Friday, March 28, 2008

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

One of the ethical concepts I have the most difficulty grasping is that from Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. For those of you who have not read the story (and are too lazy to do so), it is a short story based on the moral concepts of utilitarianism. Essentially, there is a town that is perfectly happy and perfectly pleasant, with the caveat that this perfection is supported by, and reliant upon, the constant suffering of a single child. To alleviate the child’s suffering would relieve the town of that which magically makes it such a utopian place to be, and as a result, the child remains suffering. When the children of the town are considered old enough to understand, they are brought to see the child, so that they too may understand the foundation upon which their fortune is based; and as a rule, the vast majority of the inhabitants understands and accepts this trade-off; but some do not.

Those are the Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas; they may be children, they may be adults. But either way, at some point in their lives, they realize they cannot accept the suffering of a child in exchange for their own happiness, and so they leave the utopia of Omelas. It is never explained why or to where, merely that “they know where they are going”.

And this is the part of the story, morally speaking, that I cannot comprehend. I can perfectly understand the utilitarianism view- that the child’s suffering maintains the utopia for tens or hundreds of thousands, and as a result, is justified- exitus acta probat, ‘the result validates the deed’.

I could understand if the ones who walked away from Omelas sought to change it, either from within by convincing their fellows to abandon their utopia in the name of justice, or from without through force of arms (not that it would be particularly difficult, as apparently even a kind word is enough to dispel the utopia).

Instead, they merely walk away, never to return. It seems to be as though this is an endemic method of dealing with third party moral quandaries in today’s world. We find China’s human rights record to be abhorrent- and yet we take no overt action. One could argue, indeed, that the situation with China is not similar; we do take action with China over their human rights record. We refrain from full-scale military action because it is not politically or militarily expedient.

However, those who walk away from Omelas appear to have no such concerns. The thought does not appear to enter their minds to take action against Omelas, itself, something they consider unjust- they merely remove themselves from it, in a way, perhaps, attempting to separate the moral responsibility. The responsibility for the child is no longer theirs- they take nothing from the child. Others, indeed, are benefiting from this captive, and not they.

And yet, the sense has always been in my mind, that this is nothing more than a smoke-screen. A tacit acceptance through willful ignorance is still acceptance, but of a less moral character; it is one thing to accept a harm done, knowing full well that you are doing harm but accepting it because the result is important. It is another thing entirely to accept a harm done without complaint because you looked away; that is instead moral cowardice, not strength. The ones who walk away from Omelas pretend that they do not see, in order that they may consider themselves more ‘pure’.

This I cannot accept. I am willing to accept a difference in moral values- so long as you are willing to openly embrace those values, rather than hiding behind them when it becomes convenient to do so.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mexicans and Mortgage Fraud!

Two separate little legal issues today.

Firstly, there is the just-decided case of Medellin v. Texas, decided March 25th by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court held that, despite the International Court of Justice's decision in Case Concerning Avena and Other Mexican Nationals, (which held that based on violations of the Vienna Convention, 51 Mexican nationals were entitled to review and reconsideration of their state-court convictions and sentences), President Bush had no authority to order the state courts to reconsider the sentences.

The Vienna Convention was, in 1969, properly ratified as a treaty of the United States, and by virtue of the Supremacy Clause, (article IV, clause 2) of the US Constitution, became law and binding upon the States and Federal Government. In Missouri v. Holland, the Supreme Court ruled that treaties constituted a separate area of federal jurisdiction, and that therefore the Federal government's treaty powers are greater than that of Congress; that is, that a federal treaty may require compliance in areas that Congress may not legislate, and by virtue of the Supremacy Clause, they are to have full effect.

Medellin then claimed that by virtue of the supremacy clause, the Vienna Convention constitutes binding United States law (by which the State courts are bound), and that the decision in Avena constitutes a binding decision with which the States must comply (in much the same way that compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court occurs.)

However, the Court appears to conclude that the decision in Avena does not constitute binding law, regardless of whether or not the Vienna Convention constitutes binding law, a decision that is, to some extent, based on a distinction between
"...treaties that automatically have effect as domestic law, and those that -while they constitute international law committments- do not by themselves function as binding federal law."
Admittedly, I find the distinction relatively arbitrary, although I do understand how one might come about; for example, the Kyoto Protocol, which (were it ratified, of course) while it might set required targets for signatory states would presumably not be binding domestic law unless a separate law setting targets and methods was passed by Congress (although I admit I am somewhat unclear on Congress's ability to create law that invades the purview of the states where it is doing so to enact a treaty.)

