permissibly) think of as a kind of service? Notice that such a view of sex is different from the view we take in romantic circumstances. There, we take sex to be a kind of intimacy between two people--a way of relating lovingly to one another. Prostitution, I think it is safe to say, isn't like that. It is more, as you say, like a service. But surely one could reasonably wonder whether thinking of sexual acts as services is the right way to conceive of them.

Now, as with so many ethical questions, we might find that we are led to different sorts of answers if we apply different kinds of ethical insights. Do people have rights with respect to the uses of their bodies? Well, it seems so. So why do the prostitute and john not have the right to do with their bodies as they please, given consent by both parties? Well...maybe the rights of others get engaged here, too--rights of the members of the rest of society to determine what sorts of commerce they will, and what sorts they will not, permit within their communities. So perhaps an individual's right to the uses of his or her body is only a prima facie right that might be defeated if it comes into competition with the political or economic rights of communities to regulate commerce or other aspects of social interaction...?

(I confess I am not all that good at this way of thinking, so I will allow others better at this to chime in here.)

But let's take a different tack. Go back to what I said about sexual acts as services. I'm a virtue theorist in ethics, so the way I take this sort of question is as follows: Would a virtuous person think of sex acts as services? I think not. It seems to me that an admirable human being would neither think of sex acts as services, nor would he or she wish to have others serve them in such a way. This is not at all to say that admirable human beings would abhor sex! It is, rather, to say that they would think of sex acts from a point of view that was other than that of serving or being served. So, from this point of view, there really does seem to be something wrong with prostitution--it functions on the basis of a view of sex that we would not really wish to promote, if we were seeking to encourage virtue, and one that seems to be the product of a faulty view of the value of the activity in question--a value that is not virtuously commodified.

Notice that this is not at all an argument to the effect that prostitution should be outlawed, or that it should be regarded as morally impermissible. Lots of stuff falls short of virtue that we would not outlaw or anathematize. There may even be aspects of certain kinds of sexuality that actually find sex-as-service part of the thrill.

But even so, we can fault such things on the sorts of grounds I have given, and so it seems that there is, from a virtue theoretic point of view, a genuine moral fault in prostitution (from both the prostitute's and the john's points of view) that we would not similarly assign serving as a driver or cleaner. These latter activities seem to be correctly (and thus virtuously) conceived as services. Not so, for sex--even if the idea turns you on!

Would it be considered unethical to anonymously report my suspicion that several

Would it be considered unethical to anonymously report my suspicion that several co-workers are stealing from customers and the company I work for by suggesting the company conduct an investigation into the practices of their employees to determine whether or not this is actually occurring? I ask this because I highly suspect this is the case where I work. Should I simply turn a blind eye? My internal conflict regarding this situation is that almost no one likes the company and the clientele they work for, which is in part, why I believe some employees feel they are justified in indulging their greed by stealing from both company & client. I mention 'greed' because I suppose this is why I feel compelled to report my suspicions. So many of my co-workers behave abusively to one another because of their greed and I suppose I feel that these nasty, greedy individuals deserve to be called on their unethical behaviour, but once again, I wonder if it is up to me to be the one to see to it that they receive...

As far as I can tell from your description, it would not be unethical to report such fraud--indeed, reporting it is likely the right thing to do. Depending on the details, it might even be illegal not to report it. You might want to consult a legal expert to determine your rights and responsibilities in this case. It sounds like you are in a bad company and a bad situation. I wish you the best as you try to make things better.

According to Nicholas D. Smith in response to a question about sexual harassment

According to Nicholas D. Smith in response to a question about sexual harassment legislation, "The minute someone in that place begins to give sexual attention to someone else in that workplace, the environment is changed--and changed in a way that makes the workplace no longer an entirely comfortable place to work." However the fact of the matter is that a great many people marry their coworkers and that studies show only a small percentage of those relationship were started by people who accidentally met up outside of work. If the purpose of sexual harassment legislation is to ban all interaction of a sexual nature between coworkers (since all sexual attention makes the workplace an uncomfortable place to work) then those marriages could not have occurred if sexual harassment law was 100% effective in achieving its supposed purpose. Since marriage is a highly regarded social institution isn't it highly unlikely that the purpose of sexual harassment legislation is to ban all sexual interaction between...

