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Which Voices Matter? Ballot Initiatives, Marijuana, and Legislative Paternalism in Utah

Photograph of a sign for a medical marijuana dispensary

Drivers headed toward Salt Lake City on I-15 are sure to notice two things—the breathtaking Wasatch mountain range (when the thickness of inversion doesn’t obscure it) and a striking number of billboard ads warning citizens of the dangers of the misuse of opioids. This is not without good reason—Utah ranks 9th on the CDC’s list of states hit the hardest by opioid overdose. Misuse of opioids is responsible for 23 deaths every month, according to the Utah Department of Health. Empathy is called for when it comes to addiction in general, and addiction to opioids in particular. After all, many people become addicted to opioids in an attempt to deal with serious pain. If opioids pose such a threat, it makes good sense to think carefully about other approaches to dealing with pain.

In the November election, Utah voters were asked to vote on Proposition 2—an initiated state statute that would legalize medicinal marijuana. Utah is one of twenty-one states that permits citizens to propose ballot measures for vote by citizens at large. In order for an issue to make its way onto the ballot, citizens must demonstrate that the issue is one that a substantial portion of the population wants to take up, and they do so by collecting signatures on a petition.

Ballot initiatives have a long history in American politics.  They have existed in some form since the earliest days of our government. In the late 1800s, the country witnessed a surge in ballot initiatives. Citizens were increasingly concerned that wealthy interest groups had too much power over legislators and that legislation could, essentially be purchased. The ballot initiative came to be viewed as an important check on lawmakers. A system of government that allows for ballot initiatives demonstrates respect for the will of the people when it comes to the construction of crucial social policies.

On November 6, 2018, the notoriously conservative state of Utah surprised the country by passing their marijuana ballot initiative by a margin of 53 to 48. It made the use of cannabis legal for individuals with qualifying medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, cachexia, cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, HIV, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder or ulcerative colitis. Chronic pain and autoimmune disease are also included in the list of conditions covered by Prop 2. A qualifying patient may, every two weeks, obtain up to 2 ounces by weight of unprocessed marijuana, or a processed product containing no more than 10 grams of THC or TBD.  The initiative allowed for private sale of marijuana, in accordance with the guidelines, at a number of dispensaries determined by the population of a given county, with at least one dispensary in each county. The population of counties in Utah results in the possibility of up to forty dispensaries.  The initiative also included a provision for patients suffering from chronic pain who live in remote areas. If a patient lives more than 100 miles away from a dispensary, they are permitted to cultivate up to six marijuana plants.

In conflict with the idea that ballot measures should allow for the voice of the people to serve as a check of legislators is the legal fact that legislators aren’t required to listen to the voice of the people. They can reject or revise initiated state statutes if the proposed rejection or revision has the support of a simple majority in The Utah State Legislature. Indeed, that body had been long at work on a bill, The Utah Medical Marijuana Act, to replace Prop 2. They began their work before voters even had a chance to weigh in. They seemingly never intended to let the voters settle the matter.

The new bill makes a number of significant changes to the policy. First, it reduces the number of dispensaries from 40 to 8 and they will be largely be run by the state.  Second, it reduces the number of illnesses that qualify to be treated with marijuana, getting rid of provisions for most autoimmune disorders and sources of chronic pain that are difficult to diagnose. The new bill also abandons the provision for patients living in rural areas—such patients must either travel to one of the eight dispensaries or deal with their chronic pain in some other way.

Some of the moves being made by Utah legislators are familiar to many—these kinds of strategies are frequently employed in an attempt to prevent easy access to abortion. Legislators may have their hands tied when it comes to making abortion illegal, but they can seriously restrict access, forcing women to either drive great distances, go through with their pregnancies, or abort their babies in ways that pose a threat to their lives and health. Arguably, the Utah Medical Cannabis Act does the same thing. It seriously restricts the locations at which it is possible to get medical marijuana. Legislators know full well that many citizens, especially those in severe pain, won’t have the resources to travel great distances. As a result, medical marijuana remains as good as banned to these segments of the population.  

The similarities between abortion legislation and the Utah Medical Cannabis Act don’t end there. Abortion laws around the country require doctors to read scripts, constructed by the legislators themselves, to patients seeking abortions. They are required to do so even if the script is inconsistent with the expert advice they would choose to give their patients were they allowed to advise freely. In these cases, legislators are behaving as if they know more about the health of patients than trained medical professionals do. Arguably, the Utah Medical Cannabis Act is making the same mistake.  Doctors are the best judges of the kinds of illnesses that cause pain, and they are in the best position to make recommendations on how that pain would best be tackled. If a doctor, in his or her expert opinion, thinks pain would better be treated with marijuana than with opioids, for example, many would argue that the doctor’s judgment should be respected.

The bill was passed as a result of coordination between a number of interested parties. One of these parties is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In advance of the election, the church sent out an e-mail to its members, urging them to vote no on Prop 2. They advised their members that “Its proponents assert that it will make medical marijuana available to those suffering with debilitating pain and other infirmities. However, in truth it goes much further, creating a serious threat to health and public safety, especially for our youth and young adults, by making marijuana generally available with few controls.” It seems as if the church strongly influenced the election results with their actions and then continued to push their particular agenda in the form of the bill passed by the legislature. Many find this level of influence by a religious organization to be morally objectionable. Religions wield tremendous coercive influence over their members.  Reason may motivate a voter to vote one way in an election, and their perception of what God wants them to do might motivate them to vote in a different way. Between these two alternatives, many devout religious people will do the thing they have reason to believe God wants them to do.

This case has many moving parts, morally speaking, and it motivates a cluster of questions. When should the voice of the people be taken seriously and when is it appropriate for the legislature to behave paternalistically? When the voice of the people expresses that they want a ban to be lifted, is it morally fair to replace a ban with restrictions that are, as a practical matter, not much different from a ban? Should legislators be in the business of telling doctors how best to treat their patients? How involved is it morally appropriate for churches to be in elections and the construction of laws?


Privacy and a Year in the Life of Facebook

Photograph of Mark Zuckerberg standing with a microphone

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, declared on January 4 that he would “fix Facebook” in 2018. Since then, the year has contained scandal after scandal. Throughout the year, Facebook has provided a case study of questions regarding how to protect or value information privacy. On March 17, the New York Times and The Guardian revealed that Cambridge Analytica used information gleaned from Facebook users to attempt to influence voters’ behavior. Zuckerberg had to testify before Congress and rolled out new data privacy practices. In April, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was revealed to be more far-reaching than previously thought and in June it was revealed that Facebook shared data with other companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Samsung. The UK fined Facebook the legal maximum for illegal handling of user data related to Cambridge Analytica. In September, a hack accessed 30 million users data. In November, another New York Times investigation revealed that Facebook had failed to be sufficiently forthcoming about Russia’s interference on the site regarding political manipulation, and on December 18 more documents came out showing that Facebook offered user data, even from private messages, to companies including Microsoft, Netflix, Spotify and Amazon.

The repeated use of data regarding users of Facebook without their knowledge or consent, often to manipulate their future behavior as consumers or voters, has led to Facebook’s financial decline and loss of public trust. The right to make your own decisions regarding access to information about your life is called informational privacy. We can articulate the tension in discussions over the value of privacy as between the purported right to be left alone, on the one hand, and the supposed right of society to know about its members on the other. The rapid increase in technology that can collect and disseminate information about individuals raises the question of whether the value of privacy should shift along with this shift in actual privacy practices or whether greater efforts need to be devoted to protect the informational privacy of members of society.

The increase in access to personal information is just one impact of the rise of information technology. Technological advances have also affected the meaning of personal information. For instance, it has become easier to track your physical whereabouts given the sorts of apps and social media that are commonly used, but also the reason that the data from Facebook is so useful is that so much can be extrapolated about a person based on seemingly unrelated behaviors, changing what sorts of information may be considered sensitive. Cambridge Analytica was able to use Facebook data to attempt to sway voting behavior because of trends in activity on the social media site and political behavior. Advertising companies can take advantage of the data to better target consumers.

When ethicists and policy makers began discussing the right to privacy, considerations centered on large and personal life choices and protecting public figures from journalists. The aspects of our lives that we would typically consider most central to the value of privacy would be aspects of our health, say, our religious and political beliefs, and other aspects of life deemed personal such as romantic and sexual practices and financial situations. The rise of data analysis that comes with social media renders a great deal of our behaviors potentially revelatory: what pictures we post, what posts we like, how frequently we use particular language, etc. can be suggestive of a variety of further aspects of our life and behaviors.

If information regarding our behavior on platforms such as Facebook is revealing of the more traditionally conceived private domain of our lives, should this information be protected? Or should we reconceive of what we conceive of as private? One suggestion has been to acknowledge the brute economic fact of the rise of these technologies: this data is worth money. Therefore, it could be possible to abstract away from the moral value or right to privacy and focus instead on the reality that data is worth something, but if the individual owns the data about themselves they perhaps are owed the profits of the use of their data.

There are moral reasons to protect personal data. If others have unrestricted access to their whereabouts, health information, passwords protecting financial accounts, etc., they could be used to harm the individual. Security and a right to privacy thus could be justified as harm prevention. It also could be justified via right to autonomy, as data about one’s life can be used to unduly influence her choices. This is exacerbated by the ways that data changes relevance and import depending on the sphere in which it is used. For instance, revealing data regarding your health being used in your healthcare dealings has different significance than if potential employers had access to such data. If individuals are in less control over their personal data, this can lead to discrimination and disadvantages.

Thus there are both economic or property considerations as well as moral considerations for protecting personal data. Zuckerberg has failed to “fix” Facebook in 2018, but more transparency of the protections and regulation of how platforms can use data would be positive moves forward for respecting our value of privacy in 2019.

Cyntoia Brown and the Limitations of “Self-Defense”

Photograph of an empty courtroom

Cyntoia Brown’s name has frequently been in the news.  Her cause was taken up by celebrities including Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Lebron James, and Ashley Judd. Cyntoia Brown is also the subject of a 2011 PBS documentary. Brown, 30, is currently serving a fifty-one year prison sentence for killing a man when she was sixteen years old.  

In 2004, sixteen-year old Cyntoia was involved with twenty-four year old Garion “Cut-Throat” McGlothen. The teenaged Brown was assaulted by McGlothen and trafficked into sex work.  One day, a man named Johnny Allen, 43, picked up Brown and brought her to his house to sexually assault her (at sixteen, she was below the minimum age of consent, which is eighteen years of age in Tennessee). Brown testified that Allen engaged in intimidating behavior, showing her his gun collection, and pacing and watching her as she tried to sleep. He reached out to grope her. Brown rebuffed his move, and he rolled over, reaching for something. Fearing he was reaching for a gun, Brown grabbed her own gun from her purse and shot him.  

Prosecutors argued that the case did not look like self-defense, emphasizing Allen’s bodily position (which did not necessarily contradict Brown’s version of events) and the fact that Brown took Allen’s wallet and a couple rifles after the shooting. They contended that the subsequent taking of his wallet and guns was Cyntoia’s premeditated motive for the killing, rather than an afterthought. When Cyntoia displayed erratic behaviors, they were paraded as evidence of a wilful, premeditated behavior instead of the actions of a traumatized teen (in addition to her trauma, Cyntoia may have been a sufferer of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and was theorized by her counsellors to have borderline personality disorder). Cyntoia was tried as an adult and sentenced to fifty-one years of prison.