Essentially, the court appears to state that the judgment in Avena does create an obligation on the part of the United States, but that it does not by itself constitute a binding decision upon domestic courts.

Secondly, there is this news item, regarding another incident of a craigslist hoax, and certainly not the first. In short, an individual posted an advertisement on Craigslist that the belongings of the poster's house were free for the taking. Of course, the owner of the property had posted no such ads, and was somewhat surprised, needless to say, by all the visitors making off with his property.

The issues involved are multifold, but I see the issue as bearing an uncanny resemblance to the current spate of mortgage-fraud cases; cases in which a fraud artist goes to a lending institution to issue a charge against a property not his own; he leaves with the money, and the legitimate owners are surprised when the lending institution attempts to foreclose to recoup its loss.

The lending institution, is of course mostly an innocent party; it believed it was correctly issuing the charge and lending the money. The criminal, of course, was the person who fraudulently connected the two groups. However, there is an expectation in the common law that an individual (or group, of course) will perform its due diligence in order to ensure that the consents it receives are valid and legitimate. Where the individual does not, it can be held negligent and responsible. The issue is far more gray where the individual does perform reasonable due diligence and is still blindsided. Of course it is theoretically possible to recover the loss from the fraud artist, who is of course liable, but it practically may be very difficult or impossible.

This leaves everyone in somewhat of a sticky situation....

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Problem of Strict Deductionism- Synthesis and and Inductive Logic

Deductive logic is a process whereby general principles may be derived from specific claims. For example- all fish swim in water. All trout are fish. Therefore, all trout swim in water. However, there are difficulties with this method of analysis. It does not permit the analysis or drawing of a conclusion where the specific claims cannot necessarily be drawn; and further, where those claims are of dubious veracity, the accuracy of the general principles drawn is debatable.

Hence the principle of inductive logic, which is based on two essential principles (that expand deductive logic, essentially); firstly, that an attribute of a specific object can be applied to all objects in a specific class (this ice is cold; all ice is therefore cold); and that specific behavior occurs in patterns which will continue to occur (we eat dinner at 6:00 today; we will eat dinner at 6:00 tomorrow.) Obviously, there are problems with inductive logic. Take for example the following inductive claim: “All observed apples are red. Therefore, all apples are red.” Unless one can positively ensure that all apples are red, the claim may actually be false.

Synthesis is the combination of two claims or pieces of information in order to establish new elements. For example, the deductive logical claim “Water freezes below zero degrees. It is below zero degrees. Therefore, water will freeze.”, when added to the claim “There is water here” when synthesized leads to the conclusion that “This water is frozen.”

The problem with a reliance on strict deduction should be obvious at this point, as David Hume argued; it is an inductive logical principle that bread will continue to nourish us from day to day because it has in the past. Deductive logic relies upon the fact that one has total knowledge of the datasets relied upon.

However, in the real world, strict deductionism is a dangerous ploy. The principles of inductive logic and synthesis can be applied to a situation for the purposes of prediction and risk analysis, whereas deduction requires either the narrowing of the dataset to an extreme extent or expansion of knowledge appropriately.

For example, take the argument that “If I take cyanide, I will die.”

In order for deductive logic to agree with this conclusion, one must have total data in this respect about the dataset; one can either accomplish that by leaving the dataset unlimited and increasing knowledge, or by narrowing the dataset and thereby narrowing the amount of knowledge required. Specifically, one could attempt to poison every person with cyanide and thereby claim that “Cyanide kills all humans. I am a human. Therefore, if I take cyanide, I will die.” Obviously, this is not possible. In the alternate, one could take cyanide, and if one dies, the logical issue will be a tautology- taking cyanide will have resulted in one’s death.

For inductive logic to agree with this conclusion, however, the issue is much simpler. One could argue, instead, that “All observed takers of cyanide are dead. Therefore, cyanide kills and humans.” Obviously, there are flaws in the above argument; namely, all people in the past have died. This does not, however, necessarily, establish that people will continue to die, and further, it does not draw the distinction that those dead may have died from something other than cyanide. Indeed, there is a requirement to knowledge the inductive statements to be as specific as possible to ensure accuracy.

