Josh Dunigan |||

Why Lessig is Wrong about Ito and Epstein

Why intellectuals keep perpetuation systemic injustices and why these pragmatic, utilitarian trade offs are not worth it.

Pictured : Kant, Nozick, Korsgaard, Williams, or whoever coming to destroy utilitarianism


Joi Ito, the head of MITs Media Lab, was taking money (there is no way he was doing this alone, but he took the fall for it socially and career-wise). A decent amount of people knew what was going on, and let it keep happening. However, it became exposed later on that Ito was in talks with Epstein and was actively keeping it a secret from the other people involved in the Medial Lab, specifically the people responsible for making the media lab the great place it is. Also, this was post-jail time for Epstein, meaning that it was known that he was the (I have not kept up at this point about his actual crimes, and not sure if we will know since he is dead) pedophile / sex maniac / creepy person in general.Lessig wrote an article, trying to make an argument about what happened, what should have happened, and how we should think about Ito.

Ethical Dilemma

The issue being framed by Lessig, and correctly so, is do you take money from someone who is ethically compromised for the greater good of some other cause? I share the sentiment with Lessig that one should not flat out deny the money. The reason being that, it is most likely better to take the money for education, research, etc., then seeing Epstein buy some yachts, private jets, golden iPhones, or other useless things. Even worse, Epstein could use this money for not only useless things, but unethical things. Imagine a world where Epstein is barred from donating to reputable places, and instead wants to seek some profits by donating to unethical things. Imagine the scenario, where the most evil person, let us say Stalin, will either give 10 billion dollars to cancer research or he will burn the money. It is most likely absurd to say that one should not take the money and let it burn. So let us just agree that the correct choice to make is the funnel money into good causes, no matter the source.

The area where I would disagree with Lessig is on the method of taking the money. The interesting thing to focus on is how one should approach taking money from ethically compromised people, and I will show Lessig’s argument and why I think it is and was shit. I say was because he was essentially rationalizing the current method of institutional money taking, which results in the unethical outcomes as shown by this situation.

The Pragmatic, Utilitarian Trade-off

Lessig first made some distinctions between different types of ways people make money and from the people that are giving the money.

  1. Unethical people and unethical gain of money
  2. Unethical people and ethical gain of money
  3. Ethical people and unethical gains of money
  4. Ethical people and ethical gains of money

He says that ideally institutions want to take money from the 4th category. Yet, most of the money comes from a mix of the other 3 that are ethically compromised in some way (he says only 1,2, but I am going to include 3 since it makes the argument stronger). The problem with taking money from the ethically compromised 3 is that you allow people to launder reputation”, meaning that it allows them to get points or erase wrongdoings. To avoid this, one should take the money anonymously, allowing people to donate money and avoid the only issue (Lessig thinks it is the only issue here, or at least the only issue he was attacking) it seems with taking money from ethically compromised people. The general argument is as follows

  1. An institution can take money from either ethical or unethical sources.
  2. An institution should not be used to launder reputation of the unethical sources of money.
  3. An institution can still take money as long as it does not launder reputation for unethical sources of money.

I will understand 2 as some sort of utilitarian decision. It is the more good producing choice to take money anonymously, but taking money and giving the person the glory of being charitable. I do not necessarily believe that the utilitarian would be inclined to accept this argument either. The only thing that would make this a utilitarian argument is that if not making the donation anonymous, the money would not be received in the first place. This is what I believe is implictly assumed by Lessig, Ito, and others who have put their hands in the forbidden cookie jar. They are under the assumption that it is either take the money anonymously or do not get the money at all In this situation. If Ito and friends asked for permission or made their choice public, it would not have gone over well and people would not have wanted the money at the media lab. If this is the case, then the utilitarian would most likely accept that lying and deceiving people about where the money was coming from is better since without lying and donating, the money would have never been used for the good purpose of the media lab.

In an updated Twitter thread, Lessig seems to clarify his argument, saying that even the above argument does not work for someone like Epstein, who is a pedophile. So now he is adding another thing to his argument, saying one should not take money at all from someone like Epstein because it hurts the victims of sex abuse if they had found out.

And when it was discovered, it would do real and substantial pain to the people within the Media Lab who would come to see that they were supported in part by the gift of a pedophile.

So when I said above that Lessig would agree to the Stalin-cancer case, it seems to me that he would not agree anymore. Another seemingly analogous dilemma would be to use a pedophile’s organ to save someone elses life. The consequences of this are good. Furthermore, I do not see why this would be unethical in Kantian ethics. I am not sure of a rational reason to be made in not accepting money at all, because of who the person is.

If someone could prove that the Stalin-cancer case or the organ case above are also unethical, then Lessig’s argument about not taking money at all from Epstein has a little more weight, but I would still disagree with the other part about the keeping thing anonymous.