Today, fourteen years later, Cyntoia would not be tried as an adult. Her state of Tennessee now recognizes that underage sex workers are not a category: children are de facto sex-trafficking victims rather than sex workers in virtue of being unable to consent. This is one way in which Cyntoia’s case was shamefully handled: using an archaic framework that did not take her childhood and her victimhood into account. These point to systemic issues. Other systemic issues concern her gender and race, and logical problems with the ways in which criminal law articulates our notion of justifiable self-defense.

Self-defense as a legal argument has several requirements, among them imminent threat and reasonable fear of harm. The prosecutors argued that Allen did not pose an imminent threat to Cyntoia.  

The notion of “imminent threat” and “reasonable fear of harm” has already been nuanced by advocates for women pointing out that some victims of intimate partner violence and sexual assault exhibit “battered women syndrome” (BWS), a state of fear and helplessness brought on by the cyclical tactics of an abuser. BWS is a legal concept more than a clinical one, but psychologists have associated its symptoms with those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Individuals who suffer repeated sexual and physical trauma at the hands of intimate partners develop a fear of the partner, attributing extensive power to the partner due to a history of violence and threats on the abuser’s part. This is not an irrational fear, as nearly three women are killed every day by a male partner.  

One of the features of victims of sexual and physical violence is that what looks like an “imminent threat” to a woman or child so habituated to being the object of violence may look very different to a person not regularly subject to abusive behaviors. In fact, what appears to be an “imminent threat” and “reasonable fear of harm” to two parties of roughly equal power in a roughly equal situation without a history of abuse will look different from that of a woman or child in the power of a much stronger male or grown individual. Our notions of “self-defense” do not adequately capture this power imbalance. The same goes for the idea of “proportionate response,” also central to the legal notion of legitimate self defense. A man facing an assault from an equally or less strong man could theoretically ward off the attack with a lesser show of force than a child or less physically imposing person. A person with much weaker strength who responds with minimal force could merely risk being harmed more vehemently by angering their opponent with an ineffective show of resistance inadequate to the other’s strength.    

Arguably, the law has in place a softer interpretation of self-defense that can allow for these power differentials, called “imperfect self-defense.” Imperfect self-defense describes those individuals who honestly anticipate imminent harm and act accordingly.  Such honest belief might be unreasonable (in reference to a presumably objective observer) but the genuine motive of the actor would be an extenuating circumstance, as malice would be lacking to their action.  This notion extenuates individuals who do not match up to an “objective” observer (i.e. an observer who is presumably at the height of intellectual, physical, and social access, i.e. an observer who is an adult male).

Cyntoia’s prosecution and the jury did not appear to find it overwhelmingly plausible that a child in a vulnerable position to being sexually and physically assaulted by a grown man would subjectively or objectively be in fear for her safety. They could arrive at the judgment they did in part by erasing Cyntoia’s victimhood as a child trafficked into sex, and by interpreting behaviors understandable in a traumatized teen as the willful malice of a fully-formed adult able to negotiate her situation. It is also extremely likely that the final verdict depended upon a limited default understanding of self-defense as between parties of equal strength and power. Martha Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice notes that much of our political theory is built upon this inaccurate notion. It appears that some of the foundational concepts of widespread legal theory are still bound by similar limitations, to the immense detriment of those who do not match the “default” adult male paradigm. Cyntoia bears a heavy cost for her difference – both in terms of her initial exploitation and in receiving an inhumanly harsh penalty for her action.

Should You Rate Your Professor? The Ethics of Student Evaluations

photograph of students packed into lecture

With the academic semester coming to a close, students all over North America will be filling out student evaluation of teacher forms, or SETs. Typically, students answer a range of questions regarding their experience with a class, including how difficult the class was, whether work was returned in a timely manner and graded fairly, and how effective their professors were overall. Some students will even go the extra step and visit RateMyProfessors.com, the oldest and arguably most popular website for student evaluations. There, students can report how difficult the course was, indicate whether they would take a class with the professor again, and, alas, whether one really did need to show up to class or not in order to pass.

While many students likely do not give their SETs much of a second thought once they’ve completed them (if they complete them at all), many universities take student ratings seriously, and often refer to them in determining raises, promotion, and even tenure decisions for early-career faculty. Recently, however, there have been growing concerns over the use of SETs in making such decisions. These concerns broadly fall into two categories: first, whether such evaluations are, in fact, a good indicator of an instructor’s quality of teaching, and second, that student evaluations correlate highly with a number of factors that are irrelevant to an instructor’s quality of teaching.

The first concern is one of validity, namely whether SETs are actually indicative of a professor’s teaching effectiveness. There is reason to think that they are not. For instance, as reported at University Affairs, a recent pair of studies performed by Berkeley professors Philp Stark and Richard Frieshtat indicate that student evaluations correlate most highly with actual or expected performance in a class. In other words, a student who gets an A is much more likely to give their professor a higher rating, and a student who gets a D is much more likely to give them a lower rating. Evaluations also highly correlated with student interest (disinterested students gave lower ratings overall, interested students gave higher ratings) and perceived easiness (easier courses receive higher ratings than difficult ones). These findings cast serious doubt on whether what students are evaluating is how effective their instructors were instead of simply how well they did or liked the class.

These and other studies have recently led Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, to officially stop using SETs as a metric to determine promotion and tenure – a decision reached at the behest of professors who long-argued the unreliability of SETs. Perhaps even more troubling than student evaluations correlating with class performance and interest, though, were that SETs showed biases towards professors on the basis of “gender, ethnicity, accent, age, even ‘attractiveness’…making SETs deeply discriminatory against numerous ‘vulnerable’ faculty.” If SETs are indeed biased in this way, that would constitute a good reason to stop using them.

Perhaps the most egregious form of explicit bias in student ratings could be found up until recently on the RateMyProfessor website, which allowed students to rate professor “hotness,” a score that was indicated on a “chili pepper” scale. That such a scale existed removed a significant amount of credibility from the website; the fact that there are no controls over who can making ratings on the site is also a major reason why few take it seriously. The removal of the “hotness” rating came only after many complaints by numerous professors that argued that it contributes to the objectification of female professors, and contributed overall to a climate in which it is somehow seen as appropriate to evaluate professors on the basis of their looks.

While there might not exist any official SETs administered by a university that approximate the chili pepper scale, the effects of bias when it comes to perceived attractiveness are present regardless. The above-mentioned reports, for instance, found that when it comes to overall evaluations of professors, “attractiveness matters” – “more attractive instructors received better ratings,” and when it came to female professors, specifically, students were more likely to directly comment on their physical appearance. The study provided one example from an anonymous student evaluation that stated: “The only strength she [the professor] has is she’s attractive, and the only reason why my review was 4/7 instead of 3/7 is because I like the subject.” As the report emphasizes, “Neither of these sentiments has anything at all to do with the teacher’s effectiveness or the course quality, and instead reflect gender bias and sexism.”

It gets worse: in addition to evaluations correlating with perceived attractiveness, characteristics like gender, ethnicity, race, and age all affect evaluations of professors as well. As Freishtat reports, “When students think an instructor is female, students rate the instructor lower on every aspect of teaching,” white professors are rated generally higher than professors of other races and ethnicities, and age “has been found to negatively impact teaching evaluations.”

If the only problems with SETs were that they were unreliable, universities would have a practical reason to stop using them: if the goal of SETs is to help identify which professors are deserving of promotion and tenure, and they are unable to contribute to this goal, it seems that they should be abandoned. But as we’ve seen, there is a potentially much more pernicious side to SETs, namely that they systematically display student bias in numerous ways. It seems, then, that universities have a moral obligation to revise the way that professors are assessed.

Given that universities need some means of gauging professors’ teaching ability, what is a better way of doing so? Freishtat suggests that SETs, if they are to be used at all, should represent only one component of a professor’s assessment. Ultimately, those evaluations must be made a part of a more complete dossier in order to be put to better use; they need to be accompanied by letters from department heads, reviews from peers, and a reflective self-assessment of the instructor’s pedagogical approach.

But even if we can’t agree on the best way of evaluating instructor performance, it seems clear that a system that provides unreliable and biased results ought to be reformed or abandoned.

Why You are Wrong to Donate to the #BorderWall GoFundMe Campaign

Photograph of President Trump looking at a book with other people gathered

As of the writing of this story, the federal government has been shut down for just over forty hours; similarly, as of now, the GoFundMe campaign attempting to raise money for President Trump’s wall across portions of the southern border of the United States has raised over $16 million after just six days of funding (differing considerably from the president’s proposed plan of Mexico’s paying). Much has already been said about the current administration’s unusual inability to accomplish its agenda, despite its party controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress; much has also been said about the irresponsibility of a nearly-unprecedented third government shutdown in one calendar year (particularly in the face of a unilaterally controlled Congress and the impending holiday); and much more has been said of the ill-conceived nature of the “Border Wall” itself (whether concerning its cost, its desirability, its efficacy, or its morality). I aim to discuss none of that.

Instead, I want to argue that, regardless of whether the so-called “Border Wall” is a good idea on its own terms or not, it is morally inexcusable to give a charitable donation to fund its construction; at this point, nearly one million people appear to disagree with me (judging from the minimum estimable number of times that the GoFundMe’s site has been shared). Put bluntly: if you are able to give money to charity, then there are only bad reasons to donate to this one rather than to others.

There’s a popular philosophical thought experiment that helps to illustrate the choice of humanitarian aid: imagine that while you are on your way to work or school you must pass by a shallow pond. One day, you see that a child has fallen into the pond and is drowning; you can easily rescue the child without putting yourself in any physical danger (you are much taller than the water level and also know how to swim), but if you move to do so, you will ruin your shoes (or cell phone, or some similarly valuable item) and perhaps make yourself late to wherever it is you are going. Do you believe that you have a moral obligation to, nevertheless, help save the child, even at the expense of your shoes? Many people will, unthinkingly, answer ‘Yes,’ to such a question – we tend to value human life over things like possessions or schedules.

What, then, should we think of the child who is drowning in a shallow pond that is not directly in front of us – say, one in the war-torn landscape of Syria or the water-stricken neighborhoods of Flint, Michigan? If we are able to act in a way that is similarly inconvenient to our possessions or schedules at the cost of saving a child’s life, how could the geographical location of that child bear any weight in the moral calculus? In the words of Peter Singer, “we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.”

It is indeed possible to criticize the utilitarian assumptions behind Singer’s argument in an effort to deflect a conclusion which obligates charitable action, but if you are already committed to donating your money somewhere, then such criticisms are irrelevant to you. That is to say, if you are already willing to get your shoes wet, then you are already on board with Singer’s basic point.

As far as I can tell, there are essentially two reasons why you might want to donate to the “Border Wall” GoFundMe campaign:

  1. You believe that the “Border Wall” is the single greatest good towards which your money could be directed.
  2. You believe that there are other good purposes towards which your money could be directed, but you happen to value the construction of the “Border Wall” above all of them.

(Again, I am taking for granted that the “Border Wall” itself is morally unquestionable; a premise I could not possibly hope to defend, but simply assume for the sake of argument.)

