Saturday, 28 April 2007

Twenty Years Ago

4-28-87 . . . The [Philosophy of Law] seminar topic this evening was blackmail in particular and exploitation in general. According to Joel [Feinberg], blackmail is one of the most interesting of crimes, philosophically, and he’s right. Let me give you a typical blackmail scenario. Suppose I get hold of some information about graduate student G. G, leader of an animal-rights movement, has been secretly eating meat, while professing not to do so. I contact G, explain that I have the information, and threaten to disclose it to the movement’s members unless G gives me $500. G gives me the money and I keep quiet. This is a case of blackmail. But notice what it involves. First of all, I’m entitled, both legally and morally, to disclose the information about G to the members. It is not illegal for me to do so, nor am I defaming [G] or otherwise violating G’s privacy. But if I’m entitled to disclose the information, why can’t I give G the choice of whether to disclose it? If anything, I’m expanding G’s options, not contracting them! This is the paradoxical aspect of blackmail that needs explaining.

Joel’s strategy is to draw several distinctions. First, he distinguishes those actions that I have a duty to do or not to do from those in which there is no duty. Second, he distinguishes among various motives that the blackmailer may have, such as personal gain, reform of the blackmailee, and so forth. Third, he distinguishes between “opportunistic” and “entrepreneurial” blackmail, the latter being worse than the former (other things, of course, being equal). In effect, Joel would decriminalize blackmail (good liberal that he is) where the blackmailer has no duty to either disclose or not disclose the information. If there is a duty, then it should be a crime to blackmail someone. Since, in my example, I had no duty to either disclose the information about G or not disclose the information about G, I would not have committed a crime. But if G had committed a felony, then I would have had a legal duty to disclose the information and my actions would constitute blackmail; and if the information were false and defamatory, I would have had a legal duty not to disclose, and once again my actions would constitute blackmail.


Here is the start list for tomorrow’s Belgian classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The winner will be Italian Riccardo Ricco.

Addendum: I predicted that an Italian would win. Unfortunately for me, it was Danilo Di Luca rather than Riccardo Ricco. Here is the story. Here is an image. Ricco finished 17th, 20 seconds behind Di Luca. The spring classics are now over. We’re entering the season of stage races.

Fred R. Berger (1937-1986) on Gratitude

We owe gratitude to our parents for the sacrifices involved in their caring for us and giving us a decent upbringing, though it is their duty to provide this to the best of their ability. On the other hand, with regard to most contractual transactions, we do not usually feel we owe gratitude to the other contracting party when he fulfills his part of the deal. Of course, we owe him the performance of our part of the bargain, but that is not, in itself, a show of gratitude. All this becomes easily dealt with once we see gratitude as the requital of benevolence. Though our parents are under a duty to give us a decent upbringing and to care for us, it is almost never solely for this reason that parents make the sacrifices requisite for proper care and rearing. These sacrifices are normally made because our parents care for us and love us and want us to have the benefits of a good upbringing. On the other hand, many a contemporary novel has made capital out of the justified lack of gratitude in situations in which parents have given children the outward manifestations of a good rearing in our society (e.g., clothes, good schools, etc.) but solely for selfish reasons such as keeping up the family name or social standing. Indeed, to the extent that a really good rearing cannot be given without love at its base, it is something which by its nature deserves gratitude. In contrast to this, contractual arrangements are usually thought to be means for advancing the interests of both parties and hence tend not to be cases of benefits granted in order to help another, and gratitude would be out of place. This is not to say, however, that one cannot enter into a contract to help another. People quite often accept unfavorable terms of a contract in order to help the other party. When this happens, we do think there is an obligation to show gratitude.

(Fred R. Berger, “Gratitude,” Ethics 85 [July 1975]: 298-309, at 300 [italics in original])

All the Lies That’re Fit to Print

Mark Spahn sent a link to a two-part blog post (here and here) by Ed Whelan about the recent abortion ruling by the United States Supreme Court.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

“The Plot Against Medicare,” by Paul Krugman (column, April 20), and your April 21 editorial “The Medicare Privatization Scam” correctly noted the higher costs of private for-profit health insurance. They might also have noted that a recent J. D. Powers survey found consumers more satisfied with not-for-profit private insurance plans than with investor-owned plans.

Even more important, as I have documented in my new book, “A Second Opinion,” there is good evidence that investor-owned medical care facilities are usually less efficient than comparable not-for-profit facilities. Further, their services are often of lower quality—occasionally with serious consequences for the health of patients.

Until we rid ourselves of the myth that the private market outperforms other alternatives in health care, we will never develop a good-quality, affordable system that covers everyone.

Arnold S. Relman, M.D.
Boston, April 21, 2007
The writer, professor emeritus of medicine and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, was the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, 1977-91.

A Year Ago