How Kantian ethics could have prevented this and explains the outrage”

If you have studied Kantian ethics, then you would have at least heard of the phrases only act on maxims that you can will as a universal law” and/or treat people as ends in themselves, and not mere means”. Given the moral dilemma at hand, if Ito had been a Kantian, he would have avoided this. In Kantian ethics, there is a strict no lying and decieving policy (some have tried to find areas where lying is acceptable, but I disagree for most cases. There may be some, but I do not think this is not one of those cases). Since humans are rational, autonomous, and ends in themselves (citation - go read Kant/Korsgaard), Ito should have given his fellow members and stakeholders in the sucess of the lab the opportunity to consent to this money.

When Ito first found out about Epstein desiring to fund the lab, he could have tested his maxim. The maxim to test would be I will take money from an unethical source to help fund the media lab”. There is a bit of baggage that comes with this maxim. Funding the media lab means that you are going to be using this money to pay for people’s salaries and research. Additionally, the media lab is a research institution, which usually is held to a higher standard than a business or a person. This maxim could be passable I believe on its own, but since it is tangled with the choices of other people, Ito should have gotten consent from other members and stakeholders of the lab who the decision will affect or at the very least tell them. Maybe some lab assistant has no say in this, but they should be able to voice their say and be given the option to not recieve money from Epstein.

Say everyone agrees on taking the money, but the decision to keep it anonymous from the public is still up in the air. As a private university, there is less of a reason to disclose sources of funds. Epstein’s donations should not have remained anonymous as well. Ito should have made the argument that aking this money is better than not taking it and it going to some wasteful or unethical cause. Since the media lab’s research is not local in nature, but global, the work there will be cited and used by many people. People would be inclined to use this research and want to work at the media lab. Decieving people about the funds may be considered unethical here as well. One is not obligated to tell the truth, only obligated to not lie. It is up to the person to decide how much of the truth they should tell. In the case of the media lab, who cares about reputation and enters reciprocal relations with other institutions, organizations, and people outside of MIT, it may have been the rational thing to be honest up front.

This is tracking the general outrage of accepting and hiding the money. Being lied to and decieved was the real reason people are mad. They were not treated as rational, capable of making their own decisions and agreeing to things, Ito and friends made the decision for them. Even if the Epstein money was never taken, then at least Ito and friends would have treated the stakeholders in the lab as people, and not lesser than that. Maybe the media lab would have ran with less funding, taking longer for the lab to hire more faculty and accomplish more great things.

I would like to say that I am willing to assert that its ok for good” organizations (charities, universities, medical research) to take money from unethical sources, but am not going to dive into things such as Uber taking money from Saudi Arabia since the case is slightly different.

As a last point, where Epstein is not the best case, no human is so irredeemable Kant says. As long as we are rational, we are capable of being swayed by reason. As a repeat offender, Epstein may not be the best example. I would argue that Epstein still had a good will” as Kant would call it, I would not say he had an evil will” (forthcoming - me ) since he was not engaged in murder or the like. He was still rational in the philosophical sense, but was just severely mistaken in his maxims, his maxims being irrational. Kantian ethics is also about reciprocity. Relationships are built on this, honesty begets honesty, trust begets trust. We should try and convince people as much as we can about the ethical maxims to live by, but lying and deceiving do not give people the chance.

Epstein may have had many opportunities to stop what he was doing, people telling him he was wrong, but yet he continued. However, Ito was wrong in his judgement, but he is not evil or close to it. He was blinded by the similar pragmatic logic of Lessig and other intellectuals, who have some sort of paternalistic I know better than the masses know for themselves” reasons. Even if that is true and one may know the correct thing to do, one should not lie or decieve other people. Ito will pay for his mistrust in this outdated, pragmatic, utilitarian logic. I would hope he learns from this and he is given a chance to redeem himself.

Up next NYC is Pretty Beaten
Latest posts We were right Philosophy briefs : Kant’s theory of punishment Intellectualism is dead, long live intellectualism White despair My current favorite movies Reality and the coronavirus Enlightened centrism Philosophy briefs : moral evil Paterson is Paterson militant consumerism Bernie Part Five - Hope Bernie Part Four : Moral Politicians vs Political Moralists Bernie Part Three : Republic vs Despotic States Pandemics and perpetual peace Moral growth as necessary for perpetuity of the state Bernie Part Two - Medicare for All Silence as a critique of Descartes Bernie Part One : Unconditional Poverty Relief White Nationalism The case for Bernie Legacies of the Third Reich: Concentration Camps and Out-group Intolerance Dinner at Kant’s Who are the parasites in Parasite? The conceptual wrongs in the Soleimani killing A Clockwork Orange and moral goodness The form of philosophy and film Untangling ideas from our persons My Top 10 of the Decade Hasan Minhaj and Bernard Williams - We Can’t Care About Everything War Crimes, Morality and Punishment, and the Gallagher effect Korsgaard’s Core Argument in Fellow Creatures