The Wages of Sin

August 30, 2008 § 70 Comments

Business and economics are complicated, and that tends to make discussion of social doctrine complicated. But as we know, the existence of many complex and difficult cases does not mean that all cases are complex and difficult. Indeed, we often can learn a great deal from simpler cases as long as we don’t permit ourselves to chase all the red herrings inspired by more complex cases.

So lets consider a simple case of a business which does not yet exist.

Suppose that if I start this business, I can make extraordinary profits as long as I am willing to provide pornography to my customers as a part of whatever else it is that I do. Suppose further that I will be unprofitable if I do not provide pornography to my customers. Is it morally licit for me to start this business?

Clearly not. The set of profitable businesses is a superset of the set of morally licit businesses.

Now suppose that instead of pornography being a ‘profit limiter’ it is the case that wages are my profit limiter. I can build a very profitable business as long as I am willing to pay full time employees very low wages, creating a situation where I take up all of the time they have available to work and yet leaving them and their families destitute and unable to provide for basic necessities, where basic necessities are understood with reference to the community and time period in which I operate my business. Suppose further that the wage level I am considering is the market rate, and that if I pay more than that wage level my business will not be profitable.

Is it morally licit for me to start that business? I think it is clearly not. If exploiting workers is built into my business plan, my business plan is immoral and I ought not carry it out.

The set of all morally licit profitable businesses under given circumstances is always a subset of the set of all possible profitable businesses in those circumstances. Indeed, the set of all morally licit business decisions in given circumstances is always a subset of the set of all possible business decisions in those circumstances. And in some cases, indeed many cases, ethical behavior places a limit on profits. Ahem.

So granting that there are many complex and difficult to resolve situations, to which I do not have all of the answers either as a business strategist or as a moralist, it seems clear to me that there is indeed such a thing as a living wage and wage exploitation. Like in the case of pornography there is actually quite a lot of ambiguous ground involved. But appeals to complex cases won’t convince me to accept an outright denial of the concept of a living wage and the moral imperative to pay it, any more than appeals to Renaissance art will convince me that there isn’t anything wrong with Penthouse.

A Wee Air Travel Widget

August 30, 2008 § 2 Comments

Some of you are aware that I fly airplanes and helicopters. It occurred to me — while I was commenting in a post at Apologia — that there is a web site some of y’all might find useful called Flightaware.

If you’ve ever tried to track the arrival of someone using the airline web sites, you are no doubt aware that the airline web sites lie. (Well, I don’t know if the web sites are culpable or invincibly ignorant, but in any case they give incomplete and sometimes false or misleading information).

Flightaware uses public domain data straight from the FAA. It will show you the flight plans that the airlines have actually filed with air traffic control, it will show you when the plane actually takes off, it will show you where on a map – along with weather radar – the plane actually is right now, and when it is expected – and I mean actually expected by air traffic controllers – to arrive. It will even show you if the plane was diverted to another airport.

Anyway, if you sometimes wish you had a reliable way to tell where an airplane in the air traffic system is, whether it has even taken off yet, and when it is expected to arrive, you might find Flightaware useful. Enjoy.

Puritanism for thee, but not for me

August 29, 2008 § 10 Comments

Am I the only person to find it baffling that a community college president was forced to resign over this photo? There are no details other than the photo; and yet this turned into the man’s Lewinski-gate. Worse really, because he actually had to resign.

This in a culture where we have this, and this, and this, and this… I don’t even know where to start.

Maybe there are facts which weren’t revealed in the article.

Yeah but they sang some nice hymns

August 28, 2008 § 75 Comments

There is one story in particular I find gut-wrenching, about a church somewhere in Germany besides a railroad line, where the gathered worshippers on Sundays, to their shame, sang hymns loudly to drown out the screams of Jews in the cattle cars being trundled off to their deaths.”

Line Dancing

August 27, 2008 § 9 Comments

Lydia’s recent post about how the pro-life movement is corrupting itself through compromise has generated quite a bit of interest. A fundamental dividing line in the discussion seems to be between those who are sometimes willing to compromise on who to vote for, and those who are always willing to compromise on who to vote for: between those who are willing to draw a line beyond which one will not support a candidate, irrespective of how bad other viable candidates may be in the current election, and those unwilling to draw such a line.

I have a hypothesis about why some appear unwilling to admit even the abstract possibility of such a line. My hypothesis is that this unwillingness is related to the actual facts of the actual current presidential election: that it is obvious that if one were willing to draw a line beyond which one is unwilling to compromise, one would be forced to draw that line in a way which excludes the possibility of supporting either of the two viable candidates for President in the current election cycle. The least bad of the two candidates – whichever one of the two you may think that is – has a long history of supporting the federally funded wholesale slaughter of tiny but real and fully human children.

And if one isn’t willing to draw a line there, then how could one possibly concede the validity of drawing lines at all?

(Cross-posted)

Computer Justice

August 25, 2008 § 34 Comments

Suppose I designed a computer program which very accurately predicted the outcome of criminal trials based on various factors about the accused: hair color, zip code, that sort of thing. The accuracy is very good, lets say, but not perfect.

Now suppose this computer program were used to actually try criminals: that is, those accused of criminal acts are actually sentenced based solely on the output of this computer program. Obviously, those cases where the program gets the wrong result and sentences an innocent man are unjust.

I would argue, though, that all cases of using this program to actually try criminals are unjust, independent of whether or not it produces the “right” outcome.

I would further suggest that, similarly, when an employer sets a man’s wages based on market rates alone, this is always unjust, even when it produces the “right” outcome.

Market rates for things do, of course, constrain what is possible. But life is full of options. If it isn’t possible for someone in the position to be an employer of full-time employees to do this thing justly, it is always possible for him to do something else entirely. The set of things which can be done justly has always been a subset of the things which can be done at all. Ahem.

I’ll show you mine…

August 25, 2008 § 82 Comments

I think it is blindingly obvious that Mater et Magistra forbids the treatment of labor as a commodity, and requires that the wages of a full-time employee be set as a matter of justice and not to whatever prevailing market rates happen to be. Setting wages to whatever the prevailing market rate happens to be, while ignoring the particular needs of the employee and his family, is inherently unjust.

It is of course always possible that I am wrong though: I am after all just some guy with a blog and a funny pseudonym that I acquired years ago almost by accident.

However, one thing that should be clear to everyone is that a doctrine expresses a truth; and a moral doctrine expresses a moral truth. A moral truth (among other things) divides actions up into permissible ones and impermissible ones. So if someone disagrees with my take on the doctrine on the just compensation of labor expressed in Mater et Magistra, which is specifically set against the errors of both capitalism and Marxism, he ought to be willing to say what in capitalist practice he believes the doctrine forbids.

My fellow Catholics should feel free to say what in capitalist practice you think the doctrine forbids in the combox, as prerequisite to other comments being taken seriously.

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