Therefore, the “Border Wall” GoFundMe conundrum offers an extra wrinkle to the pond scenario: imagine, now, that there are two children in need of your help: the first is about to drown as before, but the second is older, knows how to swim, and is merely in danger of muddying his own shoes. If you are willing to act, but only able to save one, in what world could it possibly be better to help the second rather than the first? This is essentially what you are doing if you ascribe to option (2) from the above paragraph; if you instead prefer option (1), then you are simply denying (against the evidence of your own eyes) that there is any second child to even consider.

Surely, there are many different, well-established aid organizations that could put $16 million (and counting) to demonstrably better use. The drowning child in this scenario could be long-established relief efforts in Afghanistan or Syria, malaria prevention in sub-Saharan Africa, eye care programs in nearly two dozen countries, or even just your local food pantry preparing to help feed your city’s unhoused population a Christmas dinner. Despite frequent cries that “veterans should be helped first,” this campaign is not directed to the Wounded Warrior Project, the Fisher House Foundation, the Semper Fi Fund, or any of the other nonprofit groups geared towards helping members of the military and their families in need. The many victims of the  hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the continental Southeast could certainly benefit from these funds and, it’s true, Flint still does not have clean water.

So, even if we grant that a “border wall” would do what its supporters want (which it wouldn’t, but, again, that’s beside the current point), the idea that hundreds of thousands of donations should be directed towards such a wall’s construction cannot be affirmed without tacitly claiming that all of these other causes (and many more) are less important. That is to say, you cannot donate your money to the #BorderWall GoFundMe campaign unless you are willing to agree that it is, in fact, the most important current charitable need – a proposition which is, clearly, false.

Because it’s one thing to argue about whether hurricane relief or veteran’s medical bills better deserve your money, but both are a level of need apart from hollow attempts to salvage broken campaign promises by a politician whose term is swiftly coming to a premature end. Either we must conclude that all $16 million was previously earmarked by its owners to be donated somewhere else or that it was not originally intended to be donated at all: neither of these options entails that diverting the money towards the “Border Wall” is morally commendable. If you are willing to donate your money, it is better to help those currently suffering than to cast it hopefully towards the promise of constructing a toilet paper tiger.

The Real-Life Consequences of Demonizing Sharks

Photograph of a great white shark swimming in the sea

Sharks have rows of razor-sharp teeth, can swim at speeds of 34 mph, and have a reputation as the ocean’s top predator, which is enough information to make many of us uneasy about swimming in open waters. Although we might be guilty of enjoying movies and television programs which explore the depths of the ocean, it may be time to thoroughly evaluate the negative effects of demonizing species as crucial to our oceans as sharks really are.

This past summer came to a close with the release of The Meg, a movie which explores the Megalodona prehistoric sharkas the newest threat to beachgoers’ safety. The list of movies in this genre is endless, adding to the mass hysteria associated with sharks that arguably started with the release of Jaws in 1975. In fact, heightened levels of anxiety while swimming in the ocean were not the only side effect of this movie’s public release. Statistics from the Florida Program for Shark Research stated that increased levels of shark hunting decreased populations of these predators by as much as 50 percent in the years following Jaws’ publication. This increase in the hunt for sharks was partly encouraged by Jaws’ characterization of these fish as man-eating killers, while failing to correctly illustrate their importance to ocean ecosystems. As a result, many fishermen became aspiring shark hunters including Mr. Potts from Montauk, New York, who affirmed, “The more sharks you threw on the dock, the better the day you had and nobody questioned it for years.”

Interestingly, an article by BBC explores the plight of the Great White Shark after Jaws’ release. In fact, Jaws author Peter Benchley expresses his remorse in writing about sharks in this manner, stating, “Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today.” He spent the remainder of his life campaigning for the protection of sharks around the world.

Benchley’s remorse does not change the fact that his publication paved the way for a media industry which profits from inducing fears of these mighty creatures. However, many do not understand just how detrimental taking sharks out of ecosystems can be. Deaths of coral reefs can be attributed to a loss of sharks, as Oceana describes: “By taking sharks out of the coral reef ecosystem, the larger predatory fish, such as groupers, increase in abundance and feed on the herbivores. With less herbivores, macro-algae expands and coral can no longer compete, shifting the ecosystem to one of algae dominance.”  

A popular method for increasing awareness of the plight of these animals is through educational TV programs such as the infamous Shark Week which is shown on the Discovery Channel every summer, and has become one of the most highly anticipated summer television events. Initially, the purpose of Shark Week was to focus on conservation and education; however, shark researchers have noted that recent programming has become increasingly entertainment-focused. Derrick Alcott, a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology, discusses this shift in attitude through a survey conducted on addressing the impact of Shark Week on the general public’s view on sharks. This study included coverage of a video depicting a violent shark attack followed by a PSA about the importance of conservation efforts. Essentially, the results depicted that watching even a re-enactment of an attack created unrealistic fears in individuals’ minds about their likelihood of being attacked by a shark. In fact, the PSA following the video had no effect on alleviating these feelings of anxiety.

On the other hand, it has been proven that increased knowledge about sharks is directly correlated to an awareness about protecting them. In this manner Shark Week provides some much-needed exposure to a variety of shark species and allows for individuals far from the ocean to contribute to conservation efforts. Shark researcher Kat Mowle, who grew up in Colorado, weighs in on the importance of Shark Week in inspiring the next generation of marine biologists. “I was fascinated by the beauty of sharks, and eagerly awaited Shark Week’s arrival each summer and knew that I wanted to be one of those scientists who could help people understand the beauty and importance of sharks to our oceans.” There is a proper way to watch Shark Week and marine biologists like Melissa Marquez still believe there is value in watching programs like this about marine animals, and she hopes that with the increasing viewership, more conservation organizations will be able to relay their messages effectively.

With increased education, conservation can take various forms beyond from donating money. For example, Montauk, New York, known for their shark fishing craze, made a major breakthrough to protect their local sharks. For years annual tournaments took place in which catching the biggest shark resulted in prize money in the hundreds of thousands. However, environmentalists convinced the fishermen to try something new in their upcoming festivities. The following year all of the sharks caught in the contest were photographed and released, they were also caught using circular hooks believed to inflict less damage to the fish. This successful example of a community coming together to respect tradition, yet also acknowledge a changing environment in which their old habits are no longer sustainable, is exactly the kind of action necessary from individuals around the world. In order to protect the future of not only our finned friends but also the universal health of our oceans, members of every community must step forward to acknowledge dangerous levels of overfishing, and work together to ensure reliable education through the media.

Examining Medical Intervention and Gender Confirmation

Photograph of an exam room in a doctor's office

There has never been a time when a society was made up of people that “naturally” fit into any sort of gender binary. People have lived lives across a spectrum of societally constructed gender roles since humans lived in cultures that developed gender roles in the first place. In contemporary contexts, we have the ability to support people living according to their identities when they differ from the gender assigned at birth in new ways thanks to developments in medicine. However, there is debate about how to understand this support in terms of the role of medical intervention.

If we define appropriate medical intervention in terms of “treatment”, we are understanding medicine as fixing something that is wrong, balancing potential risk of further harm against present suffering. The appropriate role of medicine is a contentious issue, especially in societies where the costs of interventions are prohibitive when deemed superfluous in any way. A central distinction in this discussion is between treatment and enhancement. Treatment covers medical interventions aimed at making patients healthy and well, and enhancement refers to medical intervention that does not address deviation from health but rather makes the patient better than well. Insurance companies can try to rely on this distinction to determine what interventions to cover the cost of and to what extent, for treatments may delineate interventions that are “medically necessary” while enhancements typically do not.  

Cosmetic surgeries are thus deemed enhancements because there is nothing medically wrong with the patient and the intervention is taking them, arguably, to a state of “better than well”. The distinction isn’t a perfect one, as there are medical interventions that are intuitively appropriate but that don’t presume illness or deviation from health – such as contraception and obstetrics.

For individuals seeking medical intervention to alter their gender presentation, this distinction is important. Typically, in order to consider intervention necessary, a suitable illness or deviation from health needs to be identified and an improvement that will result from the intervention. For instance, if you have a herniated disc and seek surgery to improve movement and alleviate pain, this fits the common conception of medically justified intervention. Elective surgeries, such as cosmetic rhinoplasty, are not seen as having a medical justification and are pursued based on preference or whim, say, and insurance companies do not cover such procedures on these grounds.

While the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) only requires informed consent before medical support for gender affirmation procedures including hormone therapies and surgeries, the reality in the US is more restrictive. For instance, in April of 2018, the AMA Journal of Ethics argued against a prohibition in place excluding medically necessary gender affirming surgeries for veterans.

In order to qualify for surgery, Aetna requires letters from medical professionals, documentation of persistent gender dysphoria, and, depending on the treatment, the individual must have lived as their identified gender for a year with hormone therapy. In order to obtain letters from medical professionals, individuals must convince these professionals of the genuineness of their identity.[1] This has historically lead to “gate-keeping” and pressure on individuals seeking gender confirmation procedures to fit a particular narrative of gender identity and expression that medical professionals will grant warrants medical intervention: a narrative that moves medical intervention into a category with broken limbs and cancer rather than with elective interventions like liposuction and cosmetic adjustments.

Whether you are cisgender, non-binary, or trans*, consider your experience in elementary school: there is no way all of your traits, preferences, characteristics, behaviors, etc. fit neatly into a category that society has determined is gendered according to whatever gender you were assigned at birth. This is relevant, because for individuals who identify as transgender, or individuals who seek to identify as a gender that is different from that assigned at birth (be they genderqueer, non-binary, etc.), there is frequently a heavy narrative burden placed on them to justify this identity in order to receive treatment.

There is not a univocal experience for individuals who identify differently from the gender they were assigned at birth. This makes creating objective or universal standards for when gender confirmation procedures are “medically necessary” or “treatment v enhancement/elective” particularly difficult. As Andrea Long Chu articulates for The New York Times, the experience of dysphoria and the stakes of getting confirmation surgery are complicated in a way that perhaps bears more nuanced deliberation. In, “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy…and it Shouldn’t Have To”, she puts pressure on the utility and justice of applying the standard cost/benefit analysis to medical intervention for gender dysphoria. As she points out, when physicians can rule out intervention considering their assessment of the risks of the procedure and the possibility that the individual will continue to experience pain and discomfort of dysphoria, it can become more difficult to justify medical intervention.  

The appropriate role of medical intervention is a politicized issue due both to the power of health insurance companies who have strong incentive to withhold coverage for intervention as well as the (too often radically) slow advance of our cultural understanding of the lived reality of members of society.


[[1] According to the AMSA, “There is much controversy surrounding transgender identity and the field of mental health. At the moment, transgender people often receive medical care under the diagnosis of ‘Gender Dysphoria’ found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V, while in the past being diagnosed with ‘Gender Identity Disorder,’ now considered an outdated and incorrect term. Many people believe that transgender identity is NOT a mental disorder and should be a medical, rather than psychiatric, diagnosis. Some physicians use the diagnosis, ‘endocrine disorder otherwise unspecified,’ to avoid using a psychiatric diagnosis altogether.”

