Tag Archives: Choice

Sometimes giving a person a choice is an act of terrible cruelty

by Lisa Tessman

It is not always good to have the opportunity to make a choice. When we must decide to take one action rather than another, we also, ordinarily, become at least partly responsible for what we choose to do. Usually this is appropriate; it’s what makes us the kinds of creatures who can be expected to abide by moral norms.

Sometimes, making a choice works well. For instance, imagine that while leaving the supermarket parking lot you accidentally back into another car, visibly denting it. No one else is around, nor do you think there are any surveillance cameras. You face a choice: you could drive away, fairly confident that no one will ever find out that you damaged someone’s property, or you could leave a note on the dented car’s windshield, explaining what happened and giving contact information, so that you can compensate the car’s owner.

Obviously, the right thing to do is to leave a note. If you don’t do this, you’ve committed a wrongdoing that you could have avoided just by making a different choice. Even though you might not like having to take responsibility – and paying up – it’s good to be in the position of being able to do the right thing.

Yet sometimes, having a choice means deciding to commit one bad act or another. Imagine being a doctor or nurse caught in the following fictionalised version of real events at a hospital in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Due to a tremendous level of flooding after the hurricane, the hospital must be evacuated. The medical staff have been ordered to get everyone out by the end of the day, but not all patients can be removed. As time runs out, it becomes clear that you have a choice, but it’s a choice between two horrifying options: euthanise the remaining patients without consent (because many of them are in a condition that renders them unable to give it) or abandon them to suffer a slow, painful and terrifying death alone. Even if you’re anguished at the thought of making either choice, you might be confident that one action – let’s say administering a lethal dose of drugs – is better than the other. Nevertheless, you might have the sense that no matter which action you perform, you’ll be violating a moral requirement.

Are there situations, perhaps including this one, in which all the things that you could do are things that would be morally wrong for you to do? If the answer is yes, then there are some situations in which moral failure is unavoidable. In the case of the flooded hospital, what you morally should do is something impossible: you should both avoid killing patients without consent and avoid leaving them to suffer a painful death. You’re required to do the impossible.

To say this is to go against something that many moral philosophers believe. That’s because many moral philosophers have adopted a principle – attributed to the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant – that for an act to be morally obligatory, it must also be possible: so the impossible cannot be morally required. This principle is typically expressed by moral philosophers with the phrase: ‘Ought implies can.’ In other words, you can only be obligated to do something if you’re also able to do it.

This line of thought is certainly appealing. First of all, it might seem unfair to be obligated to do something that you were unable to do. Second, if morality is supposed to serve as a guide to help us decide what to do in any given situation, and we can’t actually do the impossible, it might seem that talking about impossible moral requirements is pointless. But if you’ve had the experience of being required to do the impossible, it might be appealing to push back: ought does not imply can. Acknowledging this could help make sense of your experience, even if it doesn’t also guide you in decisions about what to do.

We can’t blame other people for having committed an unavoidable moral wrongdoing as long as they chose the best of the possible options; we only appropriately blame people when they could have chosen to do something better than what they did do. However, when we ourselves are in situations in which we perform the best action we can – but it’s still something that we’d clearly be morally forbidden from ever choosing if we had a better option – we’re likely to hold ourselves responsible. Our intuitive moral judgments may still tell us, if we choose to perform an action that’s normally unthinkable, ‘I must not do this!’ Afterwards, we may judge ourselves to have failed morally.

I don’t think we should necessarily dismiss these judgments – rather, we must hold them up to the light. If we do so, and they hold up, then we should take them to indicate that we really can be required to do the impossible. But this has a troubling implication: if some situations lead to unavoidable moral wrongdoing, then we, as a society, should be careful not to put people in such situations. Giving people a choice might sound like it’s always a good thing to do, but giving a choice between two forms of moral failure is cruel.

Sometimes, it’s pure bad luck that puts someone in the position of having to choose between wrongdoings. However, much of the time, choice doesn’t take place in contexts that are shaped entirely accidentally. It takes place in social contexts. Social structures, policies, or institutions can produce outcomes that favour some groups of people over others in part by shaping what kinds of choices people get to – or have to – face. Members of some social groups might face mostly bad choices, in the sense that their choices are between alternatives, all of which are disadvantageous to them. But there’s another sense in which the choices might be bad: these might be choices between alternatives, all of which make them fail in their responsibilities to others.

The American Health Care Act, which was considered in the United States House and Senate, would have created moral dilemmas by offering people without high incomes – especially if they were also women, or old or sick – a range of bad options. It would have forced some parents to make choices between two equally unthinkable options, such as the ‘choice’ to sacrifice one child’s health care for another’s. This sort of forced choice would be similar in kind to the choice that the SS officer in Sophie’s Choice (1982) offered, when he told Sophie: ‘You may keep one of your children.’ The distinctive type of cruelty – making moral failure inevitable for someone – is the same.

