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A Requiem of Retribution at a Black Mass: Whitey Bulger and Prisoner Welfare

"554T9816" by Cliff licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Via Flickr).

On October 31, 2018, crime boss Whitey Bulger was found beaten to death in a West Virginia prison. Bulger was infamous for racketeering, committing murder, and evading capture for 16 years. His place on the FBI’s most wanted list was second only to Osama Bin Laden. He was finally captured in 2011 at the age of 81. He was convicted for his crimes and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, but served only six years before more than one fellow inmate beat him to death with a padlock stuffed inside a sock. Bulger was infamous for his crimes and was reasonably well known among the population at large.  He was the motivation for Jack Nicholson’s character in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and his life story was told in the 2015 film Black Mass starring Johnny Depp as Bulger.

Continue reading “A Requiem of Retribution at a Black Mass: Whitey Bulger and Prisoner Welfare”

Opinion: To Face Climate Change We Need the Arts and Humanities

"Not only our island nation that is sinking" by Nattu licensed under CC BY 2.0

On October 11, 2018 Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at Columbia University and NASA, published a fairy tale in Scientific American titled “Slaying the Climate Dragon.”  The fairy tale is a warning about climate change “whose ending, still unwritten, is by no means guaranteed to be happy.” The tale describes a magic elixir responsible for “the source of all the kingdom’s power and wealth” that also has a dangerous side-effect of waking slumbering dragons. When dragons awake, readers witness a metaphorical political turmoil evocative of the current climate crisis play out in a few lines. The dragons are first ignored, then recognized but said to be harmless. Dragon-fire consumes more of the villages, but the King and his counselors decide “the high walls of their castle could withstand any dragon attack, and if a few peasants were eaten or incinerated, what was it to them?” The fairy tale concludes with three possible endings, some better than others, but all are plausible and may yet be written.

Continue reading “Opinion: To Face Climate Change We Need the Arts and Humanities”

Spotify and the Ethics of Music Streaming

Photo of the Spotify logo behind a band on a stage

Since the founding of Swedish company Spotify in 2006, music streaming has risen over the past decade to become one of the most popular ways to listen to music. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), 54 percent of recording industry revenues are from digital sources, more than two-thirds of which are streaming, and streaming revenues have increased by 41.1 percent in the last year. At least 176 million people now use paid streaming subscriptions, and many more use free versions of services like Spotify.
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Should Pointless Jobs Exist?

Photograph of people at a booth in front of a partially obscured sign that says "Welcome Business Advisors"

Editor’s note: This article contains use of a vulgarity.

In 1899, Thorstein Veblen published “A Theory of the Leisure Class.” Veblen was a Norwegian-American economist who coined the famous term “conspicuous consumption.” Veblen argued that the ostentatious freedom from useful occupation and its symbols, such as excess possessions and elaborate hobbies, established and organized one’s power and status within a social hierarchy. Conspicuous consumption signals social status by displaying one’s dispensation from productive labour.  

One manifestation of such status for high-ranking persons (or organizations) is the proliferation of decorative underlings. These are “specialized servants…useful more for show than for service actually performed…[their] utility comes to consist, in great part, in their conspicuous exemption from productive labour and in the evidence which this exemption affords of their master’s wealth and power.”  

Veblen’s unflinching analysis contrasted with optimistic predictions for social and economic progress in his time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both Marxian and capitalist theories foresaw a reduction of labour in the future which would free up workers for self-directed, human-centred pursuits.  

Unfortunately, these prophecies have not been fulfilled. Marx’s proposed six-hour day was never implemented by Soviet regimes. Contemporary capitalism similarly shows little sign of diminishing work hours, flatly contradicting John Maynard Keynes’ prediction that the twenty-first century would usher in a fifteen-hour work week.  

Instead, Veblen’s anthropological observations have again become relevant. Labour has not been reduced commensurately to technological advances, in part due to an increase in service industries. David Graeber, in his recently published book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Simon and Schuster, 2018), notes that despite increasing automation of many fields, new service sectors have emerged. These include financial services, academic and health administrators, human resources and public relations professionals, managers, clerks, salespeople, members of traditional service sectors, and what Graeber calls the “subsidiary industries.” Subsidiary industries maintain service sectors by providing still more specific services, such as all-night pizza delivery or dog-washing, for example. All of these fall under the definition of what Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.”

A bullshit job, according to Graeber, is generally indicated by the secret belief of the person who does the job that their work is unnecessary. He acknowledges that this definition can be somewhat subjective – as “there can be no objective measure of social value.”  But Graeber expands his definition. He notes that ill effects to society would be felt fairly quickly if nurses, garbage collectors, teachers, mechanics, and even fiction writers were disappeared. But, he asks, would anything change – or change for the worse – if administrators, public relations personnel, hedge fund managers, subcontractors for subcontractors, sales representatives, telemarketers, and many service industries were eliminated?  

In making his analysis, Graeber highlights the inverse proportion between the social utility of work and its financial recompense in a move that is reminiscent of feminist economic critique (regarding the unpaid or underpaid work of women in health, education, and caring work). The most essential workers – i.e. those who do jobs without which society could not function – are generally underpaid and under-respected (with the notorious exception of doctors). In contrast, many of the “bullshit jobs” Graeber describes are well-compensated. This phenomenon could certainly be read in light of Veblen’s analysis that inessential workers are luxurious expenses designed to prop up the reputation of their employers, corporations, or clients.  

