Monday, June 10, 2013

Just because it's "legal' doesn't mean it's right!

I note that several commentators and apologists for the NSA's spying on the electonic communications of US citizens and residents are claiming that it was legal, authorized by the Patriot Act and/or other legislation.

This is spurious.

For something to be 'legal' merely means that a law has been passed designating it as such.  Congress could pass a law tomorrow declaring that we have too many elderly people, and therefore anyone who's turned 70 must turn themselves in for euthanasia.  That law would make their killing 'legal' - but not moral, or ethical, or right, under any system of ethics or morals of which I'm aware.

The point at issue in the NSA spying scandal is not whether or not it was legal.  It's whether or not it was right.  I state, flatly and without reservation, that it was wrong - that it was in violation of both the letter and the spirit of the US constitution.  I don't give a damn whether or not hair-splitters agree with me on that point.  If I found someone trying to aggregate information about the contents of my mailbox by inspecting every item as it was delivered, I'd stop him by any means necessary, because he's invading my privacy.  I don't need a law to define that, nor do I care whether he - or those who sent him - define privacy differently to me.  I know what privacy means to me, and what it meant to our Founding Fathers.  Can you imagine what Washington, or Jefferson, or Jackson would have done if they'd found their personal, private communications being monitored like this?  That says it all, right there.

To maintain that such overreach is 'necessary' is to ignore the basic element in this whole affair.  Necessity doesn't define morality.  Is it right or wrong?  By any civilized standard of which I'm aware - and that doesn't include the tortuous machinations and confabulations of politicians and bureaucrats - it's wrong.  Period.  End of discussion.



Patrick said...

Peter, I'm curious - don't you think that UPS, FedEx and potentially the Post Office have records of every package they've ever delivered to you, including who mailed it and from where? I know that much of what I ship is 'trackable' through their various websites, and if I can track it then I guess I'd assume they can too.

The Amazon link through which I bought your (thoroughly entertaining) book tracked me from my home computer to your site to theirs, noted how long I viewed their site, and automatically converted to my home currency (I presume you didn't price it in Aussie dollars - if you did, good on ya!). If I lived next door to you, we might've been able to arrange an unmonitored cash transaction, but then I wouldn't have been automatically included in the author popularity system you've been gleefully tracking. Whether or not it's "necessary" seems irrelevant - the capacity to track electronic transactions is not separate from the system of electronic transaction. Isn't this like getting mad because the government knows your phone number?

Carteach said...

Legal and illegal have nothing to do with right or wrong.

Never did, never will.

Anonymous said...

Patrick, doesn't it come down to the difference between 'can' and 'should'? Just because the government (or a business) Can track everything, doesn't mean they Should track everything.

We all know the information is out there; the argument is whether or not the information should be collected and examined by the government without a crime having been committed.
The connected question is whether or not that government knowledge is intimidation. In particular, does it impinge on the freedom of assembly? A lot of my generation would say that it isn't, having grown up on Facebook. Personally, I'd say it is intimidation...

Anonymous said...

Certainly the Inuit culture declares that leaving Granny on the Ice Floe is perfectly moral and ethical.

Cheyenne turn the women of a dead Brave out of the tribe to fend for themselves. Whether middle of Winter or Fall. Doesn't matter. Unless someone picks her up as either a squaw or a slave she is dead. She has nothing but the clothes on her back. That is considered perfectly moral and ethical by the Cheyenne. The list does go on.

You might not like it but it is an ethical and moral system.

Not to us. I know.

Whatever society gets used to is what is moral and ethical. Gay Marriage? How about sex on the street? Happens all the time in San Fran. Moral. Ethical. Maybe not to you and me, but as natural as grasslands to 'them'.

But, in point of fact, I do see a 'war on the elderly' in the offing. There are currently all manner of ways of 'killing off granny' without anyone being the wiser. Saves costs, you know. If they are on Insurance they get far better treatment than if they are on Medicaid or Medicare. I bet a study would prove that out. Who dies younger? Insurance - keep 'em breathing until the insurance payments stop. Medicare - eh... some stuff is covered at a decent enough cost. Medicaid? Let 'em go. They aren't worth enough.

But it is even more than that. There will be a groundswell of the young that will have so little connection to their progenitors (extended families are almost a thing of the past), that they won't have any problem at all when the 'administration' issues declarations that "life support** will be withheld from those that are no longer contributing to society, as are the young energetic, passionate, brilliant, gold star younger generation!!! It is unfair to take away from your brilliant futures!"

**life support: Could be defined as simply withholding the ability to get to a source of water, food or even, breath. The Nazi's withheld life support from all of those souls led into and trapped in closed rooms when the gas flooded in on them...

Semantics. New Speak. Call it what you will. It is coming. It is, in many areas, here already. We don't have a 'right' to privacy. At all. All those cameras watching us and our comings and going. Who is to say we all won't have cameras connected to our house? Oh sure, they aren't watching bathroom habits, but they do know that you went in the bathroom, but they really don't know what you did in there. They know that the toilet flushes...

Brave New World.

(Sorry about the rant, but you have touched on something that has been with me for about 50 years now... Long time ago in Fantasy Magazine I read a story about the elderly having to barracade themselves behind gated communities with armed guards - well PAID guards. All of the 'non rich' elderly are already dead... It ends with the gates being swarmed... No mention of what happens when the scapegoat is finally killed. Oh yeah, find a new one.

Anonymous said...

Have these "people" ever read the Constitution of the United States - in particular the 4th Amendment? Some little thing about "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers" ~ "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized". May I get a copy of the warrant for seizing my private communications? I won't hold my breath.

