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Do Objectivists Believe in Categorical Imperatives?

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IRS agents live comfortably and earn decent sallaries; in every sense, they are serving their own interests. They are also violating the rights of others. Therefore, it is possible to serve your own interests and violate the rights of others.

That only affirms and concretizes my example, and maybe that's what you were trying to do. Can anyone answer my question though.

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That could well be -- I don't really get the concept, I just know that it's one of those impenetrable Kant ideas. The standard quote seems to be the highly transparent exhortation "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law", which I believe is a long way of saying "Do whatever you want", or, simply "Whatever".

A good example of a Kantian categorical imperative is DO NOT STEAL, because if I were to steal-assume it could be a universal law that everyone ought steal...is that good or possible? If it is not good, then the individual ought not steal, because it is bad when everyone steals.

And it seems like Inspector is saying that Objectivists reject categorical imperatives in general, because there is always an IF X circumstance in front of the moral rule.

However, then my question becomes is it permissible for in some circumstance to violate the rights of others, such as being a tax collector, or using the example I gave?

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IRS agents live comfortably and earn decent sallaries; in every sense, they are serving their own interests. They are also violating the rights of others. Therefore, it is possible to serve your own interests and violate the rights of others.

I guess it all depends on what you mean when you say that "they are serving their own interests."

It is true that IRS agents are receiving certain benefits as a result of their behavior. But the error here is to equate behavior where one is the intended beneficiary with self-interest. Objectivism equates self-interest with behavior that actually IS in one's own self-interest - and it does so in terms of the context of one's life which hopefully will continue on for more than just the immediate moment. Therefore, it equates self-interest with a person's actual, long term well being.

Now ask yourself if working as an IRS agent is, in fact, an example of working in one's own long-term best interests. Let's assume that the particular IRS agent used here as an example is one of the better kind. He is not much of a political/philosophical thinker and has not given much thought to the moral implications of his position. Indeed, he feels somewhat patriotic about his position because he sees himself as part of the process that is supporting functions of the government that you and I would regard as appropriate and beneficial - the military, the courts, law and order, etc. When he interacts with taxpayers, he is courteous and respectful - he does not take advantage of the situation to get a cheap power rush to screw people over simply because he has the power and opportunity to do so. He has a strong work ethic, his work is always very thorough and accurate and turned in on time.

Think about it for a moment - is this IRS agent really working in a way that serves his actual self-interest?

Towards what end is his job function working? Basically to support those aspects of the government that make it necessary for confiscatory levels of taxation to exist if they are to survive. Specifically, he is working to support the welfare state and the regulatory infrastructure that is a huge burden on our economy. Just look at the amazing increase in prosperity, productivity and technological marvels over the past couple of decades - and then imagine how much further along we would all be if it hadn't been slowed down to the degree it has been by regulation and taxation. Imagine if the entire United States became one giant Hong Kong only much better with economic growth rates higher than they were even in the 19th century. Imagine what such an economy would do in terms of providing an environment for impressive and unprecedented progress in science, technology, medicine, art and cultural opportunities, etc.

Would this IRS agent benefit from such a society? Of course he would. The positive work ethic and the skills he brings with him to the job would all have market value in a totally laissez faire economy. And, being a productive player in such a highly dynamic and productive economy, his standard of living would be far better than what he has today. And, like everyone else, IRS agents pay taxes too. That burden would be significantly reduced if not eliminated in such an economy.

Yet what is this IRS agent doing with his career? Is he working to help bring himself and all of the rest of us that much closer towards such a dynamic and prosperous economy? No. He is doing the exact opposite. He, in his own small way, is working to prevent or, at the very least, significantly slow down, the advent of such an economy and, therefore, all of the benefits it would have otherwise provided him with. In that respect, he is, in fact, working to prop up a system that is against his own, actual long term self-interest. So he makes a decent salary? Well, there are other ways of making a decent salary which do not involve actively working in the service of those who are, in fact, holding him back and limiting his standard of living - and there would most certainly be many opportunities for him to make a decent salary in a laissez faire economy.

