Conservative Party moves beyond the pale

One of the most important concepts in modern democratic politics is that of “reasonable disagreement.” There are a number of different principles or values that most of us subscribe to, at some level, but in cases where they conflict, it is not entirely obvious how they should be ordered. When should public welfare be assigned priority over personal freedom? How much loss of welfare should be accepted in order to promote greater equality? These are the sorts of questions that define the zone of reasonable disagreement in modern politics. The central distinguishing feature of the right-to-left spectrum of political parties is that they propose different answers to these questions, with the right putting more emphasis on personal freedom, the left more emphasis on equality, and the centre focusing on maximizing welfare. This naturally translates into different views about the role of government in society.

The disagreement is “reasonable” because the underlying principles are ones that are very broadly accepted – they are in fact foundational for a liberal democratic society – the disagreement is more one of emphasis.… Continue reading

The VW scandal and corporate crime

One of the things that makes it interesting to teach business ethics is the need to continually revise the curriculum. I usually spend a week discussing the latest “big scandal” in the corporate world – unfortunately, I almost never teach the same one twice, because something new always comes along. First time I taught the course it was junk bonds, and the Gordon Gekko stuff. Then along came Enron, against which all of that misbehaviour paled. Then the financial crisis. Then the Deepwater Horizon disaster. And now Volkswagen. At very least, “corporations behaving badly,” is an area where you never risk running out of material.

I’ve been following the Volkswagen fraud rather carefully in part because it affects me personally, since my wife has an Audi A3 with the TDI diesel engine. She also precisely fits the profile of a consumer who was defrauded by the “clean diesel” claim. Back when she bought her car, she had narrowed the choice down to two vehicles: the Lexus CT 200h (hybrid) and the Audi A3 diesel.… Continue reading

The challenge of maintaining a “normal” rate of crime

Emile Durkheim upset a lot of people, back in the late 19th century, by claiming that there was a “normal” rate of crime, which society seeks to maintain. He argued that the apprehension and punishment of criminals served a social function, by reaffirming everyone else’s commitment to the social order. In the same way that public rituals serve as a reaffirmation of faith for members of certain religion communities, the punishment of criminals plays the same role for members of society more generally. We find it easier to do our part in maintaining the social order when we have visible evidence that those who fail to do so are being appropriately sanctioned.

This is why the general public takes such a keen interest in the punishment of criminals, and much less in, say, road maintenance, even though with the division of labour, there are agents of the state whose job it is to make sure that each is done expeditiously.… Continue reading

Physician-Assisted Dying: What Now?

Five years ago, I agreed to join an “expert panel” of the Royal Society of Canada. Our mandate was to provide a broad assessment of end-of-life care in Canada, and to make recommendations on how it might be improved. One of the recommendations that we made in our 2011 report was that there was no ethical justification for the maintenance of the criminal prohibition preventing physicians from helping their critically ill patients to die a dignified death, one that conformed to their wishes, and avoided them needless suffering.

I was therefore naturally very pleased when the Supreme Court of Canada issued its judgement in the Carter case, declaring that those articles of the Criminal Code were incompatible with Canadians’ Section 7 rights to life, liberty and security of person. Looking back at the 1993 decision in which a 5-4 majority had ruled that those articles were not in fact unconstitutional, a unanimous Court this time argued, in essence, that the empirical environment in which it was now being asked to render judgment had changed.… Continue reading

In the wake of Jian Ghomeshi and #beenrapedneverreported: How do we move forward?

One of the most remarkable aspects of the sordid Jian Ghomeshi story has been the ensuing explosion of women’s voices recounting episodes of sexual violence that have gone unreported. #beenrapedneverreported, a hashtag launched by my friend Sue Montgomery of the Montreal Gazette and Antonia Zerbisias of the Toronto Star, has become a sad but necessary global phenomenon. Thousands of women from around the world have used the hashtag to share painful memories sometimes buried decades in the past.

Being able to share these painful memories has had a therapeutic function for many of these women. I can’t imagine what it must be like to go years with the pain and trauma of sexual assault compounded by the feeling that, for a variety of reasons, this pain must be kept secret.