Graeber attributes this state of affairs to a still more disturbing explanation – class division to maintain the power structure of finance capitalism:

Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorized stratum of the universally reviled unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.).  

This account is reminiscent of that of philosopher Iris Young, who noted a “professional class,” i.e. those who benefit from the exploitation of the working class and yet are not a part of the capitalist class.  According to this part of the theory, bullshit jobs would function as a buffer between the capitalist and the working classes.

While many who belong to this “bullshit job” class could be considered as privileged relative to most essential workers (always saving the exception of doctors), the existence of bullshit jobs points to a spiritual malaise that Graeber discusses in his text. “How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”

While Graeber and others point to power structures as the root cause of “bullshit jobs,” like Marx, he ascribes an ideological component that justifies them culturally.  The cult of work for work’s sake is one such cultural idea, which Graeber also links to social power structures as their root cause:

“The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger. (Think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the sixties.) And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.” (Graeber, page xviii).

While Graeber’s analysis of “bullshit jobs” deserves further analysis, this lens provides a deep look at the distribution of power, labour, capital, leisure, and prestige in contemporary economies. This lens strongly indicates that nineteenth-century observations on capitalism, classism, and consumerism continue to be relevant in theorizing and strategizing solutions to contemporary inequality and to the problem of alienated labor.

Saving Animals in Emergencies: The California Wildfires

Photograph of two men and a dog standing in a burned structure

California is facing some of the most devastating fires that it has seen in years. Camp Fire, Woosley Fire, and Hill Fire spread over Paradise and Los Angeles, CA destroying more than 125,000 acres and counting. As families are being forced to leave their homes, the question arises for many: “What do we bring, what do we leave?” Unfortunately for many, this becomes a question of what to do with their pets and other domesticated animals.

Local shelters and relocated farms are options for families to move their dogs, cats, horses, and other animals. When local shelters become full, citizens have sought out local law enforcements or agencies that protect animals. One such agency is Ride On, a therapeutic horsemanship program owned by Abigail Sietsma. Sietsema and her father worked relentlessly to address emergency calls to rescue horses from barns amid the Hill Fire and Woolsey Fire. The executive officer of Ride On, Bryan McQueeney, described the rescue process as a form of art. “You have to really control the energy of people around you,” he says. Horses are able to pick up on when people around them are anxious and it can make an already dangerous and time-sensitive situation that much more difficult.

Emergencies like the California fires make it difficult to protect the lives of humans and animals alike. McQueeny says, “Human lives take priority but Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control, which has set up centers in safe areas, is collaborating with fire and sheriff departments. As of the latest update on Saturday night, the agency had 591 horses, ponies and donkeys in its care, along with llamas, pigs, goats and even a tortoise.” With all of these resources going into protecting the lives of the animals, it begs the question, do we have a moral obligation to help them in emergencies?

According to virtue ethics, emotions are key in ethical decision making. Humans are typically emotionally attached to their pets or farm animals in some way. Therefore, it is ethical to spend the resources to save them in emergencies.  Some would even argue that it would be negligent to leave them alone to die. Animals, for the most part, are dependent on humans to help them and according to the ethics of care, with this relationship, there is an obligation for humans to help out their loved pets. It is considered virtuous, responsible, and compassionate to look after and go out of the way to care for animals in times of need. This belief, that it is good to rescue animals, is socially praised.

Along with being socially praised, the rescuing of animals has been found to unite communities. McQueeny describes the phenomena: “I have been around a fire in a horse area, it is amazing to me how the equestrian community rallies. It’s complicated, it is hard, but I am always impressed that the horse community will jump in. They will move heaven and earth to make sure these horses are taken care of.” The rescue of animals unites communities and gives them hope in situations where hope can seem scarce.

However, all of the time and energy that goes into this rescue isn’t always the most efficient option. Not to mention, some animals like horses take up even more resources to feed them, clean them, and house them once in safe environments. One may argue that we should value human life and use the resources allocated to horses, for example, towards helping the people who have been displaced from their homes. Some animals, such as a pet cat, are easy to relocate, but larger pets like horses or wild animals in zoos create many additional challenges.  

The LA Zoo has recently faced the problem of what to do with their zoo animals. Smoke in the surrounding air makes it hard for animals to breathe and increases the risk of disease. However, precautionary measures to move the animals isn’t always the best option. Moving animals can be more dangerous because moving them away from their familiar habitat increases the risk of disease and death. The most that the zoo staff  can do in these cases is to establish evacuation plans for fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes and move animals only if necessary.

If the resources are available, saving household pets and animals would be ideal for many families. Yet taking the extra time to relocate animals in the fire adds additional risk to the family members and more smoke exposure time. The animal rescue personnel even risk their lives to go into the fire zones to save them, but despite their heroic reputation, the California fires make us reconsider: should we bring our animals or leave them?  