What PETA Gets Right about Animal Metaphors (and What it Gets Wrong)

Sign that reads "if dogs tasted like pork, would you eat them? What's the difference?" bearing a PETA logo

Earlier this month, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) accidentally sparked several days worth of jokes on the internet after its social media accounts shared an image recommending that English idioms relying on animal metaphors be retired. Rather than saying that someone is “taking the bull by the horns” when she faces a difficult problem head-on, PETA suggested that we say she is “taking the flower by the thorns;” instead of calling test subjects “guinea pigs,” the posts proposed a metaphor like “test tubes,” and so on.

To PETA, such metaphorical language is another example of the deeply rooted speciesism in Western society; the idea that humans are privileged creatures that deserve special treatment over other creatures simply in virtue of our DNA. Often compared to injustices like racism or sexism, speciesism is an explanatory mechanism undergirding the mistreatment of non-human animals in arenas ranging from industrial farms to domestic homes. When some animal species are eaten or experimented on while others are welcomed as members of the family, it is often nothing more than human perspective that differentiates the animals in question; such a subjective position is not, some argue, altogether different from subjective social preferences that allowed some-but-not-all genders to vote or some-but-not-all races to use the same drinking fountains (abuses that pale in comparison to still-persistent patriarchal norms or the continuing legacy of the African slave trade). In a follow-up tweet, PETA explained that “Just as it became unacceptable to use racist, homophobic, or ableist language, phrases that trivialize cruelty to animals will vanish as more people begin to appreciate animals for who they are and start ‘bringing home the bagels’ instead of the bacon.”

On one hand, the comparison of the current plight of nonhuman animals to the historical sufferings of marginalized groups threatens to trivialize the victories won by reformers in the Civil Rights movement or in the post-Stonewall era. Certainly, it is difficult to compare, say, pre-suffrage women to present-day factory farmed pigs without risking insulting confusion at exactly what the comparison is supposed to be. Moreover, such analogies risk implying that the mission to promote equality amongst groups with variable sexual orientations, genders, races, or other factors has been fully accomplished (as if “that’s taken care of, so now we can move on to the animal issue”) – clearly, any hints of such a notion are false.

On the other hand, some might retort that it is precisely this attitude that balks at human-animal comparisons that PETA and other groups seek to alter; if we immediately write off animal concerns as unimportant or such comparisons as impossible because “humans are not animals,” then we unavoidably reaffirm the very undercurrents of speciesism that PETA’s original post was trying to highlight. It is true that the language we use matters when shaping public perception of a topic; consider, for example, an idiom drenched in racist connotations, such as the one used recently by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue to some outcry. The power of diction to affect the discourse remains true, even if the subjects used as objects in such language cannot understand the words in question.

Of course, a common sticking point in this conversation is the role of PETA itself. Much of the criticism the organization fielded in response to its graphic revolved not around metaphoric language per se, but on PETA’s own draconian policies on euthanasia or other seemingly-inconsistent positions on animal death that the animal-rights organization appears to hold. For many, PETA’s claimed position of moral superiority is undeserved in the face of widespread evidence that they support the execution of animals for any reason; for its part, PETA argues that its policies are targeted only to preventing undue suffering (although, admittedly, it is hard to see how this actually plays out on the ground).

Nevertheless, this short episode can serve as a useful example of some ethical implications for our word choices when framing conversations about larger ethical issues. And when it comes to animal rights, whether we’re beating a dead one or feeding a fed one, this horse should be considered carefully when going forward.

Dating and Choice in the Digital Age

Black and white photograph of a couple in an art gallery, standing in front of a picture, the woman is laughing

Technology has radically invaded every aspect of human life.  Dating and relationships in particular have been transformed in the digital age. One out of four straight couples meet online, and for gay couples, that number rises to two out of three.

Online daters who find relationships appear to move more quickly toward firm commitment. Half of couples who met online get married in the fourth year of their relationship, compared to their counterparts who met face-to-face (who tend to get wed in their tenth year). Furthermore, married couples who met online express marginally greater satisfaction in their marriages than other couples, and their unions are somewhat less likely to dissolve.

Sociologist Michael Rosenfeld suggests that the faster track to marriage via online dating reflects a more refined ability to select and discern qualities in one’s mate in advance. Online dating allows for garnering extensive knowledge about a potential partner that would take longer to acquire over a face-to-face acquaintance. Perhaps nowhere else is the ability to make a choice so valued as in seeking out a life partner. Popular writers announce their successes via developing algorithms. It seems technology enables us to put the “data” in “dating.”

Researchers have noted an increase in ”assortative mating,” or dating people who are within one’s socioeconomic class and experience. A South Korean study found that while online dating does not tend to unite people on the basis of geographical and occupational similarity, it can strengthen demographic similarities in terms of education and class.

This ability to fine-tune one’s pool of partners to reflect one’s own background can bring about ethical concerns. Is seeking out highly similar partners a morally weighted issue? On the one hand, it suggests a robust shift in the way that people perceive life partners. In America, sociologist Andrew Cherlin and historian Stephanie Coontz note three distinct eras of relationships: institutional marriage (dating roughly from America’s founding); companionate marriage (approximately 1850-1965) and self-expressive marriage (from approximately 1965 to the present). Describing these different social expectations of marriage resembles a progression along Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as noted by Eli Finkel in the New York Times. Institutional marriage revolved significantly around physical survival in a settler-colonialist environment. In contrast, companionate marriage reflected urbanization and the luxury of seeking out a supportive, engaging partner. Self-expressive marriage places the highest expectations of all on a partner – seeing in a partner the opportunity to explore and relish the ever-changing and growing dimensions of the self and the other. Being able to choose a partner with a similar lifestyle would seem to ensure greater mutual understanding according to this latter norm of self-expression.

In light of this relatively new social conception of what a life partner can offer, it is not surprising that individuals are embracing the range and nuance of choice proffered by online dating. At the same time, there exist unfortunate side-effects of assortative dating (i.e., individuals choosing to date others from a similar socioeconomic background). While it appears to be a strategy with important payoffs for individuals, it can also reflect and repeat wider social inequalities by concentrating privilege within a particular class.

Racial bias is a still more fraught aspect of online dating. Whereas in real life, it may be easier to sidestep unconscious bias by encountering individuals of different races face-to-face in their full personalities, online dating offers increased opportunities to self-select dates of one’s own race via pressing a button or swiping left.  

A similar background would seem to be a reasonably valid criterion for choosing one’s dates, especially if one is searching for a life partner. Given the burden we now place on life partners to promote self-expression, it is not surprising that individuals seek out like-minded dates. At the same time, online dating can increase our likelihood of dating those of a similar race and class, further replicating the lack of class mobility and interracial relationships that already exist. There are several possible interpretations for this state of affairs.  

One possible interpretation is that people are simply insular – that “similar experiences” are defined in terms of outward markers of racial and class lines. Another interpretation is that such outward markers do radically determine our experiences to the point that there are little points of commonality which would be desirable in a partnership conceived in terms of mutual self-expression. Either interpretation suggests that we are a long way off from equality, in terms of how we conceive self and other, or in terms of how particular markers that should not determine our socioeconomic status continue to radically differentiate and separate us according to arbitrary lines.  

Is there an ethical obligation to embrace diversity in one’s dating life?  While there is certainly ethical value in examining one’s unconscious and conscious beliefs for bias in choosing potential mates, the issue seems to extend beyond individual choices. Equal access to experiences of self-expression, self-actualization, and leisure for all in society would likely reduce class and racial prejudice and further enable people to connect on more interesting grounds than personal privilege.

Clean Energy Infrastructure, Environmental Justice, and the Ethics of NIMBY

Photograph of a field with wind turbines in the background

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From DAPL to cancer-alley, sympathy to the opposition to industrial infrastructure and its harms are a cornerstone of the modern environmental movement. An important component of the movement has been the unified resistance of marginalized groups against powerful interest groups seeking to exploit the environment around them. Organized resistance to environmentally destructive projects are often no longer opposed under the guise of the environment’s inherent value alone, but also the rights of people to a healthy and safe environment. Prioritizing the interests of local citizens and the grassroots over special interests is not only fundamental to environmental justice but also to NIMBY-ism. NIMBY-ism, or “Not in my backyard”-ism, is an argument used commonly in disputes between citizen and government, or citizen and corporation, over the use of space on and around a person’s property. NIMBY-ism usually connotes negatively, as those who oppose the development often do so on the basis that it affects them personally, and not that the development is wrong in itself.

One striking example of NIMBYism used to oppose environmentally friendly infrastructure is that of wind farms in Indiana. Recently, Renewable Energy Systems pulled their development plan for large wind farms spanning across Cass and Miami counties due to technical difficulties. Many in the local community were pleased by this decision, with some even describing it as “fabulous news.” The project was estimated to generate 600 megawatts of electricity by establishing 150-225 turbines between the two counties. The project generated a great deal of controversy, with the local paper, the Pharos-Tribune claiming, “The debate and disagreements over placing wind turbines in Cass County had turned family members against one another and neighbor against neighbor.” And such opposition and controversy is not unique to Cass and Miami county. “Indiana Wind Watch” is an organization recently formed to “protect every Hoosier from the unfortunate fate of living near irresponsibly-sited industrial wind turbines.” The organization was founded in 2018, claims to be grassroots, and aims to provide resources to communities and individuals opposing wind farm developments. The reason Indiana Wind Watch opposes wind energy projects is because Indiana is “too populated.” Regardless of whether or not any of the information on Indiana Wind Watch is correct, the movement organized in Cass and Miami county demonstrates NIMBY-ism perfectly.

One could argue that if the opposition is based on false information, it should not be taken as true opposition. However, do members of Cass and Miami county truly need a reason to oppose development on and around their county by an international corporation?  This case parallels other environmental justice projects in that it centers around energy development and infrastructure. However, unlike cases such as Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, this case involves building infrastructure that is positive for the environment. So would it be fair to call the opposition to wind farms in Cass and Miami county an environmental justice movement? According to the EPA, environmental justice “is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” According to this definition, opposition to clean energy infrastructure could still constitute as environmental justice, which may seem somewhat counterintuitive. Though wind farms do have negative environmental impacts, such as killing birds and bats and low level noise, their impact is by and large less harmful than that of pipelines and energy plants.

However, it seems that though the citizens who opposed this project organized an environmental justice movement, the well-being of the environment did not seem to be a central motivator within the opposition. Much of the opposition to the turbines centered around concern about property rights and safety. Opposers argued that Harvest Wind Energy LLC’s plans for the placement of the turbines endangered those living near them and could potentially infringe on their property rights. Another potential concern about the project is that it was organized by a multi-national corporation, which might not have the best interests of small rural Indiana communities in mind. The Indiana Wind Watch emphasizes this concern in their opposition to wind development, and even described the situation in Cass County as “a truly David and Goliath battle for the protection of their county and homes.” Much of this rhetoric directly mirrors that of other environmental movements, particularly within the battle against “Big Oil” and fossil fuel interests. These types of arguments focus on the justice aspect of energy development and are critical of the difference in power between every day citizens and large corporate interests.

Even if a movement involves justice and the environment, is it necessarily an environmental justice movement, especially when its consequences lead to environmental degradation? If we reserve the right to withhold the distinction of environmental justice to movements that only have outcomes we deem as environmentally favorable, the way in which the environment is defined may become a force for exclusion and oppression.

