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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Wisdom of the NYT's Ethicist

It is hardly an original observation, but the New York Time's Ethicist, Randy Cohen, is a near-endless source of instruction on how not to reason about ethics.

His most recent eructation concerns a college tutor who, after the student has grown attached, demands a hefty pay raise on threat of quitting.

The Ethicist approves wholeheartedly. This may be one of those rare and challenging circumstances in which the Ethicist manages to reach an ethical conclusion—a rare, but not impossible occurrence, much like dialing numbers randomly on your phone might happen to connect you to the love of your life.

His reasoning however is worth repeating:

There’s nothing untoward about requesting a raise even after only a short time on the job. Why is it blackmail when the tutor suggests a fee, but acceptable when you do the same? You, like he, can simply decline any proposal. Or, if you want to retain him at a certain wage, then offer a contract specifying both his hourly rate and his length of service.

We look forward to the Ethicist column airily defending the mirror image—an employer unilaterally and under threat of termination cutting an employee's wages once the employee has made relationship-specific investments, such as moving to the new place of employment. No doubt an Ethicist so devoted to universal moral standards will offer the same approval.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Macaulay on Burke (via Southey)

It is, indeed, most extraordinary, that a mind like Mr. Southey's, a mind richly endowed in many respects by nature, and highly cultivated by study, a mind which has exercised considerable influence on the most enlightened generation of the most enlightened people that ever existed, should be utterly destitute of the power of discerning truth from falsehood. Yet such is the fact. Government is to Mr. Southey one of the fine arts. He judges of a theory, of a public measure, of a religious or a political party, of a peace or a war, as men judge of a picture or a statue, by the effect produced on his imagination. A chain of associations is to him what a chain of reasoning is to other men; and what he calls his opinions are in fact merely his tastes.

Part of that description might perhaps apply to a much greater man, Mr. Burke. But Mr. Burke assuredly possessed an understanding admirably fitted for the investigation of truth, an understanding stronger than that of any statesman, active or speculative, of the eighteenth century, stronger than everything, except his own fierce and ungovernable sensibility. Hence he generally chose his side like a fanatic, and defended it like a philosopher. His conduct on the most important occasions of his life, at the time of the impeachment of Hastings for example, and at the time of the French Revolution, seems to have been prompted by those feelings and motives which Mr. Coleridge has so happily described,

'Stormy pity, and the cherish'd lure Of pomp, and proud precipitance of soul.'

Hindostan, with, its vast cities, its gorgeous pagodas, its infinite swarms of dusky population, its long-descended dynasties, its stately etiquette, excited in a mind so capacious, so imaginative, and so susceptible, the most intense interest. The peculiarities of the costume, of the manners, and of the laws, the very mystery which hung over the language and origin of the people, seized his imagination. To plead under the ancient arches of Westminster Hall, in the name of the English people, at the bar of the English nobles, for great nations and kings separated from him by half the world, seemed to him the height of human glory. Again, it is not difficult to perceive that his hostility to the French Revolution principally arose from the vexation which he felt at having all his old political associations disturbed, at seeing the well-known landmarks of states obliterated, and the names and distinctions with which the history of Europe had been filled for ages at once swept away. He felt like an antiquary whose shield had been scoured, or a connoisseur who found his Titian retouched. But, however he came by an opinion, he had no sooner got it than he did his best to make out a legitimate title to it. His reason, like a spirit in the service of an enchanter, though spell-bound, was still mighty. It did whatever work his passions and his imagination might impose. But it did that work, however arduous, with marvellous dexterity and vigour. His course was not determined by argument; but he could defend the wildest course by arguments more plausible than those by which common men support opinions which they have adopted after the fullest deliberation. Reason has scarcely ever displayed, even in those well constituted minds of which she occupies the throne, so much power and energy as in the lowest offices of that imperial servitude.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, Southey's Colloquies on Society (1830)