The difference, however, is that inductive logic allows for the prediction of behavior of a class without actually measuring the entirety of the class; and therefore allows one to predict the results of an action without actually taking that action. Those who rely on strict deductionism for their conclusions are either lying or disturbed. However, it is not uncommon for individuals to rely on inductive logic for their own behavior and everyday lives and yet to require deductive proof of claims they disagree with when presented to them- an ironically hypocritical point of view.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Four Federal By-Elections...

Often, regarding by-elections the question is asked: Does this by-election matter? Does it signal a change in the composition of government; does it signal a change in the will of the electorate? Or is it merely one outgoing member of parliament who is going to be replaced by the successor determined by their party?

There were four ridings up for grabs last night.

In the first one, Willowdale, liberal MP Jim Peterson resigned his seat after many years in the legislature. The liberal party’s suggested successor was Martha Hall Findlay, a long-time liberal and leadership contender, among other things; she was elected with what looks like approximately 60% of the vote (59.3%, if you want to be pedantic.) Before her, in the 2006 federal election, Peterson had won 52% of the vote.

The second riding was Toronto Centre- and here again, the resignation of a liberal (Bill Graham) was followed by the nomination of a major liberal candidate- former Ontario premier, Bob Rae, and again a liberal leadership contender. He too won approximately 60% of the vote (59.2%, specifically), compared to Bill Graham’s 52.2% of the vote in 2006.

The third riding was Vancouver Quadra, opened by the resignation of Stephen Owen. The liberal candidate is not particularly notable to me, one Joyce Murray. Here, Ms. Murray won 36% of the vote compared to 48.84% of the vote by Stephen Owen in the 2006 election. (In the same election, the Marxist-Leninists won 41 votes.)

The fourth, Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchhill River, in Quebec, was seen as perhaps the most tenuous riding of all. Opened by the resignation of Gary Merasty, many pundits reported that the Liberals would have to win not only the other three ridings, (seen as relatively safe) but this riding as well to prevent significant discord in their party. And, in fact, the Conservative candidate Rob Clarke win 47.8% of the vote compared to Joan Beatty with 31.4% of the vote. In 2006, Gary Merasty won the riding with 41.37% of the vote.

It is of course important to note that all of these figures are fairly preliminary, but expected to be accurate.

In the 2006 election, the popular vote fell as follows: 36.27% Conservative, 30.23% Liberal, 10.48% Bloc, and 17.48% NDP followed by approximately 5% of assorted others.

Do these ridings, therefore, mean anything? Willowdale, Toronto Centre, and Vancouver Quadra bucked the trend of the popular vote in 2006, by close to 25% of the total electorate in some cases. It seems fairly self-evident, perhaps, that these ridings therefore are not representative of the total electorate.

How about, therefore, Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchhill River? In 2006, the riding voted 41/41/15 (Lib/Con/NDP), while the prevailing popular vote fell approximately 30/36/17. In 2004, it was 29/37/20, compared to the popular vote of 37/29/15. In both cases, the popular vote was wildly skewed when compared to the popular vote in the specific riding. Obviously, merely comparing popular vote percentages are not the most dramatically effective way of predicting the mood of the electorate.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that the popular vote is not an effective determinant of election victory and seat counts in the Canadian system. Our first-past-the-post system allows for wildly diverging popular vote results when compared to the number of seats won, and the Bloc takes advantage of this the most- by focusing their effort in specific ridings in Quebec, they are able to win a disproportionate number of seats.

Do I think this by-election was an effective predictor of electoral victory in any upcoming federal election? Not in and of itself. However, there were significant concerns in the lead-up to these by-elections that if the Liberals did not win all four seats, the leader of the party, Stephane Dion would face severe criticism within his own party as an ineffective leader. Having won three seats in ‘safe’ Liberal ridings and lost the one seat in an uncertain riding, it is perhaps more likely than ever that he will face the music now.

Unfortunately, despite what he may like to believe, Stephane Dion has not proven himself to be a charismatic leader of the opposition, and has certainly not significantly endeared himself to the electorate- perhaps specifically as a result of not forcing an election sooner. If the state of affairs carries on as it is at the moment, one could perhaps predict a long, slow slide into mediocrity for Dion and his party. They’ve had more than a year at this point to ‘get it together’, and as it stands, they seem to have failed miserably- although his election seems, perhaps, entirely unrelated.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Least Dangerous Branch

In the federalist paper #78, Alexander Hamilton in 1788 wrote:

Whoever attentively considers the different departments of power must perceive, that, in a government in which they are separated from each other, the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them. The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.