Getting Personal About Personal Genetic Information

Photograph of two boxes by the brand 23AndMe

Learning about the ins and outs of what makes you, you has become a trend in recent years due primarily to the popularization of genetic testing companies such as 23andMe, AncestryDNA, or GEDmatch. All three companies may have stickier corporate policies than what you might expect from a harmless saliva collection kit. In fact, in recent months, story after story has surfaced regarding the largely nonexistent privacy protections on personal genetic information. At the end of April 2018, authorities were able to identify and eventually prosecute the ‘Golden State Killer’ suspect using genetic information, which was acquired through a genealogy site called GEDmatch.

This site, as explained by The Atlantic, is a website where individuals can upload their genetic information in the hopes of finding unknown relatives through DNA commonalities. However, authorities utilized this site to create a fake profile and uploaded DNA found at a crime scene, where it was soon matched to a distant relative of the man eventually identified as the killer. As you can imagine, this created a widespread privacy concern for not just GEDmatch users but consumers of other genetic testing databases, and provoked questions about whether the greater common good was morally permissible over breaching individual privacy. It was revealed through the Freedom of Information Act that the Federal Trade Commission is investigating DNA testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestory.com over their policies for handling personal infomation and genetic data and how they share that information with third parties.

Not only has private genetic information been exploited to solve multiple murder cases, but in 2017 NBC warned consumers of the potential risks of giving companies access to their complete genetic codes. As Peter Pitts, who is part of  a medical advocacy group, stated,  genetic code “is the most valuable thing you own”. Although the majority of legitimate companies ensure customers that they do not share this information with researchers or third parties, media outlets including NBC are encouraging people to read the fine print of these broad contracts that have to be signed before personal samples are submitted for analysis. In fact, even though many of these companies market themselves as purely targeting genealogy, there is still critical information about your health illustrated in your genetic code, which in the wrong hands could be devastating to personal privacy.

Even more terrifying is the concealed nature of genetic information. For example, in comparison to your credit card information, where you can eventually see purchases which cannot be attributed to your own spending, you may never find out if a third party has your personal genetic information. Beyond having something interesting to discuss over the Thanksgiving table, many individuals use DNA testing in order to contribute to future medical advances. However, as Marcy Darnovsky of The New York Times suggests, “there are more efficient ways of contributing to medical advances than paying to hand over your genetic health information to companies like 23andMe.” In late 2015, 23andMe announced two deals with some of the largest pharmaceutical and biotech corporations in the industry in order to find treatments for diseases hidden in our DNA. Concerns arise after reading through 23andMe’s consent document, which acknowledges the fact that once you send off your genetic information there are no guarantees of anonymity. In fact, breaches in confidentiality could affect more than just you — they could impact your family members as well, since you share a similar genetic code. Darnovsky explains that “a 2008 law prohibits health insurance companies and employers from discrimination based on genetic information, but the law does not cover disability, life, or long-term care insurance.”  

Another noteworthy negative impact of this information being provided is that the general public may not be able to decipher wordy scientific information. How are they going to deal with potentially devastating news about their own or their children’s future health, in terms of genetic risk for getting certain diseases or their carrier status? A quick look at the 23andMe website shows that anyone can get their health information regarding genetic probability for certain illnesses. 23andMe actually states “Genetic Health Risk reports – learn how your genetics can influence your risk for certain diseases”. Even though they do mention that having positive for a certain gene does not necessarily mean one will get the disease, a naïve or uninformed individual could take this information to mean that they are certainly getting this illness. In this new era of simplifying genetic information so the general public can “learn more about themselves,” it is imperative that we not only advertise companies that can make this possible, but also make clear the risks associated with such lenient confidentiality contracts. A breach of your genetic information means anyone in a pharmaceutical company laboratory not only knows what color eyes you have, but they know exactly what diseases you have a probability of getting. Careful evaluation is therefore critical in determining whether learning more about oneself through genetic testing, is worth the risk produced due not only to many companies negligence of personal privacy, but their nonspecific privacy guarantees which could easily be exploited by third parties.

The takeaway for any lay person not familiar with the ins and outs of genetic information specifically how to interpret it,  is that they should be especially cautious of these geneology tests. Consumers should take care to read the fine print which describes the company  privacy policies and also recognize these genetic testing companies as businesses who will protect their own interests, whether or not they are favorable or not to their consumers.


Rethinking Modification of the Natural World

Photograph of people touring glass biospheres

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Aristotle famously pointed out that humans stand out from other living beings because humans are rational.  To live a flourishing human life is to live in accordance with the dictates of reason. Much of the philosophical thought about the essence of man going forward was heavily influenced by what Aristotle had to say on this point.  It is hard to deny the importance of rationality for the survival of the human species. Because we can reason, we can use language, make plans, satisfy obligations, know things about the world, and, importantly, we can change the world as we see fit to meet our needs.  It would be an understatement to say that we took full advantage of that last part. It is important that we ask ourselves: Are there any constraints on how far we should take our ability to modify the world around us? Continue reading “Rethinking Modification of the Natural World”

The Culture of Crunch: The Video Game Industry and Overwork

Banner for the game "Red Dead Redemption 2"

This month sees the release of one of the most highly anticipated video games of the year, Red Dead Redemption 2. The game is created by video game supergiant Rockstar Games, known best for their Grand Theft Auto series of games. However, the co-founder of Rockstar Games, Dan Houser, has recently been the target of controversy for expressing in a tweet, as well as in an interview with Vulture that employees at Rockstar had, in weeks leading up to the game’s release, been working “100-hour weeks.” While later clarifying that Houser did not mean to imply that all employees were working such hours, or that it was mandatory that any employee do so, the statement nevertheless reignited discussion about the seemingly ubiquitous occurrence of “crunch” in the video game industry.