Mike_C said...

Is it right or wrong?
Well, that would depend on the definition of "is," and At this point, what difference does it make anyway?

It's been fascinating (and more than a bit sickening) to see who aligns with whom on this NSA issue. Although I've never been a great fan of the portmanteau "sheeple" I think it applies to more than I had hoped. As an example (spent a lot of time in the car yesterday, so radio), an articulate, educated-sounding young woman was blithely unconcerned, and indeed clearly annoyed by the yammering nutcases working themselves into a froth: "Of course I'm not worried. We have a system of checks and balances in our government. They'd have to get permission from a judge to use any of this information they're gathering." My interpretation: Dutifully went to junior high school civics class. Listened to the words. Maybe even took notes. Clearly did not process. Sigh.

Re Elderly Inuit and ice floes: I have heard this all my life but never bothered to research its truth or not, but I'll agree to stipulate its veracity. It was ethical in the sense that in a very limited, no-surplus environment it would have been the least bad thing to do, as the alternative was likely "everyone starves." Doesn't make it good or right. Field surgery can save lives, that doesn't make the brutal things you have to do in the process in any way desirable.

As to the societal norm being moral and ethical, I strongly disagree (unless the above commentator was being sarcastic, in which case, apologies). Clitoridectomizing young girls (with a dirty razor sans anesthesia yet) is plain wrong. And if your cultural norm says it's okay, then that part of your culture is wrong. Okay, that's @$$holes in other lands, fine. Slavery was a societal norm in part of this country not all that long ago. Moral and ethical?

perlhaqr said...

Anonymous @11:23 -- Your position is pretty alien to those of us (or at least, myself) opposed to socialised medicine.

I know lots and lots of people claim that "health care is a human right" but unfortunately, health care does cost money and require resources. Does it really make sense to spend a thousand dollars a day in medical care to keep a barely coherent 95 year old alive? Ten-thousand? A million? And if not, in what way is discontinuing her medical care morally or ethically different from abandoning Grandma on the ice floe when times are tough?

Some people (Many people? Most people? I dunno) seem to think that "because a medical procedure exists, I am entitled to receive it if it would help me, whether or not I can pay for it". Perhaps one's ethical position encompasses that, but since we don't live in a post-scarcity world, resources are finite. One way or the other, someone will end up going without, either because it's being rationed, or because it all runs out.

Mike_C said...

We spend a gigantic, and growing, portion of the world's largest economy on healthcare, yet don't have great outcomes overall. We cannot continue to stagger along as we have been doing. I don't have a solution, but there are clearly areas where we could do better. End-of-life and medical ICUs are such areas. (For non health-care people, "medical ICU" is not redundant. That means an ICU run by Internal Medicine, as in cancer, or kidney failure. There are other ICUs, such as surgical, neurology or burn ICUs.)

Not doing obviously futile things could save a lot. Discontinuing mechanical ventilation on someone seriously stroked out ("loss of grey/white matter differentiation on CT scan" is an ominous term translating to "brain is now a bag of mush") and in multiorgan system failure is not at all comparable to withholding antibiotics from a slightly loopy old guy with pneumonia. (To be clear, the latter would be evil.) Nor is it like putting someone on an ice floe. We are not that poor (yet).

However, not doing harm is not the same thing as doing something despite obvious futility. Part of this is our fault: physicians are generally poorly trained in how to discuss this with patients and family members and thus out of ignorance, guilt/unfinished business or whatever, family members ask, nay demand, that we "do everything!" Even when it is not only hopeless, but cruel to the patient.

Couple anecdotes by way of illustration.
1. Guy in his late 60's with multiple medical problems including diabetes and coronary disease who's an active alcoholic gets admitted with liver failure (natch). Then gets kidney failure and is put on dialysis. After a couple weeks of this he has a massive stroke and is sent to ICU. CT report includes "loss of grey/white differentation.” Family wants full code and all possible measures. Then he got temporary pacing lines because his heart had a nasty tendency to stop. All this at a cost of tens of thousands daily. Okay, we're a rich country and this guy was the patriarch of his clan, so for the relatives to fly in and say goodbyes, we can do this a day or two. No. Turns out they want a liver transplant. And so it goes. (No, he was never under consideration for transplant. Apart from the multiorgan system failure, active alcoholic, remember? A faction of the family claimed it was because we were racist, but fortunately cooler-headed relatives talked them down.) The poor man hung on, if you call it that, for over another week before he died while being coded for the umpteenth time.

2. Guy in his mid-80's comes in with complaint of having passed out on the big hill while on his daily four-mile walk. Turns out he had critical aortic stenosis (non-medical: severe narrowing of the valve between the main pumping chamber of the heart and the aorta, which brings oxygenated blood to the rest of the body; medical: echo AVA=0.5 cm2, syncope). He was still running his own business and working at least 40 hours a week; mentally really sharp. He left the hospital with a prosthetic valve and went back to work after a few weeks.

I have no trouble with the second case (in fact I'm real pleased about the outcome), but I still get angry whenever I am reminded of the first. Yet stuff like the first case goes on every day in hundreds of hospitals all over the country.

Peter, sorry for hijacking your place with a bunch of TL/DR. Turns out I have some strong feelings about all this health care stuff as well.

skreidle said...

Peter, check out this piece:

Lawfully Good vs Lawfully Evil | Falkvinge -- [There’s a big difference in how activists and bureaucrats view the world. In the view of bureaucrats, anything lawful is right by definition. In contrast, activists don’t care whether something is lawful, they care whether it’s good and just. Bureaucrats generally do not understand the difference.]