In doing so, he lays out a view of the tripartite structure of the blossoming United States government; and in doing so he espouses a view of the Court merely as arbiter on a specific issue, with no influence over public policy. As two hundred and twenty further years of policy development have shown, however, this is no truer today than it was in the late 1940s, or, for that matter, the early 19th century. In fact, in the past two hundred years, the Court has demonstrated not only the ability to set, to some extent, public policy, but it has demonstrated that it may set the rules by which other branches of the government may do business- and because it was designed, as Hamilton claims, as the last dangerous branch, it is the one that operates with the fewest checks and balances on the exercise of its authority.

Let us dispose of Hamilton’s last argument first. He writes “It may truly be said to have neither force nor will, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.” Technically, of course, this is true. The Court does have an enforcement arm; it is the United States Marshals Service, however it falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice and therefore the executive branch. However, in practice, even when there has been considerable personal animosity between the Court and the Executive, the will of the Court is carried out smoothly. The seminal case is perhaps Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952). Under President Truman, the United States was involved in the Korean War; there was a strike by the steel workers, which Truman believed would cause a substantial shock to not only the domestic economy but also the wartime economy, and as a result, he invoked the President’s ‘inherent authority to act in response to a national emergency’, and seized the steel plants. The Court rapidly (The seizure was April 8th, the Supreme Court’s ruling was June 2nd) processed the case, and the Supreme Court voted that the seizure of the steel facilities had been illegal. Within minutes, Truman ordered the steel facilities returned- despite considerable personal disagreement with the law and in fact animosity with the justices over this decision. While technically speaking the Court is unable to enforce its judgments against the will of the Executive, in practice, the executive, even when considerably opposed to the judgment, will enforce it. The reasoning is neither complicated nor unusual; as an arbiter of disputes, the Court’s power to order the Executive branch to enforce its dictates falls well within the sphere of influence of the Court, and as such, is a valid exercise of the rule of law. On the other hand, were the executive to refuse to adhere to a Court decision, the Executive would not be enforcing the rule of law- a dangerous path to tread, as there is nothing other than the rule of law that requires the military, for example, to follow the orders of the Executive branch. Without the structures of the rule of law, which are, in fact, supported because most people wish to obey them, the legitimacy of the government crumbles. The Court’s dictates, its force and will, are a function of the legitimacy of government. Their enforcement may depend upon the Executive, but an Executive that did not do so would have no legitimacy as a body.

Hamilton that defines two further arguments; he says

The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated.”

The former has been dealt with to some extent above. The ‘sword of the community’ only arises out of legitimacy; the Court’s actions are as enforceable as the Executive’s. The Court also has an ability to influence, at least to some extent, the dispensation of the honors- for example, Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803), where the Court ruled it had the ability to grant Marbury a remedy for the refusal of Madison to grant him the honors to which he was entitled (although of course it avoided the issue and did not.)

The legislature, Hamilton rights, “Not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated.” This subject, of course, is a touchy one. The rights of the populace are enumerated in the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, but more specifically, the ninth amendment specifies “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In adding this clause (which has seen limited judicial use, admittedly; the Court in U.S. Public Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75 (1947) found that “If granted power is found, necessarily the objection of invasion of those rights, reserved by the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, must fail.”, prohibiting the government to expand its powers via those amendments but not enumerating other rights that may further restrict granted powers) the Constitutional framers allowed the Court itself to establish the rights of citizens, and specifically to determine to what extent there are to be enforced. In the same vein, by applying the test of these rights to any administrative law dispute brought before it, the Court may prohibit the legislature for impressing duties upon citizens, or regulations.

The Court then has the ability to limit or expand the duties and rights of the citizenry in keeping with the above dicta that non-enumerated rights may also not be infringed; perhaps the best example of this is given in Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965), where the Supreme Court ruled that certain other, non-enumerated, rights could be found in ‘penumbras’ and ‘emanations’ of specifically enumerated rights. The ability to manage the purse is slightly more complicated, but here too, the Court has influence. In Flast v. Cohen,392 U.S. 83 (1968), the Court ruled that taxpayers had standing to sue the government to prevent an unconstitutional use of their funds, although it upheld to some extent Frothingham v. Mellon in 1923, which concluded that a taxpayer did not have “standing to sue the federal government to prevent expenditures if her only injury is an anticipated increase in taxes.”

