Sunday, November 28, 2010

Profitable but Unethical Business Practices

We’re often told that ethics is good for business. Companies that sell quality products and treat customers fairly thrive because of it, while unethical companies fail.

In some ways the internet has helped to promote ethical business behavior. In years past, if you were treated badly by a company you might fire off an angry letter, complain to family and friends, or report the problem to the Better Business Bureau. Now you can make your voice heard on the internet, where consumers interested in the same product or company can find out about your bad experience. Companies often take complaints on review sites very seriously, because a low rating for a product or seller can kill a business.

But now we get this story in the New York Times about a business owner who turns the ethical behavior formula on its head. The story is long but highly entertaining. I’ll give the short version. Vitaly Borker, from Brooklyn, runs an online business that sells fashionable eyeglasses. His customer service is abominable: he overcharges for the glasses (which he often buys on eBay), cheats his customers, and abuses and threatens the ones who complain. (The tales of abuse are quite awful.) And yet, somehow, he makes a profit.

Here’s how. You’d think that the internet complaints about his business practices would be damaging, but not so. (Warning: the complaints contain bad language--from the seller, not the customers!) They actually draw traffic to his website. Viewers drawn by the complaints don’t buy his products, of course; but the heavy traffic and internet references to his site pushes it high up the lists people see when they run Google searches for the glasses he sells. That’s the dream of every web entrepreneur. Guided by Google, unsuspecting customers visit his website and are impressed by his low prices. They buy, some of them complain, more traffic flows to the website, and it remains high on Google search lists.

In this way, Borker has run a profitable business. Fortunately, as the story reveals, his immoral behavior may be catching up with him. But who would have thought that offensive customer service could be a recipe for business success, even in the short term?

Update 12/07/10: Borker has been arrested--an encouraging development for business ethicists everywhere.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Science and the Color Red

One of the problems physicalists have to deal with is how what are called qualia can be physical. (Qualia are mental states that involve sensations, or "raw feels," like the feeling of pain, an itch, or nausea, or the experience of redness.) The worry for physicalism is that it is unclear how physicalism can account for qualia. How can the feel of pain simply be a state of the brain or an event going on in it (the organization or firing of neurons, for example)?

An argument called "The Knowledge Argument" was put forward by philosopher Frank Jackson years ago, and it claims that qualia cannot be physical. The basic idea: Mary, a brilliant neuroscientist, knows everything physical that goes on in a person's brain when a person sees something red. However, Mary herself has been locked her whole life in a black-and-white room and prevented from seeing anything red herself. Now suppose she is released and allowed for the first time to see a red tomato. At this point, so the argument goes, she learns something new. She knew all the physical facts about color-vision, but she didn't know all the facts about color vision--she didn't know what red looks like! Hence some of the facts about color-vision aren't physical, and hence physicalism is false.

This argument has been much debated, but despite increasing advances in cognitive neuroscience, the question of how physicalism can account for qualia, or for consciousness more generally, will not go away. It is raised again, nicely, in the Toronto Globe and Mail, in an article "Science still can't explain the colour red," which quotes some top contemporary philosophers and cognitive scientists who have done work on the subject.

Speaking of philosophers and cognitive scientists, here at Bethel our very own Dan Yim is co-teaching a course on consciousness this spring with a member of the psychology department. The course is called "Consciousness: Psychology and Philosophy in Dialogue." No doubt it will discuss the question raised in the Globe and Mail article: how much can science tell us about the mind?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Steve Martin's Atheist Song

Everyone admits that religion has spawned brilliant music and art (to say nothing for philosophy!). Atheism, on the other hand, has had little going for it musically. In this video, comedian/actor/musician/author Steve Martin tries to rectify the situation with an amusing tune called, "Atheists Don't Have no Songs."

One reason I post this here is that Steve Martin has some connection to philosophy--he was a philosophy major in college. He writes about his interest in philosophy, and about his ground-breaking career in comedy, in his memoir "Born Standing Up."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dwight's Logical Problem

Fans of "The Office" might enjoy watching Dwight get himself into a little logical trouble. (Thanks to Jeremy for the link!)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Realism, Anti-Realism, and Baseball

There is an important debate in philosophy between those who say that what is true is made true by the world, and those who say that what is true is made true by us. A realist says that the WORLD makes true statements true; an anti-realist says that WE do. For example, a realist about morality may say that committing adultery is objectively wrong—-it’s wrong because doing so fails some objective moral standard, and it is wrong whether people think it is or not. An anti-realist, on the other hand, may say that adultery is made wrong by the fact that people disapprove of it and believe that it’s wrong. If they didn't, it wouldn't be.

Realism and anti-realism often collide in sports. In almost every sport, the results are determined in large part by what certain people—the referees or umpires—think. There are standards in baseball, for example, which specify exactly the conditions under which a runner is out; but when you get right down to it, a runner is out when and only when the umpire says so. You could see that this past June when Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga came one out from a perfect game:

How should we characterize the situation? Was the runner REALLY out, but the umpire mistakenly called him safe? Maybe, but of course the runner really WAS safe, because the umpire said so. He stayed on first base after the play. On his stats sheet for the season, he is credited with a hit. Galarraga is not on the short list of pitchers who have pitched a perfect game.

The funny thing is, of course, that if the runner had been “objectively” safe, but the umpire called him out, Galarraga would have had his perfect game. I’d bet that at least some of the perfect games in the record books are illegitimate in this fashion—-especially when we factor in the way that umpires’ strike zones tend to deviate from what the rules specify. But they really are perfect games, aren’t they?

It’s interesting to ponder the ways in which umpires and referees “make truth” in sports. And sometimes, for sports fans—and Armando Galarraga—-it can be pretty painful, too.

P.S. Oops. MLB has pulled the video from youtube. Click here to get to the video on Major League Baseball's website.