It seems as though a level of NIMBYism is required in environmental justice, but perhaps it’s not only Not in My Backyard, but rather Not in Anybody’s Backyard. Moving toward a clean energy future will require totally new infrastructure and development, and as long as this infrastructure displaces people, it probably will not pass without controversy. The real question is how environmentalists should approach this issue, and whether they should critically reflect on the meaning of environmental justice.

Do White People Appreciate Hip-Hop Or Do They Appropriate It?

Photograph of an out-of-focus stage and the silhouettes of audience members

Hip-hop’s influence has reached international proportions. Audiences all over the world crowd underneath stages as rappers spit their rhymes. It’s interesting how such a global phenomenon came from the slums of New York City and from the voices of the black community. But with hip-hop’s international reach, it means that the genre caters to all different colors of people. And just how hip-hop influences black lives, it impacts the lives of people who come from different backgrounds. It influences so many facets of society, to the point that its listeners imitate the rappers that they admire. However, race can make imitation and influence from rap artists problematic, especially for its white listeners. It almost seems as if there is a line drawn in rap music and hip-hop distinguishing what is appreciation and what is appropriation in the music genre. However, that line can be blurred.

Per Blativity, white pop stars often go through a “coming of age” phase. In this stage, white music artists collaborate with black artists and producers, incorporating hip-hop and R&B sounds into their music. This stage is also the artist’s “rebellious phase,” where they push the boundaries of their music, creating edgier sounds and messages that stray from their previous clean cut persona. To these white artists, black music represents maturity in their music. But once this phase is over, white artists suddenly reject the black music that they so readily accepted and revert back to their previous clean cut sound.

Miley Cyrus is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The pop artist was known for her clean cut persona and music to match. She was the star of a popular Disney Channel television program Hannah Montana, a show about a teenager who lived a double life as a rockstar. A lot of the music that Cyrus made as Hannah Montana transitioned into mainstream music. As Miley Cyrus matured though, so did her music, and this maturation manifested into her 2013 hit single “23,” a track made by hip hop producer Mike Will Made It and featured rappers Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J. In her verse, Cyrus raps “Drinking out the bottle, I got no respect, Looking like a model, who just got a check, I back it up, cause I don’t give a fuck.” In the same year, Cyrus dropped an album, Bangerz, that featured more rappers such as Nelly, French Montana, and Big Sean.

Was Cyrus’s change cultural appropriation, though? One could simply say that she was making a change in her music. Perhaps an interview that Cyrus had with Billboard a few years after Bangerz came out can navigate the appreciation versus appropriation of Cyrus’s music. During the interview, Cyrus said that she stepped out of the hip-hop scene because of its vulgarity. She began to dislike the materialistic nature of hip-hop and its graphic sexual descriptions. Maybe it’s this line that deems Cyrus guilty of appropriating hip-hop. After the music genre brought her so much success, she condemns it and started making light hearted music again. On one hand, Cyrus’s stance on hip-hop is understandable. It can be vulgar and violent, and derogatory towards women. But at the same time, why does Cyrus feel negatively about that part of hip-hop when she was facilitating its negative messages before?

Miley Cyrus isn’t the only one who could be guilty of cultural appropriation, though. Her fans and fans of hip-hop in general blur the line between appropriation and appreciation as well. Hip-hop’s reach has extended to various facets of life, from usage of slang to fashion.

In terms of fashion, many hip-hop artists wear durags. Commonly worn by black men, durags are pieces of cloth used to hold one’s hair style in place and achieve waves, a style pattern that appears in one’s head after wearing a durag for a lengthy amount of time. Durags are not only used for their function though. They became a fashion statement once rappers started wearing them out in public. The long use of durags by black people has made it become a symbol of a part of the black community.  If white people wear durags, is it cultural appropriation? It might just depend on their reasoning and/or the circumstances. Perhaps, if a white person is intentionally trying to make a fashion statement by wearing a durag because they were inspired by their famous rapper, that situation might be considered cultural appropriation. But what if a white person actually wants waves in their hair? Or they want to dress up as their famous rapper without the blackface? Maybe durags are associated with the black community so much that the image of a white person with one on just seems odd. But then again, famous white rapper Eminem was known to wear a durag during the zenith of his career. So if Eminem wears a durag, does that mean that other white people can too? At the same time though, Eminem was the protege of Dr. Dre, a member of the famous rap group N.W.A and a huge shaper in the state of hip-hop today. Conceivably, getting Dr. Dre’s seal of approval gave Eminem a kind of agency that other white people don’t possess.  

Appropriation versus appreciation in terms of fashion and hip-hop is a more difficult topic to decipher. A more obvious example is usage of the n-word by white audiences. It is a word that is so commonly used in hip-hop, that people listening to it, regardless of race, tend to sing along to the rap lyrics and include the n-word. On one hand, white people rapping the n-word could be seen as appreciation because they are just singing the lyrics to the song and they are not directing the word towards anyone. On the other hand, the n-word has such a long, hateful, and offensive history that still persists today. And regardless of it being in a song, it should not be used by a white person in any context because it was used and is still used as a derogatory term towards black people. It also wouldn’t be hard to a white person to pause or catch themselves while rapping the lyrics to a song that they like. In addition, some white people do take advantage of rapping the n-word, making their black counterparts uncomfortable. For example, a student at Harvard University recounted a time when he was at a party and during Kanye West’s song, “Gold Digger,” two white students looked him in the eye and rapped along with West, yelling “She ain’t messin’ with no broke niggas.” The white students put emphasis on the last word. It almost seemed as if the white students were provoking their black counterpart. If so, the issue transcends the discussion of appropriation versus appreciation and becomes an issue of racism.

Appropriation is when someone else takes something for their own use. Maybe the whole issue with appropriation in terms of hip-hop is that hip-hop came from black culture. When white people imitate it, to many, it seems as if they are simply taking a part of black culture and using it when it’s convenient and benefits them. At the same time, there are white people who enjoy hip-hop and understand where it came from and respect that there are parts of the culture that they can’t engage in like their black counterparts do. Perhaps there would be no issue of appropriation or appreciation of hip-hop though, if everyone could agree that it came from a certain place, and if everyone acknowledges and credits the place that it came from.


Making a Murderer, Brain Fingerprinting, and the Ownership of Thoughts

Photograph of a billboard that says Avery's Auto Salvage and 24-Hour Towing

In 2015, Netflix released the first season of the docu-series Making a Murderer.  The series follows the story of convicted murderer Steven Avery. Avery’s case is noteworthy because, in 1985, he was wrongfully convicted for the rape and attempted murder of Penny Beernsten. The Innocence Project used DNA technology that did not exist at the time at which Avery was convicted to prove that Avery was innocent and that a different man had committed the crime. Avery was released in 2003 and subsequently filed a $36 million lawsuit for unlawful conviction against Manitowoc County, among others.

In 2005, photographer Teresa Holbach went missing. Her most recent scheduled appointment was to photograph a van at Avery’s home for his family business, Avery’s Auto Salvage. Charred fragments of Holbach’s bones were later found in a fire pit on Steven Avery’s property. Avery and his young cousin, Brendan Dassey were convicted of Holbach’s murder.

As a docu-series, Making a Murderer was widely successful. Many viewers were left with the impression that the evidence against Avery was planted and that the police misconduct was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to affect the outcome of the impending lawsuit. Many were also left with the impression that Brendan Dassey was wrongly convicted as well because, when interrogated, he was a minor with a particularly low IQ. Many feel that the officers who interrogated him fed him the information that comprised his false confession.

One might think that the way that the details were presented in the first season of Making a Murderer was morally questionable. The producers of the series left many details out, including the fact that a sample of Steven Avery’s touch DNA was found on the hood latch of Teresa Holbach’s car. Many viewers of the Netflix series became very personally invested in the case, going so far as to write letters to Avery, Dassey, and the law enforcement officials they hold responsible for what they view as the wrongful conviction of two innocent men. The series also had the effect of opening old wounds for those who loved Teresa. True crime is a popular form of entertainment. We should, perhaps, put more thought into the fact that these stories that serve as entertainment for so many are quite real for the people involved.

Despite these concerns, Netflix recently released a second season of Making a Murderer. One might naturally wonder whether reviving the story was an ethically defensible thing to do. This season focuses on both Avery’s and Dassey’s quest for post conviction relief. In 2016, defense attorney Kathleen Zellner took on Avery’s case, and the new season of the show focuses heavily on her efforts to prove Avery innocent. One tool she uses in this endeavor is a relatively new technology known as “brain fingerprinting.” Brain fingerprinting involves showing an individual (in a criminal case, presumably a suspect) a series of images or words. Some of the images will be associated with the case at hand, some will not. The individual is hooked up to electrodes that monitor their brain activity. When an image is familiar to the person, there will be electrical activity in their brain in predictable locations within 300 milliseconds. When the images or words are unfamiliar, there will be no such activity, or the activity will be of a different type. Brain fingerprinting, then, serves as a far more sophisticated lie detector test. While lie detector tests detect physical changes like sweat and heightened blood pressure, brain fingerprinting looks directly at the location the thought is taking place. Zellner claims that brain fingerprinting of Steven Avery reveals that he does not remember key features of the crime committed against Teresa Holbach and could not, therefore, be guilty of the crime for which he has been convicted.

In this case, brain fingerprinting was used by a defense attorney to establish that a particular perpetrator could not have committed a specific crime. At this stage, then, it doesn’t appear as if there is a lot of potential for abuse. But is this a technology we should be comfortable with governmental officials making use of? There are a number of reasonable concerns about the use of this practice.

The first set of concerns has to do with accuracy. Making a Murderer’s Larry Farwell contends that the technique has a 100% success rate—a claim that is rather difficult to believe. Even if the test is 100% effective at measuring something, surely what it measures will be highly contingent on nature of the images or words shown to the potential suspect.

Another concern is that the test has the potential to be more prejudicial than probative. Even if the test reliably indicates that a person remembers something, the test cannot reveal precisely why they remember that thing. What’s more, human minds are complex. Events and crime scenes are nuanced. So, though the test might indicate that the suspect remembers something, it cannot establish with certainty what exactly is being remembered. Finally, the fact that a suspect’s scan indicates that they are familiar with, say, an, object, location, or event, does not entail that the suspect’s association with what they remember is indicative of a mens rea—a guilty mind.  

Concerns about this new technology don’t end there. Even if the accuracy of the procedure was perfect—even if we could establish that a suspect remembers something, what it is they are remembering, and why they are remembering it, there still be may significant moral reasons that speak against the use of this procedure by the government. It may be that human beings have a fundamental right to bodily autonomy and privacy, the importance of which outweighs the government’s interest in catching criminals. Seeing to it that criminals are held accountable for their actions is a laudable goal. One might think, however, that our own personal thoughts are inherently, inviolably ours. This might be the right place to draw an insuperable line.

