Both topics arose in everyday conversations in the last month.
Conversation #1: A colleague was telling me about his friend who is a fanatical watcher of Freecycle lists. These are community initiatives where people who no longer want a household item can post it on a list so that anyone who needs that item can come by and pick it up for free. Part of the intent is obviously to keep potentially useful things out of the landfill. However, this friend has turned the service into a business for himself, racing to the donor before anyone else, picking up the free items, and then turning around and selling them. Is this ethical? The owner was giving the stuff away for free anyway, and anyone else could do the same, so what's the harm?
Conversation #2: Canada is in the midst of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees to become fully-fledged Canadians. At the same time, the Canadian government wants to cut back on their military presence in Syria, potentially reducing their role in taking out the regimes that are responsible for there being refugees in the first place. The cost of transporting, housing, and feeding all these refugees is enormous. Is it really ethical to fast-track this particular class of immigrant and spend so much on them when there are already plenty of citizens in just as a great a need for housing and food?
A common way to think about such dilemmas is to consider who benefits and who is harmed by such actions. The basic principle is that an ethical choice would be the action that provides the greatest good for the greatest number. This philosophy, known as utilitarianism, seems quite reasonable, and most would accept the concept in theory. One attraction is that it has the potential to provide a clear-cut, rational decision based on a rational and objective calculation.
Let's consider the dilemmas I presented in light of utilitarianism. In the first example, the person giving away the object has presumably decided that they can't be bothered to sell it - their benefit is simply getting rid of it, while knowing that it's going to a good home, not the landfill. It is likely that more than one person may desire the free object, but only one person can own the item. If the recipient gets it for free, then a second person derives benefit. However, if my colleague's friend gets there first and goes to the bother of selling the object, then he gets some cash (second benefit) and a third person gets a good deal on a used object. In terms of assessing harm, no-one loses anything that they already had, so it's win-win-win, right?
In the second example, it is true that taking thousands of people from their homeland and livelihoods, flying them to a foreign country, providing them with all of the basic necessities at no cost to them (but significant cost to the host citizens), teaching them a new language, and then trying to find them affordable housing and employment - all makes no economic sense. Nor is it fair to many of the host country's own people who are already struggling with the same challenges, or to immigrants from other countries who have to wait years to be accepted. Many people are harmed compared to benefit for a relative few.
My difficulty with utilitarianism is that it is essentially a number-based value system. It attempts to maximize a supposedly quantifiable measure of happiness (or more accurately, "utility"). Even assuming that most people can find a common consensus of what constitutes good, and that they can predict outcomes with sufficient accuracy, there are problems with the philosophy. Critics of utilitarianism say that under such a value set, it is easy to start arguing that the ends justify the means. In other words, we stop considering the ethics of the means because a utility-maximizing value system is teleological - meaning its morality is determined by the end result. When put in this light, it is quite easy to come up with examples of where the ends do not justify the means. Many thousands of consumers might derive significant benefit from the work of a relatively small number of children enslaved in a foreign factory making cheap goods, but that's not the kind of calculation we should be performing to determine ethical practices.
A common alternative to a results-based ethical system is a rule-based one, such as can be found in most religions. We measure our actions (the "means") against a predetermined set of rules. Of course, such systems have there own distinct pitfalls. Rules are inflexible, they don't respond well to exceptions, and they can easily do more harm than good. Democracy - a numbers-based value system studied extensively in Chapter 9 of The Value Crisis - defends ethics by its means: A decision is justified if the majority vote that way. Note the inevitability of the minorities suffering under both utilitarianism and democracy.
Still, in the end, most people rely on some combination of the above to guide their actions (or to justify choices that might be questionable!). At other times, we struggle to know what is the right thing to do. So here are some observations, based on our original ethical dilemmas.
When I was told about the Freecycle 'entrepreneur' who grabs free stuff and sells it, I was immediately repulsed by this. Clearly it was contrary to my own value system, so I wondered what it was that I had instinctively found abhorrent. It is by no means obvious. For example, had the reseller paid the original owner even a tiny sum instead of taking it for nothing, I wouldn't have the same reaction - and that's the critical clue. It is not the profit that irked me. Rather, I believe it to be the transformation of the gesture from one value system to another that rubbed me the wrong way.
When someone takes an item of potential monetary value and gives it away, they are expressing a different kind of value. It's not quantifiable. As noted above, they are freeing themselves of an item they no longer need; they can relax knowing they're not adding to the community's trash pile; and they can rejoice in the fact that it is going to someone who needs it at no cost to the recipient. That conveys considerable benefit in human values: simplification, environmental responsibility, and generosity. By participating in the established Freecycle system, they put the item out there with an understanding and trust that it will go to a fellow citizen for free.
'Entrepreneurs' who crassly take advantage of this system, abuse the understanding and trust, and profit monetarily from the expression of those human values are twisting and diminishing them. It doesn't matter whether the donor is aware of this or not (and almost certainly they are not aware that this is happening). In my books, it is simply wrong. Integrity means doing the right thing, even when no-one is looking.
So how would anyone know that this is the wrong thing, if the feeling in their gut is either absent or ignored? The key, and the point of this post, is to note the value system transformation. The initial act was an expression of human values. Turning it into a number-based transaction disrespectfully negates those human values, and once you've done that, you can't go back. The 'creation' of monetary value from nothing was not, in fact, from nothing at all - it came at a cost to human values. (Chapter 8 of The Value Crisis talks more about what happens when we attempt to use value systems interchangeably - with some dramatic examples of the harm that can be done.)
Monetary values, in my opinion, do not have the right to trump unquantifiable values. That kind of thinking leads to huge global challenges, of the sort we are only now beginning to acknowledge. And fixing those huge issues starts with each and every one of us being able to recognize the right thing to do.
Perhaps that's enough to chew on for now. I'll talk about the refugee conundrum in "Doing The Right Thing - Part 2".