Self-interest is not the same thing as merely pursuing one's desires and wishes. There are certain behaviors which are in a man's actual self-interest - and there are behaviors which are not. That is why the Objectivist position is sometimes referred to not as mere "self-interest" but rather as "rational self-interest." And for the reasons I provided above, it is NOT in a man's actual, rational self-interest to make being an IRS agent his career.

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And it seems like Inspector is saying that Objectivists reject categorical imperatives in general, because there is always an IF X circumstance in front of the moral rule.
Inspector's "Don't evade reality... if you want to live" leads directly to the observation that an imperative is by nature conditional. That is, "Get out of the street!" is an implicit conditional, for example "You should get out of the street, if you don't want to get run over". "Don't steal!" implies "You should not steal, if you want to live a moral life". Rather than say "There is always an escape clause for any putative categorical imperative", I would conclude that the idea of an imperative without a context is meaningless.
However, then my question becomes is it permissible for in some circumstance to violate the rights of others, such as being a tax collector, or using the example I gave?
Well, when you start throwing in "permissible", I get confused. I don't give Bob the Tax Collector permission to take my money, so it's not permissible, but the government does give him permission, so it is permissible. If by "permissible" you mean that you have permission from the property-owner to take the property (and not some a non-owner, such as the government), then it is never permissible to violate rights, since "violate rights" means "act without permission" and "permissible" means "act with permission". Permission or not, it would not be following rational moral principles to starve to death in the woods because of the lack of permission to do what is necesary to get out of this metaphysically abnormal situation. Now if you want to include lifeboat scenarios and stick with the categorical imperative, then it's easy to round this dicsussion up: it is false that it is never in your self-interest to violate a person's rights. We can then talk about how to harmonize rights violation with an otherwise moral life. If you want to exclude lifeboat scenarios, then it seems like this comes down to another prudent predator question (Red Alert!).
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I think that Objectivism does reject "categorical imperatives". Rights are contextually absolute, just as knowledge is contextually certain. The controlling principle seems to be that rights are absolute within the context of normal society (i.e. the metaphysical situations between persons that arise under ordinary circumstances). Beyond that, they are not absolute, but might nonetheless be valid depending on the specific circumstances. In both instances the usual standard of value (man's life) must be applied to determine the morally correct outcome - it happens that in the context of normal society, the resulting right is absolute - this can be verified by reduction to metaphysical primaries in every case. Both the case of the tax collector and the case of the candy bar arise within the context of normal society and so constitute immoral rights violations. (Hopefully I got that right - send me to the north woods if not!)

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Thank you for your replies. Now that I am certain Objectivism rejects categorical imperatives (which is used outside of Kantian ethics as well), how would an Objectivist reply to the statement that Objectivism IS amoralism. Any philosophy that is composed entirely of hypothetical imperatives is considered amoralism, by every mainstream philosopher. For example Mill is considered an amoralist because every ought statement he would make is contextual to the greatest good for the greatest number (utilitarian).

I realize that Objectivism claims that there are OUGHTS (so does someone like Mill or Neitzche) but if they are entirely hypothetical then it isn't considered moralism by any normal standard.

Thanks

Chris

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I think that Objectivism does reject "categorical imperatives". Rights are contextually absolute, just as knowledge is contextually certain. The controlling principle seems to be that rights are absolute within the context of normal society (i.e. the metaphysical situations between persons that arise under ordinary circumstances). Beyond that, they are not absolute, but might nonetheless be valid depending on the specific circumstances. In both instances the usual standard of value (man's life) must be applied to determine the morally correct outcome - it happens that in the context of normal society, the resulting right is absolute - this can be verified by reduction to metaphysical primaries in every case. Both the case of the tax collector and the case of the candy bar arise within the context of normal society and so constitute immoral rights violations. (Hopefully I got that right - send me to the north woods if not!)

