The Ethics of the Unethical

When Martin Shkreli raised the price of Retrophin, a pharmaceutical used to treat AIDS, from $13.50 to $750.00 per dose, there was outrage.  Shkreli, who has since been arrested for fraud unrelated to the price increase, insisted that this was free enterprise.  There was no moral issue.  If anything, it was morally right for him to maximize the profits of his company.

I thought, what if I broke into Shkreli’s home in the middle of the night and stole his laptop computer, watches, and cameras.

Shkreli would probably think I had robbed him.  He would probably– I can’t quote him on it– call the police, if he could, and have me arrested for trespassing and burglary.  And I would look him in the eye, in court, and say, “What’s your problem?  What’s wrong with taking your stuff?  You don’t even really own it.”   Even better, if I could say that from afar, some other country, which did not have any kind of extradition treaty with the U.S.   And I would say, “what is your definition of moral”?

He might say, “it’s wrong to steal”.  And I would ask, “how do you know?”  Maybe he believes in the bible.  Maybe he believes that one should always treat others the way one would want to be treated.  Maybe he believes something like “always treat others the way you yourself would like to be treated”.

Or maybe he believes it’s a dog-eat-dog world and you just take whatever you can whenever you can because that’s what everybody else would do if they could.

No, that’s not possible, is it?

He might believe that such miracles as Retrophin are only possible thanks to our wonderful capitalist system which holds that the owner of a particular item has absolute control over its use and distribution and price.  Of course, the makers and sellers of Retrophin were already doing quite well before he jacked up the price, and it had been developed under a system with the built-in expectation of a certain cost to the drug, and that had worked, and it has been shown that most pharmaceutical companies spend more money on advertising and marketing than they do on developing drugs, so they can’t be serious about argument that the high price is the cost of developing advanced drugs.

More likely a tax-payer funded university research lab developed the basics of the drug and then a drug company bought in somewhat later.

But if we were all in a wagon training headed west in 1871 and we were crossing a desert and Mr.  Shkreli happened to own the only bottle of water left and everyone else was about to die, would it be his “right” to sell it for the exclusive use of the highest bidder, and let everyone else die?

I dislike these allegories.  What Mr. Shkreli is doing is already essentially the same thing: AIDS patients need Retrophin to survive: Mr. Shkreli is extorting a wonderful price.  It is extortion.  Extortion is wrong.

[whohit]The Ethics of the Unethical: Martin Shkreli[/whohit]


Anthony Weiner

I was and am a huge admirer of Jon Stewart.   His most remarkable and indispensable achievement was the way he called out political absurdities, corruption, and idiocies exactly as he saw them, without the traditional hedging and restraint required by serious newscasts or columnists.  I don’t need to go on: he was great.  He was probably at his best during the Republican presidential primaries of 2012, when America was offered a revolving door of unqualified, bombastic, self-promoting wannabes, along with Mitt Romney, as their next leader.

There was however– you knew it was coming– a few exceptions.  One sequence of episodes I found disquieting and annoying: his relentless attacks on the unfortunately named Democratic U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner.

Representative Anthony Weiner did not have any remarkable accomplishments to his record: he advocated granting “O-visas” to foreign fashion models and he liked to point out that many U.S. diplomats didn’t pay their parking tickets.

But he also advocated vigorously for an amendment offering a Medicare-like government plan as an option to Obamacare, which endangered the deal with the devil Obama had made with the insurance industry.  He also– like Stewart– was an enthusiastic supporter of legislation providing funds for health care for first-responders to the 9/11 attacks.  He  opposed the lavish military and financial aid the U.S. has provided to Saudi Arabia, home of 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.

According to some of his staff, he was also given to tantrums and was known to scream at employees and toss furniture.

In May, 2011, it was discovered that Weiner had sent sexually explicit photos of himself — on Twitter(!)– to a female supporter.   He at first denied it, but as the evidence mounted he had to resign his seat in Congress in disgrace.

In May, 2013, he announced that he was running for mayor of New York, and would be asking voters to give him a second chance.  It looked, at first, like they might, but in July of that year, it emerged that he had continued sexting other women after he had resigned from Congress.  He had lied again.  He showed judgement that was so bad it would be overly generous to label it as stupid.

Stewart, for reasons that escape me, chose to ridicule Weiner on The Daily Show night after night after night.  And yes, to me, it reached a point where it was no longer political: it was personal, and it was cruel.  The jerk made a serious mistake.  He repeated the mistake.  He lied about it.  He probably destroyed his marriage.  He definitely destroyed his political career (which was quite promising at the time).

But he was also a classic example of how America’s hysterical attitude towards sex distorts the politics and culture of our society.  Not one of the hedge fund managers or bankers responsible for the financial crisis that drained America’s pocketbooks and catastrophically devalued their mortgages resigned in disgrace.  None of the politicians responsible for the lax regulations that allowed this catastrophe to unfold had to resign from office in disgrace.  None of the government officials responsible for the disaster in Iraq had to resign in disgrace.

But America rose up in righteous fury and decreed that it could countenance a man of importunate sexual inclinations in office.  He must go.  And he did.

In fairness, Stewart also took on the bankers and government officials and hedge fund managers, and that made sense.  And Weiner deserved the initial round or two of ridicule.

But Stewart became relentless, night after night, essentially repeating the same joke over and over again beyond all reason.