“Crunch” is generally defined as a period in which employees put in work weeks much longer than 40 hours, often unpaid, in the weeks or months leading up to the completion of a project. Take This, a non-profit that describes itself as “serving the game community/industry that provides resources, guidelines and training about mental health issues in the game community” describes in a whitepaper that crunch is often the product of setting of unrealistic deadlines, and that employers feel that it is required for “creativity and esprit de corps”. Take This describes typical crunch times as involving 60 to 80-hour work weeks, although some in the industry have reported even more significant demands on their time. For example, one of the early catalysts for more public discussion of crunch came in 2004 in a blog post by spouses of employees of Electronic Arts, who describe periods in which employees worked up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Take This also describes the toll that crunch takes on the mental and physical health of employees: “Long work hours might mean giving up sleep, eating poorly, overindulging in caffeinated drinks, and otherwise abandoning healthy habits”, with “major risk factors for health problems that include insomnia, depression, heart disease, stroke, and on-the-job injuries”. Studies reported in the whitepaper also strongly support the idea that crunch is actually detrimental to the quality of the finished product, as well as the company itself: excessive crunch time tends to result in more numerous software defects and lower critic ratings, and more significant costs to the company in terms of dealing with employee turnover.

It seems clear that there are a number of ethical problems surrounding crunch in the video game industry. First and foremost, even if crunch does end up producing a higher quality video game (although we have seen reason to think that it doesn’t), it seems that detriments to the mental and physical well-being of employees are costs that outweigh any potential benefits. It would then seem to be a generally unethical practice to make significant crunch mandatory.

However, while companies like Rockstar have clarified that there is no explicit expectation of crunch from its employees, there may be more subtle factors that result in employees feeling as though engaging in crunch is expected of them. For instance, Matt Webster at gamesindustry.biz describes a number of practices that can create the appearance of implicit requirements for crunch from employees, and that companies have an obligation to try to avoid. Webster suggests a number of best practices, including setting realistic expectations for completion, regularly seeking feedback from employees measuring their health, and curbing rewards for bad behaviors; for example, Webster notes how encouraging someone for working excessive hours with praise like “She’s just passionate” reinforces detrimental behavior.

Webster’s observations speak to a second ethical concern surrounding the crunch phenomenon, namely concerning the obligations that companies have towards their employees to try to try to mitigate the effects of crunch. Eliminating the effects of crunch will take more than just explicitly decrying the practice: one may also be required to try to establish a workplace culture in which employees do not feel implicitly obligated to engage in crunch. In addition to the above best practices, Webster suggests that those in leadership positions ought to modify their own behavior to set the right kind of precedent for their employees. “Like the behaviors you want to see”, Webster recommends, adding “if you believe everyone should leave at six o’clock…then leave at six.”

We have seen that given the detrimental effects on employees, employers have moral reasons not to require crunch. However, since crunch can be a product not only of explicit policy but of implicit behavior, the actions of those like Hauser, someone who does not require crunch but still engages in it, may still be morally problematic. After all, if all of your bosses are working 100 hours weeks, you will no doubt feel pressure to start putting in a lot of overtime yourself.

One final worry has to do with how we as consumers of games that are partly the result of crunch ought to behave. Jessica Conditt at Engadget, for example, reports mixed feelings when appreciating the artistic qualities of Red Dead Redemption 2 while knowing that many of those qualities were the product of significant crunch at Rockstar:

“While I admire these in-game moments, they’re also the ones that shake me out of Red Dead Redemption 2‘s spell the most abruptly. The more beautiful the scene, the more obvious how much talent and work has gone into it, the more I think about the people behind it and how many 80-hour weeks they might have endured; how their emotional and physical health must have fared; how many family milestones they may have missed. The more I think about crunch.”

Conditt suggests that, as a minimum, both those in the video game industry and consumers of games ought to engage in an open discussion about consequences of crunch. Given that according to some estimates Red Dead Redemption 2 is expected to sell 25 million copies in the first six months after its release, we can hopefully expect a lot of conversations in the near future.

Rap Feuds and Moral Standing

"Pusha T," by SImon Abrams licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Rap music– it is a genre of sound that manipulates words in such a clever manner that since the birth of hip hop in 1973, it has enthralled audiences across the globe. As rap music evolved, it became an outlet where MCs would address personal issues and vendettas with others, but especially with other rappers. When rappers feud, they hurl the most vicious insults at one another through their songs in hope that their opponent will no longer possess the will to rebuke them. Rappers often go to great lengths in feuds with other MCs, even going as far as digging to find personal information. Personal matters being brought into rap feuds has often resulted in strained relationships between former friends, violence, and even death. The lengths that some rappers go to shame other MCs has always been in question, but the inquiry has reared its head once again since another rap feud has surfaced, and it’s been brought up by none other than Drake, believed by many to currently be on top in the rap game. Drake’s stance on rap feuds and the results of rap feuds from the past has raised the question of whether the MCs who engage in them should attack their opponent on such a personal level.

