Posts Tagged ‘Morality’

On the legitimacy and morality of taxation

February 16, 2015

These are two questions that I have been wrestling with. First whether the concept of taxation of individuals by a state is legitimate and moral, and second, what basis of taxation is the least unjust. Here I just consider the legitimacy and morality of the concept of taxation.

Anarchists and libertarians see taxation as theft. They see it as the oppression of the individual (private or corporate) by the greater society – ostensibly for the “common good”. Communists and socialists see it otherwise. For them there is no individual ownership of property and all wealth is owned by the masses. It is a manifestation of the conflict interface between an individual and the larger society. Some – libertarians for example – suggest that the “greater society” cannot abrogate to itself an authority which is not delegated to it by its individual members. And the power to confiscate the property or wealth of some of its members is not an authority that originates with the individual “victim”. Liberal democrats would argue that taxation is merely the membership fee for individuals to be part of the “club” represented by the “greater society”.

There have been many headlines in the last week about HSBC and the manner in which it has assisted its clients to avoid and evade taxation (where avoidance is legal whereas evasion is illegal). The indignation of politicians rings rather hollow. That the poor resent the rich is not surprising. It is inevitable that in a “democracy” the majority poor will seek to oppress the rich minority. But the bottom line is that all taxation is a confiscation of an individual’s property or wealth by a society (state). It is confiscation by force or under the threat of force. But much of the recent turbulence is based on envy and resentment and of various socialist politicians attempting to create a populist wave out of such resentment and envy. (Of course they conveniently forget that the poor are not poor because the rich are rich. Most are poor because they do not, or do not have the opportunity to, create wealth).

I am persuaded that the concept of taxation as practised today is immoral. It is fundamentally a coercion of an individual by a larger (stronger) society. It is an enforced confiscation (by threat of legal action) of an individual’s property or wealth. It cannot be seen as a membership fee for being a member of the society because leaving (or being expelled from) the society is not an option. It is closer to the extortion of “protection money” than to the membership dues for a golf club. The use to which the funds are put is irrelevant. The key point is whether the payment is voluntary or coerced. When early Christians paid a “tithe” to the Church voluntarily it was not immoral. But when the payment was coerced and no longer voluntary, the system became immoral. Similarly Islam requires the payment of zakat on individual wealth over the minimum nisab and this also shifted from a quite unexceptionable and moral voluntary payment to become an obligatory and immoral coercive confiscation.

I don’t quarrel with the need for any society to generate “common funds” to improve the well being of that society. But the legitimacy of appropriating the funds lies only in that the society (state) is stronger than the individual. Might becomes right. I come to the conclusion that a tax code by which the amount a “good citizen” should contribute to society is calculated is quite moral as long as the payment is then voluntary. There would be no moral issue if all taxation was voluntary. The immorality lies in the use of threat or force to confiscate the payment. It is the oppression of the minority by the majority which is immoral. (I observe that all democracies use the very fact of being a “democracy” as being a justification for the oppression of minorities when that is the will of the majority. As if being in the majority – by and of itself – ensures proper behaviour). But, the good socialist will argue, compulsory payment of tax is necessary to ensure the funds for the common good. Without coercion society as a whole would suffer. The common good – as seen by the majority – is worth the oppression of the minority who do not pay their dues.

And so we come full circle. The end justifies the means. Oppression of the minority by a majority is acceptable for the good of the majority. A society must be able to use force and coercion against its own minorities for the greater good. Taxation is made legitimate only because the state is stronger than the individual.

But that does not alter the fact that involuntary taxation is fundamentally immoral.

Whether a tax code should be based on wealth creation or wealth consumption is a question for another day.

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Moral in the morning, lying in the evening, cheating by suppertime…

October 30, 2013

Of course it is another paper demonstrating great insight into human behaviour with far reaching conclusions. Needless to say it is a hypothesis dreamed up by social psychologists.

Is it good science? Unlikely. Is it trivial? Undoubtedly. Does it provide real empirical data? Yes. Is it relevant? Hardly.

Is it even science?  

Maryam Kouchaki and Isaac H. Smith, The Morning Morality Effect: The Influence of Time of Day on Unethical BehaviorPsychological Science, October 28, 2013,  doi: 10.1177/0956797613498099

Kouchacki is a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard University and completed her doctoral studies at the University of Utah, where Smith is a current doctoral student. Kouchaki has been involved with a previous “priming” study about the effect of thinking about money on morality. And as is now well known, most “priming” studies are highly suspect.

It is not for nothing that the the APS journal Psychological Science is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology.