There is undoubtedly a huge range of reasons that women choose not to report episodes of sexual assault. The majority of cases of sexual assault occur at the hands of people who are known to victims, often family members.… Continue reading

A quiet loss for refugees

Today the Supreme Court of Canada handed down an important decision about refugee claimants with criminal records.

Obviously, that’s a tough sell. With so many people in the world whose basic human rights are not protected by their home states (about 15 million at last count), advocating for the tiny subset of refugees who have been convicted of a crime is not easy.

The arguments in their favour, however, are familiar to us, even though they come with an echo of a kinder and gentler time. There are two principal reasons why we forgive criminals: rehabilitation and atonement. That is, our criminal justice system echoes these two ideas at many levels. A commitment to rehabilitation means believing that people can change, and can return to being productive members of society. A commitment to atonement means that we embrace that idea that those who have ‘done their time’ or ‘paid their dues’ should be free to resume their place as members of society.… Continue reading

Why you have no right to bear arms

The leaves are starting to change colour, the morning air is becoming crisp. When fall arrives, a man’s thoughts naturally turn toward… hunting. Myself, being of a wonkier frame of mind, I tend to think less about hunting and more about gun control.

Unlike Americans, we Canadians are not burdened by the straightjacket of a centuries-old constitution, and so there is no entrenched right of gun ownership in our society. Furthermore, neither politicians nor the courts have seen fit to create one. Indeed, the Supreme Court Reference re Firearms Act was a pretty unambiguous smack-down to any sort of “rights” talk. The current federal government is about as gun-friendly as any we are ever likely to see.

Some people, however, seem to have missed the memo (he says, casting his eyes westward). For those who did miss it, I want to explain in simple terms why you do not have, and ought not have, any “right” to own a gun.… Continue reading

The hard truth about hard power

I have a long form piece in the Ottawa Citizen, about the tendency certain people have to overestimate the effectiveness of physical force, when it comes to achieving social order. It starts with a little conversation:

(For purists, let me just acknowledge that this scene is not in the book, and there’s good reason for that, since Baelish’s end of the conversation is out of character.)

In any case, the point is not to discuss Game of Thrones, but to provide me with an opportunity to revisit some of the amazingly foolish things that were said in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and how they reveal real misunderstanding of some basic facts about how social order is maintained.

 … Continue reading

The Harper Government is not serious about fighting crime

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the damnest thing yesterday. Asked whether he would reconsider calling a federal inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women, in the wake of the discovery of Tina Fontaine’s body in Winnipeg, he again refused. The reason he gave, however, was so strange. He said that such cases should be viewed as “crimes,” rather than as a “sociological phenomenon.”

Now I happen to agree with Harper that a federal inquiry would be a bad idea. But my reason for thinking that is the exact opposite of Harper’s. It’s precisely because the problem of violence against aboriginal women is primarily “sociological,” and not primarily a law-enforcement matter, that I don’t think a federal inquiry would be very productive.

To see why, just stop for a moment and reflect upon the statistic that is constantly being repeated in the press, that there are “1,200 murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada.”* This brings up images of Robert Pickton, preying on women in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, accompanied by police indifference to the case of “yet another missing aboriginal woman.” And yet if we stop for a moment and think about what we all know about violence against women, it is easy to see that this is not the typical case.… Continue reading

Tough Sentencing: Women and Children First

Guest post by Lisa Kerr

We are now familiar with the major criticisms of federal Conservative crime policies, especially their introduction of mandatory minimum sentences. Adrienne Smith, a health and drug policy lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, aptly summarized the problem with mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes as follows: “they are expensive and they don’t work.” Yet apart from the cost and the absence of deterrent effects, there is an additional problem that is worth drawing attention to. The removal of discretion from sentencing judges causes significant growth in female rates of incarceration.

Indeed, in the notorious American imprisonment binge of the last four decades, women have been the fastest growing inmate population. The number of imprisoned women rose from 15,118 to 112,797 between 1980 and 2010. If we include local jails in that figure, more than 205,000 American women are now incarcerated. The female rate of incarceration increased at nearly 1.5 times the rate of men (646% versus 419%).… Continue reading