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The Ethical Ramifications of Legalizing the Exotic Wildlife Trade

Photo of a rhino horn and several products claiming to have rhino horn in them

Recently China has taken steps towards preserving exotic wildlife that have become endangered species. In 2017, China closed its market of ivory to protect African elephants and stop the illegal wildlife trade. This step commenced “China’s reputation as a leader of conservation” according to a Tiger Campaign Leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency.  However, as of October 29, 2018, the state Council, under Premier Li Kequiang, made a public decision to permit the controlled sale of rhino horns and tiger bones for research or traditional medicine. In doing so, they ended the 25-year-old ban of these products. The announcement discloses that “Rhino horns and tiger bones used in medical research or in healing can only be obtained from farmed rhinos and tigers,” restricting the open trade to only legal farms and not risking the remaining wild endangered populations. Conservationists, such as the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), consider this a major hindrance for the exotic animal populations.

Conservationists argue that this new law could lead to a surge of illegal wildlife hunting and trading which would further threaten the already vulnerable animal population. This legal market gives the illegal transactions a place to hide. “The resumption of a legal market for these products is an enormous setback to efforts to protect tigers and rhinos in the wild,” says Margaret Kinnaird, of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Selling legal rhino horns and tiger bones signals that it is ethically okay to buy the products. The price of a rhino horn has peaked at $65,000 per kg, which is already more valuable than gold and elephant ivory. Today, at least three rhinos die per day because of hunting for their horns. It is expected that as the demand rises for this trade, the threatened population will continue to decline. Speaking on behalf of WWF, Leigh Henry, Director of Wildlife Policy, “urgently calls on China to maintain the ban on tiger bone and rhino horn trade which has been so critical in conserving these iconic species. This should be expanded to cover trade in all tiger parts and products.” Conservationists clearly argue the value of protecting the wildlife, such as tigers and rhinos.

An important aspect of the new law is that the rhino horns and tiger bones can only come from farms. This approach has also been promoted by South Africa and other African governments that have been encouraging private farming of exotic animals.  The World Wildlife Fund says there are fewer than 4,000 tigers living in the wild, but there are some 6,000 captive tigers, farmed in about 200 government-sanctioned locations across China. Farms that house these wild populations could be protecting them from extinction. To support this, Lu Kang, the foreign ministry spokesman, said that China’s 1993 ban on the products did not take into account the “reasonable needs of reality,” adding that China has improved its “law enforcement mechanism.”

To enforce this new law, it has been found that rhino horns are relatively easy to microchip and can have samples taken for DNA analysis. It is this kind of DNA analysis that conservationists argue would be necessary to regulate the illegal trade from the legal farms. Although it’s possible that the horn can be traced back to an individual animal, it is not clear yet how to verify a powdered rhino horn, a product that would be used for medicinal purposes, which may come from more than one animal. After all, the purpose of the law was to preserve the culture of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which requires the usage of tiger and rhino products.

Recently, World Health Organization (WHO) took a stance to support TCM along with other traditional medicine practices as a step towards long term universal health care. Traditional treatments are less costly and more accessible than Western medicine for some countries. This would extend the scope of medicinal practices to include a larger amount of people. According to the director-general of WHO, there is a cost advantage of supporting TCM because treatments are more pioneered towards lifestyle changes, herbal remedies, and reducing stress levels. However, Western scientists are concerned that TCM practices are not supported by clinical trials and therefore could be dangerous. TCM treatments are based on Theories of Qi, which means vital energy to help the body maintain health. Common treatments include acupuncture or herbal remedies. The rhino and tiger are both animals that have connections to virility and strength, providing help to patients with back pain, arthritis, and even hangovers.

Part of the new law states that the purpose behind it was to allow research or usage for traditional medicine. Rhino horns are made from the protein keratin, which is advertised to help treat everything from cancer to gout. However, there is a lack of Western medicinal evidence that proves this. A rare study from 1990 found that rhino horns can lower fevers in rodents, very similar to aspirin or acetaminophen. Tiger bones in medicinal use are crushed and made into a paste that can treat rheumatism and back pain. Yet again, there is a lack of scientific Western studies that support this claim.

Western scientists have spent millions of dollars on trials of TCM with little success. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine surveyed 70 systematic reviews measuring the effectiveness of traditional medicine practices, like acupuncture. The studies couldn’t reach a solid conclusion that supported positive effectiveness. Going along with Western medicine viewpoints, one would argue that the intention behind China’s new policy is not supported with evidence that the rhino horns and tiger bones are an effective form of medicine.  Overall, there are ethical ramifications of this issue that lie beyond the scope of preserving wildlife. The ethical arguments extend to differences between western and traditional medicinal practices and the means to be able to practice both.

Hollywood Structures: The Age Gap in Relationships

A photo of the Hollywood sign at sunset.

Recently, it was reported that 31-year-old rapper Drake shut down a restaurant in Washington D.C. to take 18 year-old model Bella Harris on a date. And while the pair has denied that a date occurred (Harris doing so on Instagram, saying she had been in New York), Harris also has posted an image on Instagram of the pair embracing with the caption “no place I’d rather be ” While Harris is at the legal age of consent, the pair first met when Harris was 16 years old. And rumors of the two dating become more alarming when looking at some of the pictures she also posted on her Instagram after their first meeting.