No one can rightly be blamed for failing to care adequately for their family if it wasn’t possible for them to do so. But they may still take themselves to be required to do the impossible, and then judge themselves to have failed at this task. No one should be forced into this position. Not all situations that present these sorts of choices can be prevented – there’s always the possibility of bad luck – but at least we shouldn’t knowingly bring them about.

Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality by Lisa Tessman is out now through Oxford University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Consent to risk fallacy

A common argument against counter-terrorism measures is that more people are killed each year by road accidents than by terrorists.  Whilst this statistic may be true, it is a false analogy and a red herring argument against counter-terrorism. It also ignores the fact that counter-terrorism deters and prevents more terrorist attacks than those that are eventually carried out.

This fallacious argument can be generalised as follows: ‘More people are killed by (fill-in-the-blank) than by terrorists, so why should we worry about terrorism?’  In recent media debates, the ‘blank’ has included not only road accidents, but also deaths from falling fridges and bathtub drownings.  However, for current purposes let us assume that more people do die from road accidents than would have died from either prevented or successful terrorist attacks.

Whenever we travel in a car, most people are aware that there is a small but finite risk of being injured or killed.  Yet this risk does not keep us away from cars.  We intuitively make an informal risk assessment that the level of this risk is acceptable in the circumstances.  In other words, we consent to take the risk of travelling in cars, because we decide that the low level of risk of an accident does not outweigh the benefits of car transport.

On the other hand, in western countries we do not consent to take the risk of being murdered by terrorists, unless we deliberately decide to visit a terrorist-prone area like Syria, northern Iraq or the southern Philippines.  A terrorist attack could occur anywhere in the West, so unlike the road accident analogy, there is no real choice a citizen can make to consent or not consent to the risk of a terrorist attack.

The Consent to risk fallacy omits this critical factor of choice from the equation, so the analogy between terrorism and road accidents is false.

 

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Comparing Australia’s electricity charges to other countries shows why competition isn’t working

The Conversation

Bruce Mountain, Victoria University

Australia’s residential electricity prices are amongst the highest in the world so it’s not hard to see why customers have been up in arms about high prices. The Conversation

Comparing the charges for electricity retail services in Australia and in other countries, we find Australia’s charges are much higher. The difference is particularly stark when comparing retailer charges in New South Wales with those in Denmark, Germany, Italy and Britain which have the highest electricity prices in Europe.

Residential electricity prices in Canada and the United States are typically less than half those in Australia and so the situation in Australia is even more damning in that comparison.

The prime minister’s recent request to the ACCC to review the retail end of the electricity market will put this part of the industry under the spotlight. This request follows the Victorian government’s appointment of a panel to review the Victorian retail energy market.

But rising concern about retail markets is not unique to Australia. In Britain, retail energy markets have received prime ministerial attention for many years. In what the British government described as the most significant review of its industry in the 30 years since privatisation, their Competition and Markets Authority concluded that significant changes needed to be made, although some ex-regulators disputed their estimates of the problem.

These reviews indicate changing attitudes in government. The Australian Energy Markets Commission reviews Australia’s retail energy markets every year and has consistently concluded that they are working well. Similarly, the Independent Pricing and Administrative Tribunal advised the New South Wales government last year that their retail energy market is working well. Evidently the Commonwealth and Victorian government are now seeking a second opinion.

How Australia’s electricity retail market is set up

The business of retailing electricity is really finding out what customers want and then offering deals that meet those requirements. More specifically, it’s the business of procuring electricity and network services, acquiring retail customers, selling to those customers and then metering, billing and collecting revenue.

Analysis of regulatory filings shows that around 6.5 million of Australia’s 10 million households and small business customers (those in New South Wales, South Australia, South East Queensland and Victoria) can choose their retailer. These four deregulated markets are dominated by three retailers that also own sufficient generation to supply those customers.

After more than a decade of retail competition, the three big retailers typically still supply at least 80% of all customers in each regional market. While in some of the regional markets, customers can choose amongst 24 retailers, the new entrant retailers have invariably grown their customer base slowly, if at all, despite powerful incentives to the contrary.

Social services organisations, customer advocates and some independent energy economists have long voiced concerns about retail energy markets. Their concerns centre on the amount that the retailers’ charge, that customers are not happy and that electricity is becoming increasingly unaffordable.

The Grattan Institute recently published a blunt critique that went one step further. It suggested that not only are retailers charging a great deal, but that this is explained not by high costs but by excessive profits.

Competition and consumer choice

The official reviews in Australia hitherto have taken the line that if customers don’t engage in the market they can’t complain. But electricity is complex and customers need skill and a great deal of effort to reliably evaluate the market.

Since it’s a repeat purchase, active engagement means ongoing effort. Even customers with the necessary skills seem to often conclude they have better things to do with their time, as evidenced in switching rates. Pervasive advertising and the profitability of the commercial switching websites provides additional evidence of the challenge new entrant retailers face in acquiring customers.