Dockless Electric Scooters and the Ethics of City Design

Photograph of several dockless scooters on an area of pavement with a sunset sky in the background

One of the surprising trends of 2018 was the rise of dockless electric scooter rental companies like Bird and Lime. Like Uber and Lyft in the ride-hailing market, Bird and Lime have taken their market by storm, moving into one hundred cities each and tallying millions of rides within a year—often without the approval of local regulators and municipal officials. The scooters are convenient, easy to use, and apparently very popular, but their arrival has been accompanied by numerous problems and opposing voices. Business owners and pedestrians complain about the scooters accumulating on sidewalks and in front of storefronts. Emergency room doctors have noted the high risk of injury associated with the use of the scooters, including two fatalities. As was the case with Uber and Lyft, many cities have resorted to bans on the scooters, at least until appropriate legal regulations can be put in place. The controversy surrounding these scooters is part of a larger question about cities and street design: who has the right to the use of streets, and how should street design and transit infrastructure reflect this? Continue reading “Dockless Electric Scooters and the Ethics of City Design”

On Tumblr, Adult Content is Banned – For Good?

Photo of a man speaking into a microphone, standing in front of a screen displaying a tumblr dashboard

In early December, blogging platform Tumblr announced that it would be banning adult content from its site starting mid-month. In a post explaining the decision, CEO Jeff D’Onofrio stated that removing such content would better allow Tumblr to be a “safe place for creative expression [and] self-discovery” and would result in “a place where more people feel comfortable expressing themselves.” D’Onofrio explained further that while he recognized that many users sought out Tumblr as a source of adult content, that “[t]here are no shortage of sites on the internet” that users could turn to. The content to be removed includes “images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples—this includes content that is so photorealistic that it could be mistaken for featuring real-life humans (nice try, though)” although “certain types of artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity” will be allowed to stay.

While creating safe places for expression and self-discovery are laudable goals, if a bit vague, recent problems with the platform are perhaps a better explanations of Tumblr’s decision. Notably, the fact that the Tumblr app was recently removed from the iOS App Store, ostensibly for the reason that Tumblr was not doing enough to ensure that illegal content – specifically in the form of child pornography – was being filtered out. Whether Tumblr’s decision to ban all adult content was based on genuine moral concern or simply concern for the bottom-line (it would no doubt be a major blow to Tumblr to be removed from the iOS store permanently), many online have speculated that the ban will spell the death of the platform. As Motherboard discovered, approximately a significant percentage of Tumblr blogs were based around providing adult content, with an even more significant percentage of users seeking out that content.

It is clear that Tumblr has a moral obligation to do as much as they can in order to prevent harmful material like child pornography from appearing on their platform. It also seems clear that Tumblr has, up until this point, failed to meet said obligation. The move to ban all adult content, then, might seem to be the straightforwardly right way to attempt to amend for their past transgressions, as well as to prevent further such harms in the future. And indeed, it may very well be the case that, overall, Tumblr’s ban on adult content will result in the prevention of many further harms (especially given many of the problems inherent to the type of pornography that tends to be propagated online).

Nevertheless, there has been a good amount of negative response to Tumblr’s decision, as well. In general, people appear to be expressing three main types of worries. The first is that Tumblr’s new filters are bad at distinguishing the kind of content they want to ban from content that they have deemed inoffensive, and thus that an attempted universal ban on adult content will potentially stifle legitimate creative expression; second, that Tumblr is being hypocritical in banning of adult content but not, for example, taking strides to address other problems on its platform, especially those involving hate speech; and third, that the ban on adult content disproportionately affects users from marginalized groups.

With regards to the first worry, many Tumblr users have already noticed that their filters are not great at separating inappropriate from appropriate content. As The Guardian reports, Tumblr has already flagged as inappropriate images of fully-clothed historical figures, artists, and ballet dancers, as well as a painting of Jesus in a loincloth. If Tumblr is meant to be a site that encourages self-expression, stifling said expression as a result of bad programming does not seem to be the best way to achieve this goal.

The second concern pertains to Tumblr’s policies generally about what kind of content is deemed acceptable on the platform. As The Washington Post reports, while searches involving sexually explicit terms on Tumblr gave no results, “racist and white supremacist content, including Nazi propaganda, was easily surfaced”, despite the fact that such posts violate Tumblr’s policies surrounding hate speech. It seems that just as Tumblr has an obligation to attempt to prevent illegal pornographic content, it similarly has obligations with respect to preventing users from promoting hate speech. It seems hypocritical, however, to focus only on one type of content and not another, especially given the widespread harms that can result from the dissemination of the type of racist and white supremacist content that is easily searchable on the platform.

The final worry pertains to the way that Tumblr’s new ban, combined with inefficient filtering technology, could potentially impact members of marginalized communities. Writing for BBC News, David Lee argues that,

“Unlike typical pornography sites, which overwhelmingly cater to men, and serve an often narrow definition of what is attractive, Tumblr has been a home for something else – content tailored at vibrant LGBT communities, or for those with tastes you might not necessarily share with all your friends.”

In a post on his blog, actor Wil Wheaton concurs:

“The reality is that for a lot of the LGTBQ+ community, particularly younger members still discovering themselves and members in extremely homophobic environments where most media sites were banned (but Tumblr wasn’t even considered important enough to be), this was a bastion of information and self-expression.”

Wheaton supported his view by performing an experiment, one in which he posted a series of images of “beautiful men kissing” on Tumblr. The post was flagged by as inappropriate, despite the images not being pornographic or in any clear violation of Tumblr’s newly stated policies. Wheaton laments that “it’s ludicrous and insulting that – especially in 2018 – this is flagged, either by some sort of badly-designed algorithm, or by shitty homophobic people”. Finally, Kaila Hale-Stern writing at The Mary Sue, argues that

“What D’Onofrio and his corporate overlords at Verizon’s Oath [who own Tumblr] don’t understand—or don’t care about—is that this sort of adult content is frequently generated by women, marginalized people, and all sorts of creatives struggling in our vicious ‘gig economy.’ They’re going to be hurt the most by the ban.”

Aside from stifling self-expression, then, Hale-Stern points to a more tangible harm in the form of creators of adult content losing their livelihoods as a result of Tumblr’s new ban.

What initially appeared as a seemingly straightforward fulfilment of Tumblr’s obligations to prevent harmful content from appearing on their platform is, on closer inspection, more complicated. As many have argued, there is perhaps room for a middle-ground: instead of issuing a universal ban on all adult content on the platform, Tumblr could have done a better job of implementing more effective algorithms to detect and filter out offensive content without removing the means for self-expression and livelihoods of many users (better filtering could also, hopefully, address concerns about hate speech, as well).

InSight’s Landing on Mars: Ethics of Space Exploration

Artist's rendering of InSight and the two MarsCubes as they approach Mars from Earth

On Monday, November 26th, at approximately 2:54 pm ET, NASA’s InSight probe landed on its three legs on the surface of Mars. InSight hurtled at 13,200 mph towards the open plains of Mars, the Elysium Planitia, to a safe landing.  The total descent took six and a half minutes, otherwise known to NASA as the “seven minutes of terror” because only 40% of missions on Mars are successful.  InSight’s landing is adding to the US’s success rate of seven Mars landings in the past four decades with only one failed touchdown. These missions can be risky and very expensive but can make very important scientific achievements.

Space exploration, such as InSight, has provided many benefits to our society. Inspired by human curiosity, the exploration is deep into the unknown. According to NASA, exploration pushes the boundaries of current scientific and technical limits, inspiring scientists to address challenges that are unique and rewarding. From the Apollo, they created the guidance computer, the predecessor to the microcomputer, now in all smart phones. Other advances have created fire resistant clothes and in-depth research with how diseases behave in microgravity. The immune system in particular has been studied in depth because microbes react differently in space. New industries have emerged and connections have been fostered between differing countries. These missions aren’t possible without lots of time and funding spent.

InSight traveled for seven months in space before the probe landed on Mars. InSight’s principal investigator, Bruce Banerdt, said, “It’s taken more than a decade to bring InSight from a concept to a spacecraft approaching Mars — and even longer since I was first inspired to try to undertake this kind of mission. But even after landing, we’ll need to be patient for the science to begin.” InSight’s purpose is to study the characteristics of the mantle, core, and crust of Mars to deepen scientist’s understanding about the great red planet. It aims to study the heat fluctuations and tremors on the planet’s surface. It is tracking the wobbles of the planet on the axis which will tell us if the planet is molten or solid at the core. Scientists hope to learn more about how Mars was formed, how this differs from Earth, and more in depth about the “liveable” conditions. “We’ve studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA. “Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system.”

InSight alone was a $814 million-dollar mission that took over a decade of planning. The amount of time and valuable resources spent towards this mission and other space explorations is astounding. It’s possible that those resources could be utilized on Earth. An important consideration to make is if the benefit from the space missions outweighs the cost of the expense. Beyond monetary expenses, space missions can be dangerous for the well-being of space travelers and the ecosystems of the planets being studied.

The human body and space do not go well together. When humans travel to space they are exposed to harmful radiation which can lead to increased risk of cancer, damage to the central nervous system, and radiation sickness. With a lack of gravity, the muscles and bones deteriorate. Food is primarily freeze dried and lacks in nutrients, increasing the likelihood of malnutrition. Astronauts are isolated in a confined space for extended periods of time which requires months of training and preparation. This travel is not ideal for the people taking the journey.

Not all space travel requires a human on board, as seen with the InSight probe.  However, similar to the concerns with the SpaceX mission launched this year in February, there is the risk of contamination to the planet of study. The probes bring microorganisms from earth which could contaminate the natural ecosystem of the planet. Spacecraft parts also frequently fall off. With global dust storms on the planet, it could carry these contaminants across the planet surface having a vast effect.

Having anthropocentrism, human-centric values one would argue that these possible adverse contaminations to explored planets aren’t concerning because these planets are of instrumental use to humans. However, a ecocentric holism viewpoint says that non-individuals, such as natural processes, species, and ecosystem interactions on earth have intrinsic value and deserve respect. So, where does the human ecosystem begin or end? It becomes a question of if extraterrestrial areas should be protected considering they are not technically a part of the earth’s ecosystem.  John D Rummel of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, proposes a precautionary principle that says, “If an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.” With this viewpoint, he says that because of the suspected risk to other planets, space groups like NASA must prove that the harm is not too great. We’ve covered environmental ethics of Mars and the morality of possible other life more in-depth here and here.

Space exploration leads to new ethical dilemmas with new discoveries. As the technologies begin to increase and our knowledge of other systems grows, we have to reconsider the ethics behind exploration. The basis of this is beyond our intentions for good and is the problem of not knowing our the actions taken towards space discovery might affect life and systems so different from Earth’s.


“Free Birth” and the Politics of Childbearing

Black and white photograph of a midwife holding a baby

Last month, a woman using the pseudonym ‘Lisa’ shared on Facebook that her infant daughter had died: ”Journey Moon was born a sleeping angel on Oct. 7 at 8 lbs 13 oz. She passed due to a massive urinary tract infection I had… I’m laying in the hospital writing this and get to go home tomorrow. We will be having Journey cremated.”

Lisa had a post-term pregnancy, lasting forty-two weeks. She experienced complications throughout a six-day labor on her desert property, including an inability to urinate due to her UTI. Attended only by her husband, Lisa did not seek medical support until long after her water broke, and she was concerned by the appearance of an unusual, odorous liquid. After a complicated delivery requiring a vacuum and anesthesiologist, Lisa gave birth to her stillborn child.