That sounds about right, however I do not understand how the absolute right exists if not enforced? The government in my scenario did punish the candy bar thief, but not adequately (only a 50 cent fine for a dollar candy bar). Do you suggest that the clerk take the money back by his own force? If so, isn't that somewhat like vigilantism? I was told in the anarchy versus government debate a long time ago, that rights do not exist when not adequately enforced, because they aren't absolutes like platonic forms, but merely principles asserted by rational minds, and when they aren't recognized they don't exist (thus the reason anarchy doesn't work, because PPAs don't have the obligation to be rational and assert rights, they can do whatever their customers want).

Thanks

Chris

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Yet what is this IRS agent doing with his career? Is he working to help bring himself and all of the rest of us that much closer towards such a dynamic and prosperous economy? No. He is doing the exact opposite.

I agree that the IRS agent would be better off in a laissez faire economy. If the agent chose to work for an oppressive government at the expense of living in a just, capitalistic, society - then he did not do what is in his best interest. However, this decision never took place. The IRS agent does not have the option of living in a just, capitalistic, society. Overwhelming evidence suggests that government taxation is in no way contingent on his desires or decisions; his abdicating the responsibilities of an IRS agent would not make it any more likely to that the US government will stop taxing him (or the rest of us). If it does not follow that not being an IRS agent leads to the best possible state of affairs (capitalism), then it does not follow that not being an IRS agent is in this man's best interest.

Does following one's self-interest (according to Objectivism) mean pursuing the happiest, most comfortable, possible state of existence? If so, then one has to conclude that right-violations are sometimes a means to that end. Or - does the pursuit of self-interest (according to Objectivism) entail, by definition, "not violating the rights of others"? If this is the case, then Objectivist morality is deontological.

This is the problem some of the posters here are trying to express.

Edited by J.L. Mackie
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Deontological ethics and categorical imperatives are explained in this caption.

"The most famous deontological theory was advanced by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his theory, Kant claimed that various actions are morally wrong because they are inconsistent with the status of a person as a free and rational being, and that, conversely, acts that further the status of people as free and rational beings are morally right. Therefore, Kant claimed, we all have a duty to avoid the first type of act and perform the second type of act.

Kant believed that this duty was absolute. He drew a distinction between contingent duties, which only need to be carried out under certain empirical circumstances, and categorical duties, which always need to be carried out, because they are based on a priori reasoning about the general nature of things, and thus apply no matter what the circumstances are. Kant thought of the duty to promote human freedom and rationality as the only truly categorical duty. He called this duty the categorical imperative, and described it at great length in his writings. Of the five formulations of the categorical imperative Kant developed, the three most well-known and significant are:

* Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.

* Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

* Act as though you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.

Other examples of deontological theorists include the English philosopher John Locke and the modern-day philosopher John Rawls. Locke held that individual persons have rights that are part of the natural law of the world, and that actions (including the death penalty, which he advocated) can be judged as right or wrong based on whether they respect these rights."

That is a wikipedia entry which isn't always a credible source, but it might clear up a bit with us.

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Any philosophy that is composed entirely of hypothetical imperatives is considered amoralism, by every mainstream philosopher.
Do all mainstream philsophers then understand that, by their definition, all ethical philosophies are "amoralistic"? That is, the class of pure moralisms is null. This seems to be a useless (non-referential) distinction.
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Do all mainstream philsophers then understand that, by their definition, all ethical philosophies are "amoralistic"? That is, the class of pure moralisms is null. This seems to be a useless (non-referential) distinction.

No, I think you might be missing the distinction, rather than the entirety of philosophy not understanding ethics. Hypothetical imperatives are what you ought do given a certain contextual goal. For instance Mill would say you ought support capitalism because it provides the greatest good to the greatest number of people. He does not say that you ought support capitalism because it is inherently good, but instead only because it provides the most good for the greatest number...if for some reason capitalism started to collapse and not bring about the greatest good to the greatest number, then he would say don't support capitalism. Thus he can make a claim to do and not do the same action based on different contexts. If every person and every situation is contextually different by definition, then there is nothing that always ought be done in all circumstances(categorical imperative-like do not violate rights EVER). This is by modern standards, or any standard I am aware of--amoralism.