Why would it be so hard and expensive for new entrant retailers to attract customers if they were not loyal? Therein lies an explanation for Australia’s incumbent retailers’ apparently extraordinary profits.

Andy Vesey, the chief executive of Australia’s largest electricity retailer AGL described the retail market as one that penalises customer loyalty. While such candour is admirable, even hardcore market economists question the effectiveness of a market in which retailers profit most from their most loyal customers.

The issue is non-trivial: in its cost of living surveys, customer advocate Choice has found that electricity prices are consistently the top cost of living concern for households. Electricity poverty payments to deal with affordability problems, are understood to now be costing state governments several hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Next steps

While it has been a long time coming, the ACCC’s review in addition to the Victorian government’s review, is to be welcomed.

A great deal of effort will need to be made to get to the heart of the matter. Retail energy markets are complex and the amount that a retailer charges a customer for its services is not known for certain – it has to be estimated by subtracting the charges for network services, wholesale production, metering and environmental charges from the customer’s actual bill.

Not only do customers’ bills differ greatly but the components of the bill differ greatly for different customers and so obtaining reasonable estimates of retailers’ charges across the industry requires effort and care.

Fairly evaluating retailers’ offers and how much of their offers are explained by the retailers’ charge, is the place to start. Then finding out what customers are actually paying, and what retailers’ costs and profit margins are, is essential in assessing the nature and extent of market failure.

The reviews will need to cover tricky ground in assessing the economies of scale in retailing, and the value to electricity retailers of also owning electricity generation businesses that supply them. The extent to which high customer acquisition costs provide an advantage to the dominant incumbent retailers who don’t incur those costs unless they are seeking to expand their market share must also feature in the analysis.

There is reason to be hopeful about the ACCC and Victorian government reviews. Done well, they can allow sunlight into this part of the industry. As they say in regulatory circles, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Bruce Mountain, Director, Carbon and Energy Markets., Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Can the ACCC ‘target the source’ of misleading labelling?

The Conversation

Michael Vagg, Barwon Health

Regular readers of this column will know that I’ve been less than complimentary about the effectiveness of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in its efforts to regulate advertising of non-prescription products.

I am therefore delighted to give some credit when good news breaks. The Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) has succeeded in a Federal Court action to have misleading packaging of Nurofen products banned.

The manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser (Australia) Pty Ltd has three months to remove all its misleadingly packaged Nurofen products from shelves. This outcome has taken five years from the time CHOICE magazine awarded Nurofen a Shonky Award for the labelling. The TGA first ordered them to withdraw the claim in 2011.

Following a final TGA review in 2012 which backed up the original finding, Reckitt Benckiser effectively dared the TGA to force them to change their ways. It was announced in March this year that following the failure of the TGA to get an outcome, the ACCC would pursue it using their consumer protection powers.

Today’s outcome is entirely predictable, from a scientific point of view. There was never any merit to the claim that ibuprofen could in any way be said to “go straight to the site of pain” any more than a sprinkler system in a high-rise building goes straight to the cause of a fire.

So why didn’t Reckitt Benckiser change their branding when ordered to?

My guess (and I emphasise this is speculation) is that they understood that there has never been a prosecution by TGA under the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 because the derisory penalties aren’t worth paying good public money to enforce.

Once Reckitt Benckiser have paid their lawyers and costs, I’m guessing they will be well in front after selling the offending products for four years longer than they were supposed to. They have also had four extra years to gather marketing data and optimise their plan for rebranding.

It was inevitable that they were going to have to change their indefensible labelling, but why jump until you’re about to be savagely pushed?

Another example of the contempt in which the TGA is held was in 2013 when Swisse vitamins had an “appetite supressant” product banned by TGA only to re-register the exact same pills as a “hunger control” product. They only made the change after the TGA threw everything they had at them. Yet it was as easy as that to shrug off all the bluster the regulator could work up.

The example Reckitt Benckiser has set in defending its misleading and unfair consumer strategy with Nurofen will be noted by other companies, and the lesson will not be lost on them if they are next in the ACCC’s sights. The tactic is to fight in the courts for as long as the ACCC has the will to spend taxpayers’ money in order to buy time to plan the exit strategy and get a few more months or years of benefit from the dodgy claims. Milk the cash cow until the law closes in, then cop it sweet and move on.

Australian consumers will continue to be ripped off and fleeced as long as we are represented by a TGA which has not been given the tools to do its job. Neither side of politics is very interested in legislative change because the big players are just fine with it how it is. The real problem is that the same legislation that makes the TGA a tough-but-fair sheriff as far as prescription drugs and devices go also renders it flabby and supine enough to be unable to seriously hamper the sales targets of the non-prescription sector.

The foxes of the health-care industry may not be directly in charge of the hen house, but no holes in the wire are getting fixed without them giving the nod.

The ConversationMichael Vagg, Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin University School of Medicine & Pain Specialist, Barwon Health

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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