The authors conducted experiments on college-age participants and on a sample of on-line participants:

  1. … college-age participants were shown various patterns of dots on a computer. For each pattern, they were asked to identify whether more dots were displayed on the left or right side of the screen. Importantly, participants were not given money for getting correct answers, but were instead given money based on which side of the screen they determined had more dots; they were paid 10 times the amount for selecting the right over the left. Participants therefore had a financial incentive to select the right, even if there were unmistakably more dots on the left, which would be a case of clear cheating.
  2. … also tested participants’ moral awareness in both the morning and afternoon by presenting them with word fragments such as “_ _RAL” and “E_ _ _ C_ _”

Their results showed that in line with their hypothesis, participants tested between 8:00 am and 12:00 pm were less likely to cheat than those tested between 12:00 pm and 6:00pm — a phenomenon the researchers call the “morning morality effect.” In the second experiment morning participants were more likely to form the words “moral” and “ethical,” whereas the afternoon participants tended to form the words “coral” and “effects,” lending further support to the morning morality effect.

Clearly the arduous field-work consisted of wandering around their dangerous college campus(es) soliciting subjects and then spending many long-nights on-line to get their “on-line” sample.

…. both undergraduate students and a sample of U.S. adults engaged in less unethical behavior (e.g., less lying and cheating) on tasks performed in the morning than on the same tasks performed in the afternoon. This morning morality effect was mediated by decreases in moral awareness and self-control in the afternoon. Furthermore, the effect of time of day on unethical behavior was found to be stronger for people with a lower propensity to morally disengage. These findings highlight a simple yet pervasive factor (i.e., the time of day) that has important implications for moral behavior.

Presumably a good afternoon nap could restore our moral behaviour in the evenings?

It seems to me that the hypothesis has been designed/invented primarily to grab headlines and to ensure publication.

Behaviour, law and ethics: A practical view

September 3, 2010
Le Penseur, Musée Rodin, Paris

Image via Wikipedia

Whether in scientific endeavour, the business world or in politics we see daily scandals where behaviour is considered lacking in integrity or in ethics. In recent days we have had the Hausergate scandal, the Commonwealth Games corruption scandals, the money-down-the-drain in Iraq scandals and the HP procurement scandal.

For clarity in my own mind I reason as follows:

My values lead to my behaviour.

Values are comparative standards or norms and they calibrate and motivate my behaviour but in themselves they have no inherent goodness or badness. My values are my behavioural standards. They allow me to make comparisons (faster, better, pleasing, irritating, bearable, acceptable, good, just, right ….).

Behaviour may be lawful or unlawful or ethical or unethical.

Laws are what the society I operate in, or wish to operate in, uses to define what is unacceptable behaviour. But lawful behaviour does not address whether it is ethical or unethical (though that may be implied). Where law is silent, behaviour is, by default, lawful but may still be either ethical or unethical.

My ethics tell me what behaviour is correct and desirable behaviour. This may or may not be consistent with the ethics of the society surrounding me which specifies what that society considers the right and proper and desirable behaviour. Ethical values and ethical behaviour thus represents a sub-set of all the values I may have and all the consequent behaviour they might lead to. Ethical behaviour is not necessarily lawful. Unlike the limits set by law, behaviour does not become ethical by default if ethics are silent. Behaviour which is not unethical is not therefore necessarily ethical.

Ethical values and moral values are almost synonymous. The only difference I can find is that what I consider ethical codes or values rely more on logic or a rationale and less on faith. And I take faith or belief to be that which exists in the space of the “unknown unknowns” where ” I don’t know what I don’t know”. Faith or belief then allows formulating the answer (and even the question) in the absence of evidence. But both ethical codes and moral codes specify  right and proper and desirable behaviour. Behaviour that is not unethical or immoral does not by default become ethical or moral.

In practice therefore;

  1. My values lead to my behaviour,
  2. Laws tell me what I ought not to do,
  3. Ethics tell me what I ought to do.

Many corporations and organisations and enterprises take the easy way out and adopt so-called ethical codes which are merely  a set of rules (codes of law). But this is merely relying on what not to do and is an abdication of the responsibility to come to a view on what is the right and proper thing to do. The right and proper behaviour must – I think – include a conscious choice from the various options available of what can be done and cannot be merely an exclusion of unacceptable or undesirable behaviour.

A child first accepts its parents view of what is right or wrong. As it grows it brings in and integrates what others consider right or wrong. Eventually a mature thinking individual develops his own views of what is right or wrong and integrates that with the views of the surrounding society. In this sense, most corporations and other organisations are still in their infancy and are content to rely only on what law excludes as being unacceptable. This in turn leads to a minimalist ethical code where anything which is not explicitly unlawful is perfectly OK.

Hence Enron and Satyam and Siemens and British Aerospace and …………

It is the having of an ethical code that matters.


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