Continue reading “Hollywood Structures: The Age Gap in Relationships”

The Triumph of California’s Impure Prop. 12

"Different Pigs," by Arran Moffatt licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Via Flickr).

Among a bevy of complicated results from the 2018 midterm elections, voters in California this month resoundingly chose to support a ballot measure designed to protect the wellbeing of industrial livestock. The “Farm Animal Confinement Initiative” – or Proposition 12 – was passed with 61 percent of the vote, setting California on a path to reshape the landscape of large-scale farming operations, including fully eliminating the use of cages by egg producers, over the next three years.

Continue reading “The Triumph of California’s Impure Prop. 12”

Uighur Re-Education and Freedom of Conscience

"Tiananmen Square & Forbidden city entrance, Beijing, China" by Joe Hunt licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)..jpg

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In August, UN’s human rights committees received credible information about abuses in the Xinjiang region of China. In this large, supposedly autonomous region in the west of China, there are about 11 million Uighur Muslims who speak a language similar to Turkish. The concerns raised to the UN committee included biometric testing, surveillance, and re-education programs against this significant minority population. Human Rights Watch reported that citizens that had family members living in any of 26 “sensitive” countries were being detained. The surveillance is said to include tracking people using coded entry to buildings and facial recognition technology, and the use of WhatsApp is being tracked. Credible reports to the UN claim that an estimated 1 million Uighurs are in camps undergoing torture and forced to praise the president while renouncing their religion.

Xinjiang, the largest region in China, is being compared to a large internment camp. The BBC reports, “Former prisoners told us of physical as well as psychological torture in the camps. Entire families had disappeared, and we were told detainees were tortured physically and mentally.” In August, China denied actions being taken in the region.

In the second week of October, Beijing legalized re-education camps and programs in order to tackle so-called Uighur extremism through “thought transformation.” The indoctrination includes forced Mandarin teaching and renunciation of the detainees’ Muslim faith in the name of “vocational training.” While China defends the new legalization of interventions in Xinjiang, Sophie Richardson from Human Rights Watch said the “words on paper outlining grotesque, vast human rights abuses don’t deserve the term ‘law.'” (The extremist behavior China cites as justifying this extreme intervention includes not watching state tv, avoiding state-run schools, and producing halal products.)

The extreme surveillance and lack of due process before detaining individuals in the camps is problematic from a human rights perspective, of course. Here I will focus on the conversion efforts and why they are uniquely problematic.

The Chinese government is coercing a group of people away from sincerely held ethical or religious beliefs and thereby violating a right to freedom of conscience. Why might we think this is a human right, or perhaps less stringent, a value that ought to be prima facie respected?

Historically there have been a few different angles to defend the freedom of conscience. Typically, they center on a descriptive fact of human nature: people have a plurality of ethical and religious perspectives.

A defense based on (lack of) effectiveness suggests that when you coerce ethical or religious conversion, at most you will alter external practices while the individual’s internal commitments will remain unchanged. Political coercion, in other words, is not effective in altering ethical and religious outlooks. You are, in effect, creating a group of hypocrites who have a comprehensive moral view that conflicts with their outward behavior.

There have, of course, been faiths that have at particular times doubted this ineffectiveness. The Catholic Church in Europe considered violence at times to open heretic’s eyes to the “truth,” and thus coercion was justified (Augustine argues this case in the fifth century, and others take up this tack centuries later during the Reformation). To justify this conversion, the coercive group has been committed to a notion that they have the truth, or the correct ethical view, to the point that making people believe the truth outweighs respecting their personal convictions.

Another defense of freedom of conscience originates from what could be seen as the opposite temperament – an epistemic humility about one’s own ethical or religious perspective. When we recognize that our commitments are just one set among many different sets of ethical and religious outlooks on the world, one response might be that there isn’t sufficient justification to move someone from what they believe to one’s own perspective. We can see this defense of freedom of conscience again in the Protestant Reformation (for instance, by Pierre Bayle), when some philosophers and religious scholars saw insufficient reason to adopt a Protestant or Catholic framework aside from conviction.

Both of these defenses of the freedom of conscience take it that people adopt different ethical orientations that differ substantively. In the first, the freedom is defended out of practical considerations doubting this purported fact can be altered. In the second, the freedom is defended on the grounds that the presences of a plurality undermines strong enough justification in any particular perspective to coerce conversion. John Rawls, a political philosopher in the 20th century in the US, was committed to what he called a “reasonable pluralism,” which can be seen as a mix of these defenses.

Rawls developed a theory for a just government that would have legitimate authority over its citizens and thereby be structured to promote the primary goods of the people. On Rawls’ view, there are a number of ethical and religious perspectives that one could “reasonably” adopt; people reasoning in good faith will inevitably come to different conclusions about deep, philosophical questions because of their own unique set of experiences and values. While not all determinations will be morally defensible, there will be a range of convictions that might be deemed justifiable epistemically and sufficiently tolerant of others’ views. Given this range of reasonable ethical and religious worldviews, it would be presumptuous and intolerant for a practitioner of one comprehensive moral system (say, Buddhism) to expect a practitioner of another (say, Islam) to conform to his or her own (Buddhism).  So, at the level of government it would be unreasonable to include mandatory commitment to a particular comprehensive ethical or religious perspective (tenets of Buddhism, Islam, atheism, or any system that one would reject if didn’t share the ethical or religious perspective). The members of other ethical systems could reasonably reject such a government, which would undermine its legitimacy.

