Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

File Under Bad Ideas

In case you didn't know, the B.C. government is planning to spend $458 million dollars to build a retractable roof on B.C. place. Maybe I'm biased because I consider B.C. place an outdated eyesore that should be torn down and replaced with an open air natural grass stadium (which could be done for less than $458 million), but it has to be a bad sign that I'm a big sports fan (and a bigger soccer fan - the soccer community is behind the upgrade, which seems unwise to me, B.C. place is a bad venue and artificial turf isn't right for serious soccer) and I consider this one of the worst uses of taxpayer dollars I've heard about in recent years.

Seriously, upgrade some more schools so they are earthquake proof, buy medical equipment to reduce waiting lists, buy some buses for municipal transit companies, replace the Pattullo bridge, - almost anything would be better than spending half a billion dollars putting a new roof on a crap stadium.

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27. Ethics and Words

Note: This post is the twenty-seventh in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

"Don't tarry in the Marshes," Orddu, while from within the cottage Taran heard loud and angry noises. "Else you may regret your foolish boldness, or bold foolishness, whichever1"

In this post, I'm going to describe a behaviour between two people and then ask you to think about what word you would use to describe this behaviour. Simple enough?

First case: Two people work together to achieve something that benefits them both that they couldn't do on their own.

Second case: Two people work together to find a place to live, where they can share living expenses

Third case: Two people work together to fight off a bear that attacks them

Fourth case: Two business executives from different companies work together to prevent prices from dropping in their industry due to an unproductive price war

Fifth case: A home inspector and a home owner work together to reach an agreement that benefits them both more than issuing a citation for a violation of local bylaws would.

Sixth case: A businessman reaches a deal with the head of an invading army not to raise trouble as long as the invading troops don't disrupt his business.

Seventh case: Two anarchists work together to form a plot to kill all the members of the Canadian government

Eighth case: Two Taliban soldiers work together to ambush and a kill a group of Canadian soldiers.


The first case, two people working together to achieve something they both benefit from, generally, as far as I know, goes by the name 'cooperation' and is generally held to be a 'good thing' or virtuous.

But all 8 cases involving two people working together for mutual gain yet not all would typically go by the same name.

Cases 2 and 3 are still standard cooperation.

But case 4 would normally go by the name 'collusion' which is considered unethical and is illegal in many places/contexts.

Case 5 typically goes by the name 'corruption' or 'bribe-taking' and is also considered unethical.

Case 6 goes by the name 'collaboration' and is even more unethical.

Case 7 might go by the name 'conspiracy' and is (arguably) most unethical of all.

Finally, case 8 seems similar to case 7, but here I suspect that we would normally be back to using the phrase 'cooperation' since there is no ethical condemnation of the act because it is understood that, in war, attempting to kill the enemy is what you are supposed to do.


In Systems of Survival, after listing out the ethics in the guardian and commercial syndromes, Jane Jacobs explains the absence from the lists of some typical ethical values,
"Where's cooperation, courage, moderation, mercy, common sense, foresight, judgment, perseverance, faith, energy, patience, wisdom? I omitted these because they're esteemed across the board, in all kinds of work."

But based on the 8 cases I've listed above, I can't agree that the simple act of cooperation is universally esteemed, unless we include that esteem as part of the definition of cooperation.

When it comes to ethical values, there is both the denotation (what behaviour is described by the value) and the connotation (whether that behaviour is considered good or bad) to consider2.

In the extreme case, a word like 'good' is all connotation, no denotation.

Interestingly, even though 'cooperate' has a strong positive connotation such that a different word is used for 'bad' cooperation, it's opposite, 'competition', does not have a strong connotation. Whether in a good sense, 'our business is a lot more competitive than it used to be' or in a bad sense, 'Bobby needs to learn to not be so competitive with the other children' the same word is routinely used (although it's interesting to note that a quick review of the thesaurus, shows that most of the synonyms for 'competitive' carry negative connotations - 'aggressive', 'antagonistic', 'combative' etc.).

This leaves open the question of whether there actually are any behaviours that are universally supported, or just words with strong positive connotations such as 'wisdom'. Even something as universally admired as perseverance gets recast as stubbornness when it seems that no good will come from the perseverance. In more severe cases (i.e. when perseverance is not combined with moderation), it might even start to be referred to as obsessiveness. A google search of the word 'perseverance' finds nothing but praiseworthy behaviour, but a google search of 'perseverance' and 'obsessive' brings up a gallery of mental disorders and destructive behaviour patterns.

Anyway, I'm sure that was all no-longer-fashionable hat to linguists and ethicists, but it's new to me, at least in terms of my awareness of the extent to which ethical terms contain a mix of both a descriptive and a positive/negative component. We need to be careful not to assume that a certain behaviour is universally praiseworthy just because it goes by a less common name in its non-praiseworthy context.

1from Taran Wanderer, by Lloyd Alexander

2This is true for a lot of words, of course, but it applies particularly to ethical values.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Trouble With Normal... it always gets worse.

Back in 2006, I wrote that, "one of the things which I find annoying about the 'right-wing' these days in North America, is an inability to distinguish being things which should be partisan, and things which shouldn't." and complained about, "the politicization of the Government of Canada webpage, which, since the election, has become an extension of the Conservative Party site."

Somewhat naively, I offered that, "Perhaps now that the Globe and Mail has picked up on this story, with a well-written article by Ivor Tossell, the Conservatives will be shamed into making the taxpayer funded website less of a marketing tool for one particular party."

So now we see that, far from improving, things have steadily deteriorated on the inappropriately partisan front. In addition to disproportionately funneling federal stimulus funding to Conservative ridings, Conservative MP's have been running around the country passing off taxpayer money as being provided by the Conservative party or its MP's.

With the instinctive 'yeahbuttheLiberals' response rising from the Conservative side, not to mention the recent stacking of the senate by Harper, it's a pity Arzt is no longer with us to point out that the pigs are walking.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Back Home

So I'm back from vacation in Tibet/Nepal and just about ready to re-engage with the series on ethics. One encouraging sign while I was gone was the shared Nobel Award for Economics awarded to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson - encouraging because they are two of the people whose theories I was already planning to cover as part of my blog series.

One thing I haven't noticed in any of the commentaries I've read so far, beyond the general comments from the Nobel committee itself that, "Both scholars have greatly enhanced our understanding of non-market institutions," is people commenting on the similarity between their work. Williamson is primarily known for his work on explaining how corporations (firms) exist in part to help overcome market failure due to monopolies caused by the specific nature of many production processes (i.e. people who make engines that only work in Ford cars can only sell them to the Ford company and vice-versa), while Ostrom is known for her work on how local groups of people can overcome market failure due to shared ownership of limited local resources.

In my Sytems of Survival-coloured view, both Ostrom and Williamson's work represent efforts to understand how people have developed innovative ways of coping with situations where guardian ethics (that deal with monopoly and limited resources) come into conflict with commercial ethics (that deal with trade of goods and resources).

More on both of these folks at some point in the future...

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Empty Blog Music #4


Sunday, October 04, 2009

Empty Blog Music: #3

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