The Court also has the ability to influence public policy beyond its ability to restrict the actions of the Executive and to expand or contract the rights and responsibilities of the citizenry as dictated primarily by Congress. The primary method by which the Court may enforce its dicta is via stare decisis- that all lower courts are bound to the judgment of a higher court. In this, a Court’s decision to, for example, dictate a test by which taxpayers may sue in Flast v. Cohen would see a similar test applied by lower courts against other lawsuits of similar nature. In so doing, and because Congress conducts all of its business via legislative bills, the Court may dictate the nature of which bills will be allowed to stand by the court and how, if they are to stand, they must be constructed. In a similar vein, the Court may dictate the actions of the Executive and its agents by throwing out their actions where they do not conform to a specific standard of conduct- perhaps the best known example of this is Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), which held that criminal suspects must be informed of their rights before being interrogated by police. This lead to the widespread deployment of the “Miranda Warnings”- a significant alteration in police departmental policy, necessitated by the stare decisis that all interrogations not preceded by Miranda warnings would be ignored form the Court.

Further, it is important to note that the Court, unlike the other two branches of government, is relatively unchecked in its exercise of power. There are some jurisdictions in the United States (specifically state courts, as the Constitution declares that all Federal judges must be appointed, for life, although this would not technically prohibit an election, the winner of whom would be appointed) where judges are elected representatives, but this is not true at all in the Federal system and is only true in some of the states, making it generally uncommon. As a rule, judges are not accountable, therefore, to the electorate as the Executive and the Legislature are. Supreme Court judges can be impeached, however, none have successfully been removed from office (and only Samuel Chase, in 1804, ever had an impeachment vote pass the house). In fact, the US Supreme Court has supervisory authority over lower Federal justices- making it much a case of presiding over one’s own house.

Finally, Alexander Hamilton noted that

The judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them.”

Perhaps the most reasonable reason to conclude this is because the Court does not have the authority to arbitrarily rule. Rather, Article III of the Constitution gives the Court the authority to decide cases brought before it. In this respect, the Court’s power is significantly weakened- it does not have the authority to overrule a law or procedure or action of another branch of the government unless someone with locus standi (that is, standing to bring the action) brings the case before it for a decision. As a result, it could be said to have the least capacity to annoy or injure them because it has the least capacity to act. While a single court ruling may have the effect of a law in that it significantly influences public policy in a specific direction (Such as Miranda v. Arizona, for example) the Court does not have the ability to enact such rulings at will. Moreover, the court is limited by previous rulings, and lower courts are limited by higher ones- and perhaps more importantly, the composition of the federal Courts and the procedures involved have in fact been altered by Congress in the Judiciary Acts of 1789, 1801, 1802, 1866, 1869, 1891, and 1925. All of the above do serve to severely limit the Court’s authority and ability to act, either positively or negatively.

Hamilton believed the Judiciary to be the least dangerous branch because it was least capable. History has shown this to be a sadly false assumption- the Court has shown itself capable and willing to intrude in almost every sphere of governmental policy and existence. There are more cases brought before the Court than the court can handle- about 7500 petitioners to the United States Supreme Court in 2006, of which it heard approximately 100. Hamilton also believed the judiciary to be the least dangerous branch because it had the most restrictions placed upon it- it had no ability to command the sword, the purse, or the rights. All three of these are also sadly mistaken, and in fact, the very lack of restrictions and oversight placed on the United States federal courts in general and the Supreme Court in specific often has individuals frothing at the mouth over judicial activism. And yet, the Court will endure as an institution- not only because of its necessity, because as a rule, nobody seems to have thought it as doing any worse a job than the other two branches.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Municipal Affairs

Municipal politics in Canada tend to be a tricky situation, all told. This is primarily due to the method by which municipalities originate; they do not have, unlike provinces or the federal government, any constitutional legitimacy. Rather, municipalities are created by enabling legislation passed by the province.

Indeed, this puts municipalities in a very tricky situation- they have no inherent powers of their own. Their only authority derives from the province, and as a result, the province has the ability to (and does) override actions of municipalities when it feels the need to do so.

