The problem of “dirty hands”

Are politicians responsible to a different moral code? Are there extreme situations where even non-politicians might follow a different moral code than they otherwise would? These are the issues at the heart of the philosophical problem of “dirty hands,” which is also the subject of this typically thought-provoking episode of Philosophy Bites. Of course the first example that comes to mind is the 24-esque ticking time bomb scenario, but philosopher Tony Coady teases out a more nuanced case he dubs “extrication morality,” in which a political succsessor might be forced to extend the moral wrong of his predecessor into his own administration rather than immediately reverse it and risk further harm to the public.

Some thoughts on Free

Wired editor-in-chief and Free author Chris Anderson giving a lecture in Chile last October. Photo by Carito Orellana.

I’ve just finished Chris Anderson’s Free, which is available free on Google Books or as a free audiobook. There has been a debate raging around Anderson’s book for a week or two now. For those wishing to catch up, Eric Etheridge’s NYT Opinionator blog has a great roundup of yaysayers and naysayers, and it’s well worth a look.

Here’s useful tidbit from Malcolm Gladwell’s pointed critique:

There are four strands of argument here: a technological claim (digital infrastructure is effectively Free), a psychological claim (consumers love Free), a procedural claim (Free means never having to make a judgment), and a commercial claim (the market created by the technological Free and the psychological Free can make you a lot of money).

What’s really fun about reading Gladwell’s review is getting a sense of how his mind works. The quote above literally shows him sorting ideas into bins and tagging them as he goes. Fantastic.

Seth Godin responded to Gladwell’s critique in support of Anderson and added a few insights of his own. Worth repeating:

People will pay for content if it is so unique they can’t get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people.

Very much agreed with Seth on that.

One of the great things about Anderson’s book is its broad look at the idea of “free.” As an armchair read, it’s hard to get bored by all the fascinating examples and stories Anderson shares. However, this breadth is also a trap, because each invested community will tend to read Free narrowly, complete with its own predispositions, seeing holes in Anderson’s arguments as a result.

I see two faults in it as a book, one minor and one major. Minorly, it feels padded: Anderson repeats himself often. (I assume this is because he feels much of his audience will skim the book, not read it in full in order.) Majorly, it feels overreaching: while it’s true that “free” is a game-changer, Anderson occasionally lapses into what an economist might call “irrational exuberance” over his thesis. I think this happens because Anderson wants to fit Free into a category of business book that we all know well from airports and conferences: the “how to think about, recognize, describe, and potentially monetize a current cultural trend” book. This is, of course, a category owned by Gladwell, which is why it’s so fun to see them locking horns here. With this book, Anderson may have triggered the Tipping Point of Free. We don’t get much intellectual bloodsport like this these days.

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"I always quote a guy called Lewis Hyde who wrote about primitive cultures where there’s an exchange of gifts that cannot be kept but have to be passed on. And the passing on of gifts is a device to prevent people from killing one another, because they all become part of a single experience. And [Hyde’s] leap of imagination occurs when he says this is what artists do. Artists provide that gift to the culture, so that people have something in common. And I think that all of us who identify with the role of artists in history want our work to serve that purpose. Certainly as much as we want to work to sell product. (Although not everybody feels the same way.)" Milton Glaser, from this wonderful short film by Hillman Curtis from a few years ago. I never knew Glaser had read Hyde when I compared his thinking on design ethics to Hyde’s book in my essay "Form-giving," but of course now it makes perfect sense why the two are so beautifully in sync. Perhaps an even bigger coincidence is that I just happened to stop by Glaser’s office the day Hillman Curtis was shooting there, and you see me for a moment in the film as I shake Glaser’s hand just after he finishes saying this quote.

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On a recent episode of Philosophy Bites, I heard Donna Dickenson refer to the longstanding Common Law practice that once something is removed from your body it becomes designated as "res nullius," or “no one’s thing.” During the interview Dickenson mentioned the seminal Moore case, which challenges this idea. The case is summarized by Wikipedia as follows: “[In 1976] John Moore underwent treatment for hairy cell leukemia at the Medical Center of the University of California at Los Angeles under the supervision of Dr. Golde. Moore’s cancer was later developed into a cell line that was commercialized, and the court ruled that Moore had no right to profits from the commercialization of anything developed from his discarded body parts.”

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"Three weeks ago, [Evan] Guttman went on a quest to retrieve a friend’s lost cellphone, a quest that has now ended with the arrest of a 16-year-old on charges of possessing the missing gadget, a Sidekick model with a built-in camera that sells for as much as $350. But before the teenager was arrested, she was humiliated by Mr. Guttman in front of untold thousands of people on the Web, an updated version of the elaborate public shamings common in centuries past." NYT on a cell phone lost and found. More thoughts on the case from Clay Shirky here at NPR’s On the Media.

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"Unlike a painting or photograph, a graphic design is often an object as amalgam. In their work, a designer may use a photograph taken by a contemporary photographer, then combine it with a typeface that was released by a foundry in the early 19th century, which is all then set by a printer. In addition to this, the completed design is a ‘work for hire’ that was bought and owned by the company who originally commissioned the work. Yet, many families of designers are looking to retrospectively obtain full copyright control of their relation’s work." Phaidon’s chief design biographer Kerry William Purcell at AIGA.org.