The only possible explanation is that Stewart wanted to make a great big point about going after someone who was politically congenial to himself, to prove that he could be “objective”, and an equal-opportunity satirist.  I suspect he was worried that the folks at Fox News would be able to label him as an ideologue.  Here was a chance to prove he wasn’t by savagely skewering a liberal New York Democrat.

It was a rare example of Stewart misjudging an issue.  He should have made his point once, maybe twice, and then left it alone: it was not all that consequential.  It was humiliating and embarrassing, but it was not all that consequential to anyone other than his wife (and infant son).

There’s a second aspect to the Weiner story that I’ve thought about.  Donald Trump is currently stomping over every moderate Republican’s presidential ambitious like a t-rex, even though he has said and done things in the past that might, under the right circumstances, be considered scandalous.  He cheated on his wife, he cheated business partners, and he went bankrupt several times, leaving guileless creditors in his dust.  Why is he getting away with it?  Because he doesn’t care.  His “screw you” attitude makes it all rather uninteresting.  “Did you cheat on your first wife?”   What are you a moron?

It’s a magical ability.  You wanna go after to me?  Go ahead– I don’t care.

Weiner looked defeated and deflated.  He reacted as if he himself really believed that his behavior had been abominable.  You can’t survive that kind of scandal if you look like you really, really care if people know about it, and it brings the sharks circling.  Bill Clinton made the same mistake.  We do know now that he had weighed what I would now call “the Trump Option”: screw you, it’s none of your business.  They (Clinton and his lawyers and wife) decided against it because they believed the courts would rule against them.  And that the courts would matter.

Didn’t they know that justice is not what comes from the courts: it’s what comes from force.  Didn’t Bill Clinton know that in a few short years, the  President of the United States would direct American officials to torture people, bomb the shit out of a country that had nothing to do with anything about 9/11, and initiate extensive illegal surveillance of American citizens.

He was not arrested.

[whohit]The Unfortunate Fate of Anthony Weiner[/whohit]

The “Best” Pro-Life Argument Ever

I recently saw a post on Facebook said to be “the best pro-life argument I have ever seen”.  I was curious, so I checked it out.   I’m always suspicious of articles on controversial subjects that start out with something like “I was a college student — an anti-war, mother-earth, feminist, hippie college student…”   And then I saw the light!  I saw the truth.  From an article in Esquire– of all places– written in 1976(!).  So, Frederica Matthewes-Green insists, I’m not one of those dim-witted automatons merely spouting the ravings of my pro-gun, pro-war, patriotic right-wing church.

These writers always seem to feel that it’s a compelling trope.  I used to be like you.  But she doesn’t follow up with a list of other positions she has now adopted because she knows that that list would undermine her seductive introduction.  Is she still opposed to war?  Is she opposed to capital punishment?  Is she in favor of universal health care?  Does she support parental leave?  Maternity leave?  Did she ever?  Really?

After reading her list of the things she supported back in the old folkie days, it becomes clear that whatever she thought she was in favor of back then, in her “hippie days”, it wasn’t what other people of her generation thought they were in favor of.  In her coy estimation, it seems that women back then didn’t think much at all, and expected ridiculous things in the future.

That becomes evident when  she proceeds to create a straw-man, the kind of person she believes believes in a woman’s right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy.  This prop of hers thinks embryos are just a blob, and that abortion would only ever be used in emergencies, as a last, desperate measure, and that there is nothing violent or distasteful about it all– beliefs that kind of cancel each other out, when you think about it.

And then the big slide.   Having described in detail the painful, awful experience of an abortion at 20 weeks, she then proceeds to draw conclusions that makes no sense given her claimed pedigree of enlightenment and intelligence:

The usual justification for abortion is that the unborn is not a “person.” It’s said that “Nobody knows when life begins.” But that’s not true; everybody knows when life — a new individual human life — gets started. It’s when the sperm dissolves in the egg.

Oh, everybody “knows that”?   So, the enlightened progressive who rationally concluded that abortion is horrible suddenly leaps, magically, to the belief that life begins right at the instant of conception, all without a single reference to any religious belief.

She does not provide, of course, any logic or reason or analysis that would lead anyone to conclude that because a 20-week old fetus seems very human and perhaps entitled to the protection of the law, therefore the first two cells together must also be entitled the same recognition.

So why not, at the beginning of the article, acknowledge that your beliefs are grounded in your religion, not in your reason?   Why are you pretending to reason your way to a conclusion that really doesn’t follow any of your arguments?  Well, we know why: because nobody would take her arguments seriously.  Believers will have already agreed with her, and non-believers will find her irrelevant.

Frederica Mathewes-Green is not unaware of the problem.  From her website:

I have seen so much effort to produce publications, books, music, movies, and so on that can stand in the public square as quality material, and attract unbelievers. But look back at # 3; that only works as long as the material does not point to Christian faith. Once the mask slips and they realize we have been trying all along to bring them to Christ, they get angry. They feel duped.

Yes.  Well.  Try as you might to present an anti-abortion argument that seems rational and geared towards the general, public interest, your mask slipped, when you magically arrived at the point that life begins at conception.   That is a religious belief and the argument that because an embryo has the complete DNA of an individual human being it is entitled to equal protection falls apart because brain-dead humans also have the complete DNA of an individual human being, as well as a complete body.

[whohit]The Best “Pro-Life Argument Ever[/whohit]