It also leads to the disturbing trend of 'downloading'- the province offloading responsibility for funding and providing services, like for example, social services or schools, to municipalities. Technically speaking, this is nothing more than a smokescreen; the actual legislative responsibility has not changed. Instead, the provincial legislature, in creating the appearance of an elected third level of municipal government, has attempted to 'mask', to some extent, its involvement in these programs. Of course, as an agent of the provincial government, the municipality is nothing of the sort- there are only two levels of constitutionally defined government.

To digress as to why this is important, it's important to realize that nations are entities, that is they owe no higher allegiance and have an exclusive right to governance inside their sphere. In a federal system (as opposed to a unitary system), sovereignty is divided between an overarching body and numerous lesser political bodies; for example, the United States of America and the individual states or Canada and the individual provinces. There may be some level of overlap, which is always a tricky situation and requires definition by the courts, but strictly speaking, there is no sharing of powers- powers belong to one or the other, unless the sovereign entity has declared itself to be sharing them. The only two groups of sovereign bodies in Canada are the provinces and the federal government- and only those two groups have exclusive right to governance inside their sphere. The municipality only governs under the authority of the provincial government.

What it does allow, however, is for the provincial government to somewhat immunize itself from public fallout. For example; suggest that the Province of Ontario decides to download education to the municipalities. Make no mistake; education is still a provincial responsibility, but as the municipality is a delegate of the province’s authority, the province is still ‘dealing’ with the issue. At this point, the province can strike all taxes pertaining to education, and it is up to the municipalities to both manage education and to institute taxes to provide for it.

With an elected municipal government, this may result in a nasty backlash against the municipality if it is forced to institute property taxes to pay for education, a backlash that may not exist against the province; and if the schools are mismanaged, similarly, the responsibility in the public eye tends to fall upon the municipality.

Actually, however, the municipality only has the power to tax as an agent of the province, and only has the power to act as an agent of the province. Indeed, any backlash directed against it is directed against the province as the two former is nothing more than an agent of the latter. But in the world of realpolitik and public perception, the two cannot be more different.

Realistically speaking, of course, this apparent division of labor only tends to make things worse, as any survivor of Mike Harris’s Ontario government can attest to. But it is one of the most misunderstood concepts in municipal governance these days, and is perhaps over utilized for exactly that reason.

Friday, March 7, 2008

When is gross misconduct wrong?

There is what one might consider a small controversy (and I keep wanting to pronounce that cont-rov-ersy, instead of contro-versey, how I usually pronounce it) around here. A university student (and you can find citations at both the CBC and Slashdot) faces 147 counts of academic misconduct after creating a study group on Facebook.

Normally I would not comment other than to point out that "University politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.", but in this case I think issue warrants more of a digression.

At issue there generally appear to be two sides, one of which is exemplified in the standard Slashdot groupthink and the other of which tends more toward the CBC's own comment pages. The former is the view that education is pretty much free and people should be able to do whatever they like- including form study groups. Moreover, this group would argue, the university is being totalitarian and overbearing, as usual, and should leave its students alone (after all, they have rights). The latter would argue that they're cheating and youngsters these days need to have their mouths cleaned out with soap and learn the meaning of honesty and integrity.

I find both views to be lacking. There is, to some extent, a public policy objective to be fulfilled in ensuring that students do not graduate from university entirely incompetent in the subject matter with which they have supposedly been educated; would you appreciate it if your doctor was unable to tell the difference between a metacarpal and a metatarsal? (They are the long bones of the hand and of the foot, respectively.) There is also, to a great extent, a public policy objective to be fulfilled in granting freedom of association and expression to students. It is, in many ways, a similar debate that rages about the inclusion of illegally obtained evidence; should evidence, which if entered into the court would cause the subject to be found guilty, entered into the record despite the fact that it was illegally obtained? How about if, without said evidence, the suspect would walk free, despite the evidence clearly indicating beyond a reasonable doubt as to their guilt?

That is the argument from inside the box. However, there is an argument that exists outside the box. Namely, is it wrong to cheat? Is it wrong to lie? I have not answered this above; one can cheat and still graduate an educated student. One can lie, collaborate, or write down the names of the 206 bones in the body in microprint on one's foreskin, and still be a good doctor. One can fail to memorize the list of crucial decisions that led to the establishment of the current views surrounding freedom of speech, and still be a good lawyer. Some of those individuals speaking at the CBC's message boards believe that students should have mandatory ethics courses in first year.