It is again worth noting that there are substantive commitments underlying the pluralist commitments of Rawls’ view. There have been political philosophies that do not take pluralism to be a necessary tenet of a legitimate government while accepting the descriptive fact that people may adopt many different ethical views.

Mozi, a philosopher from the Warring States Period of Chinese history, was concerned about pluralism. He agreed with the descriptive commitment that where there are many people there are many ethical and religious commitments. However, he saw this is as something to tackle rather than to accept because of the discord that foments as a result. In a “state of nature” argument that justifies the legitimacy of a very different government structure than Rawls’, Mozi argues that an authoritarian government that speaks with one ethical voice and is free of corruption will inspire ethical monism and prosperity among the people. He thus disagrees with the first defense of the freedom of conscience and considers it possible to influence the population’s ethical perspective; roughly, he recommends having those in positions of power reward and honor individuals in line with the ethos of the government and suggests that an ethical monism in the nation will follow.

In political philosophy, the problem of descriptive pluralism is a complicated one as it involves empirical questions regarding what it takes to alter someone’s deepest ethical conviction as well as normative ones concerning which ethical convictions are justified and when influencing the convictions of others is justified. Today, the government crackdown in Xinjiang involves such an intersection of rights abuses that it is clear that many injustices are being committed. In the US, members of Congress has pressed for Trump to intervene in China to discourage their treatment but as of the second week of October, the Trump administration has not responded.

Reevaluating Artivism in Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer”

Photograph of singer Janelle Monáe holding a microphone

In April 2018, Janelle Monáe released her third album, Dirty Computer, which she accompanied with an “emotion picture” of the same title. Her visual video project is set in a dystopian futuristic United States that might not seem particularly foreign to people of color and queer folk. In the society constructed by Monáe, people who do not conform to white centric heteronormative standards of respectability are chased, detained, and arrested by the police. Anyone who refuses to conform is labeled a “dirty computer.” According to the dominant group, dirty computers must be wiped cleaned and their memories must be erased. Monáe mobilizes computers as the metaphor to represent humans, who are under threat of becoming more and more monolithic.

Dirty Computer is a defiant cry by Monáe, because, in the face of oppression, she is clearly stating that her intersectional identities (black, woman, queer) are vibrant and beautiful. Monáe’s work is creative and passionate: Dirty Computer showcases a perspective largely missing from the music industry. The album and video project contain emancipatory potential and should lead viewers to question the highly conformist and oppressive society we live in.

By using her artistic work as a political statement, Monáe might lead us to reevaluate the importance of artivism. The idea of artists protesting through their work is not new; however, Monáe’s work shows viewers what taking up an ethical pursuit for justice can look like within a contemporary context. Is it the ethical responsibility of artists to promote and advocate for justice? Considering the influence musicians have the potential to assert, is artivism the most salient form of political mobilization? An examination of Monáe’s project and her intentions behind it highlights the importance of artivism within contemporary society.

Monáe recently came out as Pansexual, which might have influenced the unapologetic queerness she guaranteed within Dirty Computer. Representations of queer women of color are largely missing from American media, and the significance of a project led by a queer woman of color representing other queer women of color cannot be ignored. Monáe does not simply portray “gay love” in a way that is legible for heterosexual people, nor does she present queerness under the guise of normality. Monáe also makes it clear that she is not interested in a male gaze. Monáe’s song, “PYNK,” is a modern queer anthem that depicts the love between Monáe and Zen (played by Tessa Thompson) as passionate, erotic, and unrestricted. In Dirty Computer black queer women are beautiful, and this in itself is a political statement. Undeniably groundbreaking, Monáe’s work is highly personal, yet one can wonder whether her platform as a musician makes artivism a moral obligation. Was Monáe under moral obligation to center her queerness and create a counternarrative?

In an interview with Hot 97’s Ebro Darden, Monáe explains how she broke down the album in three parts:

Songs one, two, three, four—that’s the reckoning. That’s you feeling the sting of being called nigger for the first time by a white person. Feeling the sting of being called a bitch by a man for the first time. Feeling the sting of being called queer or a faggot by homophobic people. Feeling the sting of being poor, and someone continuing to take from you. It’s reckoning and dealing with what it means to be called a Dirty Computer.”

The second part of the album is dedicated to celebration, and the right of “dirty computers” to feel pride and love towards themselves. Monáe shares how this pride can be intercepted by fear, and the realization that fighting for one’s rights is deeply scary. The third act is reclamation, and it declares “I am an American, this is my land.” What Monáe is depicting through her three-part project is the dynamic life process of being a person of color or a queer person in the United States. Monáe is declaring a passionate love for every aspect of herself and inviting other marginalized peoples to consider their unique lives beautiful. Why is this message so important?

Arguably, Monáe’s proclamation has not been prioritized within media, and her voice stands out. With this in mind, Pitchfork raises powerful questions:

“What does it mean to be a newly out queer black woman of Monáe’s stature making a pop album in 2018 when there is no precedent? And how does that affect how we interpret her music and her willingness to inhabit spaces currently dominated by white acts? As an album, Dirty Computer is what happens when a prism is held to the blinding light of a free Janelle Monáe.”