Chris

PS-This is off topic, if we'd like to get back to my question.

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Hypothetical imperatives are what you ought do given a certain contextual goal.
My point, which I guess you didn't get, is that there are no non-hypothetical imperatives, to use your terminology. That is in the nature of "ought". As I said, all moral philosophies are "amoralist" in your terms. Perhaps you intended to say something different, but all you have done is point to a basic property of the concept "moral". So you need to rethink your question.
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My point, which I guess you didn't get, is that there are no non-hypothetical imperatives, to use your terminology. That is in the nature of "ought". As I said, all moral philosophies are "amoralist" in your terms. Perhaps you intended to say something different, but all you have done is point to a basic property of the concept "moral". So you need to rethink your question.

Okay, let's concede you aren't amoralists, but what someone would call an amoralist. Now, how do you assert that it is NEVER in one's long term rational self interest to violate rights, regardless of societal, pyschological and government structures?

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My point, which I guess you didn't get, is that there are no non-hypothetical imperatives, to use your terminology. That is in the nature of "ought". As I said, all moral philosophies are "amoralist" in your terms. Perhaps you intended to say something different, but all you have done is point to a basic property of the concept "moral". So you need to rethink your question.

If you are denying the existence of deontological ethics, I encourage you to open any modern ethics anthology.

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Okay, let's concede you aren't amoralists, but what someone would call an amoralist. Now, how do you assert that it is NEVER in one's long term rational self interest to violate rights, regardless of societal, pyschological and government structures?
I don't particularly care about the label, I care about the point of substance. Which is that there is no such a thing as difference between a moral theory with an imperative which does not depend on a condition, and one that does. And I am morally certain that I have already answered your second question. If you do not understand a particular point, I can explain one more time.
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I don't particularly care about the label, I care about the point of substance. Which is that there is no such a thing as difference between a moral theory with an imperative which does not depend on a condition, and one that does. And I am morally certain that I have already answered your second question. If you do not understand a particular point, I can explain one more time.

I don't feel that you have answered my second question. I find it to be absolutely absurd to say that every tax collector or statesman or monopoly lawyer is not seeking his self-interest given the context of his situation. Rather than changing my original example, let's stick with it and explain exactly how it is bad for the thief long run, assuming that the vendor won't pursue him, and the government doesn't adequately punish, thus actually giving long run incentive to steal for him. In that case I think society and the government and the vendor have failed morally in not adequately seeking their self-interest by making it wrong for this kid to steal the candy bar...rather than this kid being wrong in stealing the candy bar.

Thanks

Chris

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Okay, let's concede you aren't amoralists, but what someone would call an amoralist. Now, how do you assert that it is NEVER in one's long term rational self interest to violate rights, regardless of societal, pyschological and government structures?

Someone may offer you this info, but my suggestion is rather than ask us to do the work for you, why not read OPAR, p.310-324 "The Initiation of Physical Force as Evil", and tell us what is unsatisfying about the argument. For someone whos been studying objectivism for 5 years, I'd think 15 more pages wouldn't hurt.

It is not a political argument against right violation, it is an ethical argument against initiation of force.

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Someone may offer you this info, but my suggestion is rather than ask us to do the work for you, why not read OPAR, p.310-324 "The Initiation of Physical Force as Evil", and tell us what is unsatisfying about the argument. For someone whos been studying objectivism for 5 years, I'd think 15 more pages wouldn't hurt.

It is not a political argument against right violation, it is an ethical argument against initiation of force.

I've read and own OPAR, Atlas Shrugged, Fountainhead, ITOE, Return of the Primative, We the Living, Anthem, Capitalism, and Philosophy Who Needs It--I've been in multiple Objectivist campus organizations, and no one has been able to adequately answer my question without referring to some odd psychological argument, which simply doesn't hold in a discussion about philosophy.