I will point out that back during my own first undergraduate year, I did take professional ethics. Out of three papers, one defended lying and one gross professional misconduct, arguing both were situationally dependent and could often be ethical or even ethically necessary. Both arguments were well received, because they were well supported, ethically, in both cases by essentially the same argument- that a greater good was served by ethically dubious behavior on the small scale.

In fact, the same argument applies here. Even were we to assume that the individual present is guilty of gross academic misconduct (which is itself a dubious accusation) that does not make such an action ethically unfavorable without more argument. In fact, one could argue that if he was providing a service to his peers that served to forward their educations and his own, his action was ethically justified despite being gross academic misconduct.

In this case, I think the issue is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot. There is no real ethical argument to be satisfied and I believe the claim of gross academic misconduct is dubious at best and dishonest and offensive at worst.

However, even as a student of law, I find it somewhat disheartening that the question immediately focused on ideology and semantics (as perhaps polarized as the two may be) rather than examining the basic elements of ethical behavior involved.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Medical Basics...

One of the things I find most difficult about studying medicine is the very basics, and it's a topic that I find ill-covered in any of the material that I've studied so far.

Often the text with refer to, for example, O2 stats of a test-case patient. However, the text does not define the normal range of oxygen saturation for a patient, what instrument one would use to measure it, what the results of a decreased O2 saturation would be, and what the clinical indications of decreased O2 saturation are. This leaves me scrambling to either Wikipedia if I'm at my desk or to write it down if I'm not so that I can later look up the specific test and the results, and I feel it's inefficient.

Practically speaking, I am sure one can find a book outlining basic diagnostic tests, how to perform them, what results one should expect, and what it means if one receives a different result. However, I haven't yet found such a book.

Similarly, it seems as though medicine often results in such complications, and it is possible that I simply don't have a sufficient classroom grounding to deal with the basic terms and concepts- there is a great deal of interrelation between psychiatry, examination of a patient, anatomy, basic texts, radiology, and so on.

That said, so far, I have found Clinical Psychiatry (the medical text and field I am studying at the moment) exceptionally helpful. Despite being dense in format, the text is clear and readable, and presents a variety of helpful tables- such as what drugs are indicators for specific psychiatric conditions, and in contrast, what drugs one might use to treat psychiatric conditions.

It has covered the Mini-Mental State Exam in detail (a very basic cognition test) as well as outlining the clinical bases and utilities of a variety of other tests, and beginning to outline treatment regimes, as well as covering the bases of psychiatric illness.

Perhaps oddly, it has done more to make psychiatry 'available' to me than perhaps anything else has.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The art of mentality

One of the most difficult things about psychiatry, as opposed to surgery, or immunology or, in fact, most medical disciplines, at least to me, is the fact that it's extremely unclear whether someone is actually sick or not, and there's no real way to tell. Drugs can be effective on people who are not necessarily mentally 'ill'; and drugs can not be effective on people who are mentally 'ill'.

Stoudemire's Clinical Psychiatry defines a mental disorder by saying "It is, in fact, impairment of function that distinguishes 'eccentric behavior' from psychiatric illness."

Perhaps this seems self-evident; well and so. The difficulty is that establishing when someone is impaired is also a questionable task. One of the best examples of this is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which may strike as many as 7% of children. However, all sufferers are struck with different severities of symptoms, from the crippling to the almost unnoticeable; and it tends to be more a matter of art than of science in determining how to deal with the issue.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) attempts to clarify the issue, but in my opinion, rarely does. Rather than setting out specific itemizations, the details presented are merely rough guidelines.

Rather, you are left with a wide variety of people, especially Americans, in my experience, who believe they have mental disorders- without necessarily a severe impairment of function, for which they receive pharmaceutical support. Because these pharmaceuticals can alter the biology of 'healthy' people just as well as they can the 'ill', in fact, these people do undergo changes. Of course, it is then up for debate as to whether they are 'healthy' now as opposed to before.

Arguably, the only definition that matters is whether they are more functional after whatever treatment than before. In this respect, it may be that psychiatric treatment is nothing more than a lifestyle choice- albeit an expensive one with possibly drastic side effects.