Furthermore, Monáe’s Dirty Computer possesses liberatory potential and pursuits justice for women of color, queer individuals, and queer women of color.

It cannot be strictly said that Monáe is responsible for advocating for justice and equity, especially because marginalized people should not be held accountable for their own liberation: equity should be guaranteed by the dominant group on the basis that injustice and inequality are morally wrong. However, it has been historically revealed that marginalized people cannot count on the dominant group to acknowledge the humanity they have been continuously denied. Furthermore, Monáe’s work should be shared and uplifted, because she has taken on activist work that she did not owe anyone. Her vulnerability was not a duty, yet Monáe recognized the groundbreaking potential of her voice as public figure: Dirty Computer represents the activist potential of art.

Bad Advice from the USDA

U.S. Department of Agriculture research facility at North Dakota State University, in Fargo, N.D. on Monday, April 29, 2013. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

In a recently published article in the Ohio State Law Journal, Delcianna Winders criticizes the Department of Agriculture’s habit of issuing warnings instead of levying punishments to enforce the Animal Welfare Act (AWA); highlighting both the lack of empirical evidence that warnings actually lead to institutional change, as well as the fact that, overall, actions to enforce the AWA have dwindled in recent years. Winders takes the USDA to task for neglecting its responsibility to provide ethical leadership for food, agriculture, and other related industries in a manner that leaves animal lives in particular in severe jeopardy. Continue reading “Bad Advice from the USDA”

Healthier Climate: A Constitutional Right?

"Climate change?!" by Eric Wüstenhagen licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring contains the earliest written suggestion that a healthy environment should be a constitutional right. Carson’s assertion was specific to the warning against indiscriminate pesticide use and the spreading of disinformation by chemical companies. Silent Spring led to a national ban on the chemical DDT and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Today, the debate over whether or not a healthy environment should be viewed as a fundamental right is pushing new boundaries by taking on a graver, more nebulous issue: global climate change. The right to a healthy, stable climate is not enumerated in the Constitution and currently does not exist, but what if it must for the well-being of future generations? U.S. Courts of the past have seen fit to grant numerous rights unwritten by the founders of our nation and, as Duke Law describes, “from the very beginning, American judges have been prepared to enforce constitutional rights that cannot fairly be said to derive from any enumerated textual guarantee.” Should such a broad, yet seemingly vital, right to a life-sustaining environment (atmosphere included) be enforced by our nation’s courts?

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The Danger of Endorsing Political Conspiracies

Photograph of two tabloid magazines with headlines about Hilary Clinton, dated "election eve," 2016

Barack Obama isn’t an American citizen. Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS. Democrats orchestrated the Sandy Hook shooting to promote gun control. Conspiracies have plagued political discourse for centuries, and have grown especially more prevalent and harsh in recent years. There are multiple reasons behind this current uptick in conspiracies, the most obvious being the increased accessibility to the Internet and social media. However, even more unsettling is the very real damage that has been caused by belief in conspiracies in recent years. Continue reading “The Danger of Endorsing Political Conspiracies”

The Death of Jamal Khashoggi and the Ethics of Arms Deals

"Mohammed bin Salman's Saudi Arabia/ A Deeper Look," by POMED licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

On October 2, journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared into Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey. While Saudi Arabian authorities initially asserted that Khashoggi left unharmed, they have since admitted that he was murdered inside the consulate. Khashoggi was a noted critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which suggests that the killing had a political motivation, but the Saudi Arabian government has insisted alternately that the killing was either accidental or orchestrated without the knowledge of Mohammed bin Salman.

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Freedom to Protest: An Ethical Examination of the DePauw Student Handbook

Jr. Summer Papachen rallies students to make their voices heard by BYRON MASON II

On Friday October 12, I walked out of Hoover Hall and unto the cold grey tiles of Stewart Plaza. On that cloudy day, a crowd of students and faculty had begun to form around junior Summer Pappachen, who was holding a megaphone. I had heard about the demonstration through word of mouth and social media: this was probably the best advertised demonstration I had attended at DePauw. In light of how secretive previous demonstrations had been, this felt very strange. Students and faculty had come together to demonstrate against the recent cuts to faculty healthcare. Additionally, the student organizers of the Democratic Socialist Club (DSC) asked President McCoy to abolish the current demonstration policies, which were specifically infringing on the freedoms of students of color. Summer emphasized that President McCoy had not met 7 of the 8 demands set forth by the Association of African American Students (AAAS)  last semester. As I stood among my professors and peers, the memory of last semester’s protest was seering in my mind.

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Hyper-partisanship and Centrism in Modern Political Discourse

"Remember" by Ian Sane licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Via Flickr).

Hyper-partisanship in the United States political system is becoming more and more of a topic of concern among Americans. Politicians from both parties are finding it increasingly difficult to find common ground, more extreme and even “radical” factions of both the right and the left are beginning to take hold, and many politicians who are less willing to compromise are being elected into office. This kind of partisanship has transcended the discourse among elected officials as these types of sentiments have taken hold among media outlets, and in turn, the electorate.

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