Why undertake a six-day labor without seeking medical support? The answer lies with Lisa’s newfound community.  Lisa had joined a 6000-strong Facebook group of women under the aegis of the Free Birth Society. Founded by Emilee Saldaya and Yolande Clark, the Free Birth Society advocates for ‘autonomy’ in giving birth. ‘Autonomy’ in Free Birth parlance appears to be code for ‘isolation’ as much as for individual control.  The website advocates for “wild” birth, as contrasted against “unnecessary interference with this physiological design.”  

Free Birth rejects both obstetrics and midwifery, instead offering coaching packages ranging from $98 USD to $899 with titles such as ”Conscious Conception” and “Radical Birth Keeper.” Membership in the now-defunct Facebook group (to which Lisa belonged) was free. However, strict norms were enforced, which included immediate deletion of comments from users who advised medical assistance when complications arose. This self-regulated online community encouraged Lisa to continue the ‘free-birth’ process throughout the agony of her six days.

The Free Birth Society capitalizes on deep cultural issues around childbirth. The history of medicine does not shine with respect to women’s autonomy. J. Marion Sims, lauded as the father of modern gynecology, performed unanaesthetized operations on nonconsenting slave women. Obstetrics is still fraught when it comes to respecting the autonomy and consent of childbearing individuals. One of the most infamous recent cases was of Caroline Malatesta, whose crowning infant was forced back into her vagina by a nurse for six minutes, resulting in irreparable nerve damage and PTSD. A 2012 study found that the strongest predictor of PTSD from giving birth was conflict with care providers. Often, obstetrics practices can mirror patriarchal paradigms.

In light of these factors, it is easy to see the appeal of a movement that emphasizes women’s control over their own birthing process. Saldaya and Clark offer a vision of birth-positivity, describing it as the “most profound experience of ecstasy, love, power and beauty in our human experience.” Their website seems suffused with joy and even suggests giving birth “naturally” confers esoteric wisdom (Clark speaks of the “deep and hidden truths” of a “secret society”). This emphasis on the subjective experience and knowledge of women who give birth is appealing, as it addresses gaps commonly experienced by obstetric patients. But Free Birth goes further than other critiques, to the extent that it eschews even midwives and doulas who traditionally served as advocates for women-centered birthing paradigms.

Free Birth’s complete rejection of conventional and alternative care providers could be also read in light of an undercurrent of mistrust of experts that runs broader in American culture. On the Free Birth website, there are contradictions reminiscent of other alternative discourses, such as anti-vaccine movement. Multiple references are made to “physiology” and “evidence-based birth” in the abstract, but physiological accounts and citations of specific studies are notably absent.

Saldaya and Clark do not simply encourage women to inform themselves, arm themselves with options, celebrate childbirth, and campaign for better patient-doctor obstetric experiences. Free Birth altogether rejects professional support and knowledge (apart from workshops in ‘Free Birth’) in favor of a sort of mysticism. The claim is that once all interference is removed, the body knows what to do.  

This corporeal yet mystical task of ‘unlearning’ suggests the exploitation of a third cultural trend – the sanctimony of the “mommy wars.” In a world where every reproductive choice a woman makes is weighted by juggling impossibly burdensome roles, Free Birth proposes solo childbirth as one more achievement badge of ‘natural’ motherhood to which women should aspire.

The appeal of the Free Birth Society derives from deep-seated problems around women’s reproductive autonomy. It is understandable why women would be attracted to de-emphasizing the medicalization of childbirth, and to reclaiming its celebration. Unfortunately, as Lisa’s example shows, this desire does not change the fact that childbirth remains a risk in “nature.”

Do women deserve better maternal care around the world? Indubitably, both in the developed world, and especially in developing countries, where for some women, ‘natural’ childbirth is perforce and not an Instagrammable lifestyle. But women also deserve better than Saldaya and Clark’s “secret society.”  While identifying some serious issues, Saldaya and Clark have accepted and reinforced the marginalization which leads women to a radical dichotomy.  A meaningful childbirth and a healthy, living mother and child should not be treated as mutually exclusive outcomes.

Women deserve social transformation that harnesses scientific knowledge, political voice, individual autonomy, subjective experience, and ethics. Instead of alienating women from crucial maternal health support, we need concerted efforts between pregnant individuals, medical care providers, midwives, and society at large to improve knowledge of and adherence to maternity care that respects women’s autonomy.

Is All Comedy Ethical? “The Office”’s Irresponsible Use of Satire

Photograph of the cast of the TV show The Office all sitting for a press conference on set

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.

Before I start, I have a disclosure to make: I am a huge comedy fan; stand-up, sketch comedy, sitcoms, dry humor, dark humor, you name it and I’ll probably watch it. In high school I would stay in most Saturday nights waiting for the newest episode of Saturday Night Live, and I became so intrigued by the way the show was simultaneously political and funny. However, SNL was very blatant about their liberal political views, while I noticed other shows were not. Other shows like, Portlandia, seemed more invested in providing social commentary through sketch comedy.

Moreover, comedy is often used to make critiques of our social world, and comedy writers play around with various forms of comedic critique. Shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah rely on witty jokes with emphasized punch lines, while shows like SNL use exaggeration, imitation, and parody. Nevertheless, both of these shows, and many other shows containing political and social commentary, utilize satire to convey their critique (they might also be how you prefer to intake current events). Satire can be defined as humor that utilizes exaggeration, ridicule, and irony to expose someone’s flaws and shortcomings. Satire is meant to criticize and convey an opinion; however, it is important to analyze whether writers are able to convey their messages clearly, even when these messages are conveyed through irony or exaggeration.  

While seemingly unrelated to ethical issues, satire and comedy have epistemic power. Since society often learns through media, and comedy is a kind of media many intake on a daily basis, comedy has the power to influence knowledge about a particular topic or society at large. This is particularly poignant considering satirical comedy promotes a particular perspective. When I started watching SNL, I was not fully aware how excitedly I internalized many of the political opinions conveyed through cold open skits, where politicians were freely questioned, imitated and made fun of. This reflexivity led me to ask, what could be the risks of consuming satire simply for its face value, its ability to make people laugh? Can a comedy show be considered harmful, when a satirical critique is not legible or understood by everyone? As I began to develop a critical lens, I realized that I did not always understand certain references, or know exactly why I was laughing. Other times, I understood how brilliant seemingly nonsensical comedy could be.

I became inspired to ask these questions after watching the episode “Diversity Day” from The Office. “Diversity Day” is the second episode of the first season of The Office, and a salient portrayal of satirical comedy. In the episode, Dunder Mifflin corporate headquarters calls in a diversity training specialist after Michael Scott, the office manager, recreates a Chris Rock stand up act. While Michael does not see a problem with his imitation, his actions make the entire office very uncomfortable. At one point, Michael decides to lead Diversity Day by making everyone put a notecard with a particular racial or ethnic group written on it on their foreheads. His game consists of having people guess what group is written on their notecards by talking to others who are supposed to give them clues of who they are. Michael goes on to promote the use of problematic stereotypes as clues and eggs people to “stir the pot.”

This episode can easily be called controversial and problematic by many; however, writing off the social critique within the episode as simply “problematic” might mean missing some of what the writers hid in irony and exaggeration. One could argue that the writers utilized exaggeration to convey the problematic and hurtful nature of racial tropes and stereotypes. As Michael promotes “stirring the pot” it becomes evident that even those who do not mean to be insensitive are fully aware of how to be so. The overtly problematic content is mean to shock viewers into acknowledging how hurtful these common assumptions are, because the writers purposefully make Michael appear misinformed and ignorant. Additionally, one can see how Michael’s intent of “stirring the pot” might point to society’s need to talk about race in blunt and honest ways, instead of pretending no one knows what prejudice looks and sounds like.  Nevertheless, viewers are meant to understand that at the end of the day, Michael’s way of going about this conversation is not nuanced, sensitive, or productive.

Some might not understand this use of satire and choose to dismiss the show as problematic; however, what might be worse is an audience that laughs at Michael’s racially insensitive jokes and does not consider them hurtful and disgusting. This is where the danger of satire lies: when a show like The Office purposefully uses stereotypes as a form of exaggeration meant to highlight normative opinions, it is not a guarantee that everyone will “get it.” Viewers might watch “Diversity Day” and impersonate Michael impersonating Indian people. Jokes meant to convey a point, jokes that are not meant to be repeated, might become popular shared knowledge and the punch line of many conversations.

As I watched “Diversity Day,” I acknowledged that this episode might be very irresponsible. While I could see what the writers had sought out to do, I also realize that my understanding of racism and power combined with my interest in comedy put me in a particularly advantageous position. I know I am among those most likely to “get it.” Sadly, I am not too confident about the magnitude of that group. My background facilitates my understanding of the episode, something not everyone can rely on when watching comedy shows. I began to wonder, is it ethical to utilize hard-to-understand satire when discussing topics related to power? Does the epistemic harm that this representation might cause outweigh the benefits?

It is imperative to remember that comedy shows are a form of media, and one might consider media a form of speech. Arguably, then, a creator’s or artist’s ability to express their speech freely through comedic portrayals is a constitutional right. However, what is legally permissible is not always what is most ethical. Additionally, one could say that paying too much attention to the possible harms of any given satirical show could result in over policing of speech. Nevertheless, writers must assess the possible impact their shows might have on audiences. As epistemic influencers, they are responsible for asking, does this have the potential to do more harm than good? The answer to that question has the potential to influence the next Netflix pick.

Lulu and Nana: The Surprise of Genetically-Modified Humans

Photograph of Dr. He in a lab

On November 25th, Chinese geneticist He Jiankui shocked the scientific community by revealing that he had (allegedly) used CRISPR technology to edit the DNA of now-born human twins. Against the advice of both global experts and personal confidants, He’s team aimed to remove a gene sequence from Lulu and Nana’s genetic code in an attempt to render them resistant to illnesses like HIV, smallpox, and cholera. Since the story first broke, a spiral of unsettling details has unraveled, from the project’s murky treatment of informed consent, to its use of potentially forged signatures on approval forms, misleading statements made by He to his institution, and the curious retainment of a foreign PR firm to produce videos advertising the otherwise-secretive experiment – to say nothing of the fact that it’s unclear how He planned to actually test the success of his genetic edits without simply exposing Lulu and Nana to various diseases. Altogether, this mess led The Atlantic’s Ed Yong to assert that “If you wanted to create the worst possible scenario for introducing the first gene-edited babies into the world, it is difficult to imagine how you could improve on this 15-part farce.”

Neither the potential for He’s experiment, nor the recognition of its moral problems are new (Rachel Robison-Greene wrote on this very topic for the Prindle Post less than a year ago) and though the results of He’s experiment have yet to be published, the story has already engendered its share of outcry. Although gene-editing therapy has been tested in limited cases, those instances have been heavily monitored and specifically curtailed to only affect the individual patient being treated; not only did He circumvent the general advice of the scientific community and surprise the world with this news, but he claims to have edited Lulu and Nana’s germline in a way that will inevitably be inherited by any children they may eventually have. If true, the ramifications of He’s experiment for Lulu and Nana’s future is exceptionally large.