We've established that Objectivism doesn't allow for categorical imperatives, but is instead consequentialist. Thank you for clearing that up. Now my question is, how do you go from saying anything is justified so long as it is in my RATIONAL self-interest long term (benefits outweigh the costs for the entirety of your life), to saying that it is never morally permissable to violate rights, please refer to my scenario.

Thank you

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Overwhelming evidence suggests that government taxation is in no way contingent on his desires or decisions; his abdicating the responsibilities of an IRS agent would not make it any more likely to that the US government will stop taxing him (or the rest of us).

Very true.

If it does not follow that not being an IRS agent leads to the best possible state of affairs (capitalism), then it does not follow that not being an IRS agent is in this man's best interest.
I disagree. The fact remains that it is not in a person's self-interest to support or provide moral sanction to persons, ideas or institutions which seek as their objective policies that lead to his own destruction, however slow that process of destruction might be. The fact that the impact of his sanction is very small in the grand scheme of things does not change this one bit - any more than the fact that it is NOT in your self-interest to cast a vote for an Adolf Hitler in an election is somehow undercut by the fact that the odds of the election being decided by your single vote are next to nill.

Now, it is true that, in a mixed economy type situation, one may have very few options other than to participate in some of the programs and policies that result from it. For example, it is possible that, because of the heavy burden the welfare state places on the economy a person may have little option than to accept government welfare state benefits. I, for example, went to public schools and had some government grants and loans when I was in college. A lot of decent people accept Social Security benefits despite the fact that the money they put into it was looted and spent decades ago and that the benefits are now paid by loot extracted from current workers. A farmer or businessman who is offered government subsidies may have little choice but to accept those subsidies if virtually all of his competitors are taking those same subsidies and pricing their products accordingly. One cannot stay in business if everyone else is able to offer the same product at comparable quality for a significantly lower price. But that does not mean that this is an example of the businessman deciding to seek or preserve his self-interest by joining forces with the rights violators. Basically such a businessman has a gun pointed at him with the orders: play our game or you will be destroyed. Whatever the businessman chooses in such an instance, it is NOT an example of a person acting in his own, long-term rational self-interest. Rather, it is an example of a man who is forced to act against his own long term self-interest in the name of mere survival. It is no different than if a mugger demanded your wallet under the threat of "your money or your life." You may hand over your wallet in the name of self-preservation - but the fact remains is the mugger is forcing you to act against your own self-interest. It is NOT in your own self-interest to give away your hard earned money to random strangers you despise - though it may be wise to do so if they have a gun pointed at you.

An IRS agent may or may not have other job opportunities that are open and available to him. Let's say he does not. And let's say he is a typical mindless Democrat who has no grasp of economics and whose approach to political and social issues is on the level of an 8 year old and consists of such bromides as "Wouldn't it be nice if every person in the world had a decent job, house, education and standard of living" without ever having given a moment's worth of thought as to exactly HOW such things come into existence and WHO is to provide them. Maybe this IRS agent THINKS he is acting in his own self-interest. But the fact of the matter is that he is NOT. Whether he realizes it or not, he is working as an agent in the cause of his own destruction - even if he thinks that the cause is grand, glorious and just. He is wrong.

Does following one's self-interest (according to Objectivism) mean pursuing the happiest, most comfortable, possible state of existence?

No it does not. Peter Keating tried to pursue the most "comfortable" possible state of existence for himself and look where it got him. Comfort is really a non-essential here. It is more comfortable to watch a movie with friends than to study for an exam - but one could hardly say that getting bad grades as a result is in one's self-interest. And when Objectivists talk about pursuing happiness they are talking about something very specific. It is NOT the same thing as pursuing one's mere wishes or feelings and cannot be accomplished by living as a playboy or drifter. Objectivists hold that happiness can result only from a very specific rational approach to life. For more information on that, reread the literature on the Objectivist virtues. And any time a person finds himself having to act under compulsion, it is impossible for him to act in his own self-interest, which is what makes the initiation of such compulsion so very evil.