As Nicholas said in response to the other question, there are questions to be asked about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the workplace. And, while there are companies that prohibit co-workers from dating, most do not, which is simply to say that sexual harassment policies are not in general intended to prohibit all sexual interaction between co-workers, but only such interaction as, first, is unwelcome or unwanted and, second, constitutes a form of harassment.

Even unwelcome sexual attention, by itself, does not constitute harassment, according to the definition promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but only if:

  1. submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment,
  2. submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals, or
  3. such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

The first two conditions are kind of obvious. It is the last condition that can be harder to evaluate, in practice.

Asking someone out on a date, for example, all by itself, certainly would not constitute harassment under this definition. Indeed, as I understand it, merely asking someone out does not constitute an expression of "sexual interest", but of romantic interest, which is different. That said, the line here is blurry, and if the person doing the asking is in a position of authority over the other person, then we are on dangerous ground, since then condition (1) or (2) may be met. And repeatedly asking someone out could constitute harassment, as could asking every woman in the company out, since it is easy to see how condition (3) could be met in such a case.

Telling someone flat out that you'd love to get them in the sack is something else entirely. Most people would not receive such a remark as a compliment, for the simple reason that such a remark, made outside an appropriate sort of context or relationship, does not express any real appreciation for the other person, but only how that person might be used to satisfy one's own selfish desires. People rightly feel "objectified" by such comments and, as a result, self-conscious and otherwise uncomfortable, and that is why making such remarks can easily satisfy condition (3). That said, however, a single such remark probably does not constitute harassment, but a pattern of making such remarks very likely would.

That said, companies have a right and duty to ensure that the workplace is free of intimidation, and they also have an interest in protecting themselves from litigation. So a company might have rules that prohibit the making of such remarks, for example, even though making one such remark might not constitute harassment. Such rules are perfectly understandable, seen from this point of view.

When someone is indicted for a crime, it's standard for newspaper reports to

When someone is indicted for a crime, it's standard for newspaper reports to state that he only "allegedly" did whatever he is accused of doing. But suppose that the guilt of the defendant is extremely well confirmed (a thousand witnesses saw him, and we have an HD-quality recording of the incident). If the trial has yet to arrive at a verdict, should reporters still insist upon use of the "alleged" qualification? In other words, should standards of assertion in journalism be tied to standards of assertion in judicial proceedings?

It is often not precisely what someone did that is significant in the case of the law, but how it is classified. However many people saw him do it, the issue is often what it is that they saw

Right now I am banging away at the keys of my computer, but I could be blackmailing someone, sending a love letter, slandering a politician, or responding to a question for askphilosophers. A thousand people may be watching, and not just my cat, but in criminal law what the court will want to know is what precisely happened, not just the actions of the individuals concerned. So we should hang on to the "allegedly" term at least if the plea is a not guilty one.

Is it ethical for a pharmaceutical company to keep the results of a negative

Is it ethical for a pharmaceutical company to keep the results of a negative clinical trial secret? Patients participate in clinical trials of an investigational drug for many reasons. One of these reasons may be the desire to benefit society. If a pharmaceutical company keeps clinical trial results secret, society will not benefit. (Companies keep negative results secret because they want to avoid benefiting a competitor or simply because there is a cost to releasing the information.) There are many adverse consequences of the failure to make negative data public. For example, other companies may unwittingly conduct clinical trials on drugs that work by the same biological mechanism subjecting many people to risks without the possibility of benefit. In addition, the negative results represent important scientific information that may guide researchers to the development of drug strategies that do provide a positive benefit for patients. When pharmaceutical companies enroll patients in a clinical trial,...

I can see some justification for wishing to nuance negative results, by claiming that they might be contradicted by future more positive results and so on, but on the whole it is important that negative results are made available generally. This has nothing to do with the wishes of the participants in the experiments, it seems to me, but their general public duty to help people avoid harm. There are two pragmatic aspects to this which are significant. The public ought to realize that results go in a variety of directions and should try to be sophisticated in working out what those results mean. Secondly, companies that are frank about negative results will gain more respect than if they do not, and so might themselves benefit anyway.