More broadly, He’s surprise has brought a bevy of important questions about the ethics of germline editing, the equality of persons, the risk of eugenics, and the role that factors like bias and socioeconomic status will undoubtedly play in the use of this technology in the future. Although these sorts of questions have long been simmering on the back-burner of ethical debates, He’s announcement (and the suggestion that there are other possible patients still unborn) has rocketed them into the spotlight with unexpected urgency; whereas ethicists may have once thought we had years to quibble about the particulars of theoretical cases involving genetically-modified humans, the deadline for such conversations has, apparently, already passed.

He’s actions, though officially cautioned against, were not explicitly prohibited. Although the last meeting of the International Summit on Human Gene Editing warned in 2015 that such experimentation would be ill-advised in the absence of a consensus over norms within the discipline, the lack of such consensus gave He the confidence to forge ahead unfettered. Most disturbingly, there exists at least some evidence that He actively ignored the little advice he did seek on the ethical implications of his work.

Famously, in response to the greedy motivations of Michael Crichton’s fictional InGen company in the blockbuster novel-made-film Jurassic Park, mathematician Ian Malcolm decries the short-sightedness of the gene-editing scientists who cloned dinosaurs back to life with the phrase “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” There are many elements in Jurassic Park that are unrealistic; human hubris, particularly in the realm of potential scientific progress, is not one of them.

As of this writing, He has reportedly been detained by the Chinese government; at present, his future appears to be as uncertain as Lulu and Nana’s. One thing that is not uncertain: as our collective technological capabilities increase exponentially, the need for informed ethical advisors on scientific projects (and scientific researchers informed about ethical principles) are needed now more than ever.

Swimming with Dolphins

Three women in life jackets swimming with two dolphins

As winter quickly approaches, many people seek an escape from the cold by planning a tropical vacation. These trips to paradise frequently include interactions with the area’s sea life, including the beloved “sunset dolphin cruises” and “swim with dolphins” programs for which many tourists try to book tickets. However, seldom do we think about what those exclusive experiences mean for both captive and wild dolphins, and how tourist money continues to fuel an industry centered around the exploitation of wild animals. We must collectively evaluate these human-dolphin interactions and pursue methods to educate the general public about the impact of their support for these organizations, which despite popular claims do not benefit the dolphins.

Ruthanne Johnson wrote an article for the Humane Society of the United States in which she explores how popular animal attractions may not actually have the animals’ well-being in mind. She discusses “swim with dolphin” experiences specifically, stating, “When strangers aren’t hanging on to their fins for a swim, the animals who swim long distances in the wild, are relegated to enclosures the size of a backyard pool. They may appear to be having fun, but they are merely doing the job.” In fact, Naomi Rose, who is a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, discusses the fact that these interactions with tourists have a negative impact on the animals, which could induce dangerous behavior: “dolphins have bitten, rammed and pushed people and male dolphins have shown sexual aggression toward tourists.”  And all of this is without mentioning the transmission of diseases such as tuberculosis and the common cold due to close proximity between humans and captive dolphins.

While Johnson discussed the impact of interactive programs with dolphins in zoos, Christina Russo focuses on dolphins in the Caribbean where swimming with these wild creatures has become an increasingly popular activity. Resort facilities are a common place for these attractions, and one trainer in the Caribbean talked about his concerns with the high number of dolphins enclosed in shallow cells. He estimated that there were “about 40 dolphins caged in three compact cells and within a resort – debris like nails and fish hooks would float in from the ocean.” He echoes the statements from Johnson which outlined the toll these interactions takes on the dolphins:

“They were also under extreme pressure to perform, which may have made them dangerous to humans, they did 10 interactions a day – the same motions, the same speech, the same signals over and over. They would get frustrated and aggressive to guests or knock food buckets out of our hands.”

The obvious alternative for curious individuals would then be to seek out interactions with wild dolphins. However, Virginia Morell published an article for Science which explores why that might also be a detrimental choice. A study was done on Spinner dolphins in Hawaii and the impact tourism had on their wellbeing, The findings demonstrated that because tourist interactions occurred during a critical period of the day in which the dolphins would normally be resting or sleeping, the interruption by humans in the water caused a lack of sleep and as a result there were far fewer spinner dolphins in the lagoons over consecutive years. Interestingly, researchers also found that due to lack of rest the spinner dolphins were performing more aerial displays than dolphins in areas with little to no tourism. Contrary to popular belief these displays are not a sign of playfulness, but rather of distress. These results allow for not only an assessment of captive dolphins’ treatment, but also further education on tourism taking place in these animals natural habitats.

Now the question that remains is, “if not through zoos or theme parks, and not the wild swimming with dolphin excursions,” how is the average individual meant to witness the beauty of these creatures without causing harm? Meagan Salder attempts to answer this question by speaking to the head of the marine research program at the Hawaii Institute of Marine biology. Lars Bejder reiterates the importance of respecting dolphins’ space, especially because a breach of those spaces at the wrong time by humans could result in heightened levels of stress for the entire pod. In terms of determining which tours are best for the dolphins’ safety, Dolphin SMART was created as a partnership between the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) office for marine sanctuaries and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Foundation. It functions as a tool created by conservation agencies to help tourists see which experiences are best for the wellbeing of the animals. Their mission is “To promote responsible stewardship of wild dolphins in coastal waterways,” and the easy-to-remember acronym describes rules to integrate when viewing dolphins. “S” stands for stay back at least 50 yards, “M” reminds us to move cautiously away from a dolphin showing signs of distress, “A” is to always put your engine in neutral around dolphins, “R” is to refrain from feeding, touching or swimming with the wild dolphins, and “T” is to teach others to be dolphin smart. Consumers should keep an eye out for tours which are certified Dolphin SMART, and be sure to implement the rules outlined by dolphin and whale conservation organizations when going out on their own boats.

Naomi Rose makes a good point about the intentions of many tourists when buying tickets to interact with dolphins: “People swim with dolphins because they want a magical experience, or they may believe they are supporting conservation efforts.” However, we have seen that these particular interactions are not conducive to human or animal safety. Thoughtful information about the impact of these activities published by marine conservation organizations will better help individuals to make educated decisions about which experiences they choose to engage in, and as a result encourage them to fully commit to the wellbeing of the dolphins they hope to see.


Why Are Political Debates So Difficult?: A Holiday Survival Guide

Group of people gathered around a holiday table

The holiday season is upon us, which often means spending more time with family. For many of us, this also means the risk of heated political disagreements around the dinner table. If you’re like me, you’ve since learned that trying to talk politics with family members is more often than not a waste of time: no one ever really changes their mind, and everyone just ends up being mad at each other. So perhaps you’ve adopted a new policy: ignore the debates, or don’t engage, or change the topic as quickly as you can. It’s easier on everyone.

Why do these dinner table arguments seem so futile? I think one reason is that many of our political disagreements come down to an underlying moral disagreement, namely disagreements about what’s right and wrong, what kinds of obligations we have to others, or just how people should be treated in general. So when you and I disagree about whether, say, we ought to increase minimum wage, or whether we ought to tax people for services that they don’t themselves use, a major part of our disagreement is about when we ought to make sacrifices for the benefits of others. And then it’s up for debate as to how much of a hit myself and my family should take for the well-being of others: some people think we ought to do a lot to help each other out, especially if we have a lot, whereas others think that they shouldn’t be asked to make sacrifices, especially if what they have is something that they feel that they have earned and are entitled to.

While moral debates happen all the time, experience suggests they’re difficult to resolve. Why might this be the case? First off, what often seems to be so difficult about moral debates is that those who disagree with us about moral matters don’t seem terribly interested in actually listening to what we have to say: they don’t want to change their minds, they just want to hold on to what they think is right. Second, that someone disagrees with us about a moral matter might lead us to start thinking in “us” versus “them” kind of terms. Thinking in this way could bring along with it biases that lead us to think that “they” not worth listening to, or that “their” arguments couldn’t possibly be any good. This happens all the time when we try to talk politics: we start thinking of the other person not as an individual, but as a member of a group that we don’t like (those heartless Republicans don’t want to listen to us level-headed Democrats, perhaps, or those hippie Democrats don’t want to listen to us level-headed Republicans).

There are other factors that complicate moral disagreements. Consider first the ways in which we might try to resolve disagreements of different kinds. Say, for example, that you and I disagree about the year a movie was released, or what the capital of Indiana is, or how many feet are in a yard. These disagreements are easily resolved: a quick appeal to the internet will settle the matter. Or maybe we disagree about something more complicated: say we work in construction and we disagree about where the best place to build that bridge is. It seems like the best way to resolve this debate is for both of us to present our reasons and evidence, and then, as long as we’re willing to listen to each other, the better plan will become apparent through our conversations with each other. Not all such debates will go so smoothly, of course, but they seem to definitely be resolvable, much more easily than debates that we have about what’s right and wrong.

So here’s where I think part of the problem lies: we can resolve, or at least make progress on disagreements about movie release dates, the imperial measurement system, state capitals, and even optimal bridge placement, by acquiring new knowledge. One of the main reasons we disagree about these matters is that we know, or think that we know, different things. In order to resolve our disagreement, then, we need to get on the same page by knowing the same relevant things. Acquiring this knowledge can be easy, like when we look up something on the internet, or it can be more difficult, like when we need to do more to consider what we have evidence for thinking is true when building a bridge. Either way, we can get this knowledge by listening to others, by consulting reputable sources, and by considering the evidence.

But this doesn’t appear to be how we resolve our moral debates. I can’t look up online how I ought to balance my personal sacrifices against the possible increased wellbeing of others. Actually, I probably can find at least what someone thinks is an answer to this kind of question on the internet. But it’s not going to settle any debates if I point to someone on the internet who says “you should care more about others!” in the way that I can point to the fact that Wikipedia says that “Indianapolis is the capital of Indiana!” It’s also hard to see how I could try to give you the knowledge that I think you’re missing in order to resolve our moral debate: if I think that you really should give more to those who need it, and you think you’re doing plenty already, it often seems like the best we can do is to agree to disagree. But this is not a resolution, it’s a stalemate. As Kayla Chadwick laments, it’s hard to see how we can convince someone of something so basic as the fact that they should care about other people.

So what’s the solution? Here’s a suggestion: perhaps moral debates need to be resolved not by just sharing knowledge with each other, but by seeking out new understanding. This might require helping others see things from a new perspective, or helping them draw new connections between their beliefs that they hadn’t considered before, or challenging conclusions that they’ve drawn in the past, or helping them have new experiences, or all of the above. It may be the case that not all of these tasks can be accomplished just by talking to one another: for example, if you’re really not moved by the plight of someone that you are easily able to help, it’s hard to see how I can get you to understand just by giving you information at the dinner table.

Nevertheless, we might still be able to accomplish at least part of the task of conveying understanding by talking to one another: I might be able to use my words to share experiences I’ve had, or to challenge assumptions that you have made, or to help you see relationships between things you believe that you didn’t realize before. What’s probably not going to work is what works in other kinds of debates, namely the bald presentation of your reasons, or simply telling someone that this is the right way to think about things. The mere fact that you think something is true is probably not going to help me understand why it’s true, and so if we’re going to resolve our moral debates we’ll probably have to work a lot harder.