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Okay Dismuke that cleared a bit up for me even though you weren't replying directly to me.

I do remember a quote from Atlas Shrugged though that said errors in knowledge are okay, but refusal to correct them given the right information is evil. If someone has the exact quote I would appreciate it.

Let's say this tax man merely doesn't realize he is acting against his best interest because he doesn't know any better. Is it then morally permissable for him to violate rights?

If you see what I am getting at, is there any circumstance in which it is okay to violate rights, even be it complete ignorance of the certain facts of reality?

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Well, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone said, "Go read x by Ayn Rand or Peikoff." These questions are being asked because the text isn't clearto us. If the text is clear to you, then you should be able to explain to the rest of us what is being stated.

I think folks are taking the time to explain things to you. Don't dismiss the idea that it may be clear to them, and they may clearly explain it to you, and you still may not "get it" or may just not agree with it. Communication is a two way street.

That said, if you are seeking understanding here, leave the snide remarks at the door. With only 4 posts, it's not the best way to draw attention to yourself.

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Okay Dismuke that cleared a bit up for me even though you weren't replying directly to me....

Let's say this tax man merely doesn't realize he is acting against his best interest because he doesn't know any better. Is it then morally permissable for him to violate rights?

If you see what I am getting at, is there any circumstance in which it is okay to violate rights, even be it complete ignorance of the certain facts of reality?

No. (I am excluding very extreme, short term life or death emergencies such as breaking into an empty hunting cabin one stumbles across while trapped in a blizzard and uses its shelter and the food in its pantry to save one's life. That is a different issue entirely - see Ayn Rand's comments on the ethics of emergencies as to why it is a different issue. And even in such emergency situations, one is fully responsible for the moral consequences of their behavior and obliged to do whatever they can to make up for it once the emergency has passed. In other words, even in such extreme circumstances, the person's rights must still be respected.)

There is no such thing as being immoral by accident. One cannot be immoral by merely making a mistake. But just because it is inappropriate to brand a person as immoral, it does not follow that the person's behavior is necessarily okay. A person is morally responsible for the consequences of his behavior regardless as to whether the consequences were caused by accident, ignorance, honest error or intentional immorality.

For example, a number of years ago, a friend told me about an incident that happened when she was "shopping" (i.e. mostly looking at stuff) at a mall. One of the things she looked at in several department stores in the mall was jewelry - and in each of the stores, she tried several items on to see how they would look. At some point later in her shopping trip, she was walking through the mall, looked down and suddenly noticed that she was wearing a necklace that did not belong to her. It was one that she tried on in one of the department stores. But she could not remember which store it came from. She said that she was very upset because she realized that she had, in effect, shoplifted without even realizing it. So she backtracked to each store in tears, asking the clerks whether it was their store she had taken it from.

Did my friend violate rights? Of course she did. She took property that did not belong to her. Was she immoral? No. It was an accident - and when she realized it, she did what was necessary to correct her mistake as quickly as possible. Does this make what she did okay? No, it doesn't. She should have been paying more attention to what she was doing - and the fact that all of us become distracted from things we should be paying attention to from time to time and such distractions are perfectly normal does not change this fact. Had department store security been paying attention, would they have been justified in treating her like a common shoplifter? They most certainly would have. The fact that she was openly wearing the necklace might have given her story a bit more credibility than had she stuffed it in her purse - but the fact is, one could hardly blame security for thinking the worst and acting accordingly. Had she been caught - well, that would have been horrible because a decent person would have ended up with a record that would have made her look like a criminal when, in fact, all that happened was a mere careless accident which, in fact, would was corrected as soon as it was discovered. Had she been caught, she would still not have been immoral - but she would have had to pay certain moral consequences for her careless behavior.

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