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The Moral Quandary of Testing on Animals

Photo of three rats in a cage with a little red house and food and water available

The topic of testing on animals as a form of scientific research has been contentious for quite some time. In most cases, the discussion tends to focus on whether it is morally permissible to test various products and procedures on animals in order to determine whether they would be safe and beneficial for human use. Animal experimentation is not always conducted simply for the benefit of human beings—sometimes the parties that stand to benefit from the research are other non-human animals, often including other members of the same species as the animals being tested.

Defenders of the practice of testing on animals for the benefit of humans argue that the benefits for humans substantially outweigh the harms incurred by animals. Some argue that our moral obligations extend only to other members of the moral community. Among other things, members of the moral community can recognize the nature of rights and obligations and are capable of being motivated to act on the basis of moral reasons. Non-human animals, because they are not capable of these kinds of reflections, are not members of the moral community. As such, defenders of animals testing argue, they don’t have rights. In response, critics argue that if we only have obligations to beings that can recognize the nature of moral obligations, then we don’t have obligations to very young children or to permanently mentally disabled humans, and this idea is morally indefensible.

Other defenders of animal testing argue that it is both natural and proper for human beings to exercise dominion over animals. These arguments take more than one form. Some people who make this argument are motivated by passages from the Bible. Genesis 1:26 reads, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Some argue that this passage suggests that humans have divine permission to use animals as they see fit. The use of animals for the benefit of humans seems morally defensible to these people for this reason.

Others argue human dominion over other animals is appropriate because human beings have demonstrated their superiority over non-human animals. We are no different from other animals in the sense that we use our natural skills to climb as high on the food chain as our circumstance permit. As rational creatures, our needs extend farther than the needs of non-human animals. As a result, we can use non-human animals to solve a wider range of problems. We can use them not only for protein, but to make our lives longer, better, more beautiful, and more convenient. Critics of such a view argue that might doesn’t make right. What’s more, our enhanced rational capacities also give us the ability to make moral judgments, and these moral judgments should extend to compassion for the suffering of all living creatures.

Arguments against research on animals also come in a variety of forms. One approach focuses on suffering. Famously, Peter Singer argued that what makes a being deserving of moral consideration is their capacity to suffer. If we treat equal amounts of suffering unequally simply because of the species to which the animal happens to belong, our behavior is speciesist—we are taking seriously considerations that are morally irrelevant. Rights based approaches, like the one argued by Tom Regan point out that non-human animals are subjects of lives. There is something it is like for them to experience the world in the unique way that they do. In light of this, we should recognize that non-human animals have intrinsic value and they should not be used as objects to be manipulated for the benefit of human beings.

How should we assess the situation when the research done on non-human animals is done, not for the benefit of human beings, but for the benefit of other non-human animals? In these cases, one major criticism of testing disappears—researchers can’t be accused of failing to take the interests of non-human animals seriously. After all, concern for the interests of non-human animals is what motivates this research to begin with. Vaccines for rabies, canine parvovirus, distemper, and feline leukemia virus have been developed through the use of animal research. These critical procedures improve and even save the lives of non-human animals. When we engage in a consequentialist assessment of the practice, testing on non-human animals for the benefit of other non-human animals seems justified.

On the other hand, it may be that speciesism is rearing its ugly head again in this case. Consider a parallel case in which research was being conducted for the good of human beings. Imagine that a tremendous amount of good could be done for human beings at large if we tested a particular product on a human being. The testing of this product would cause tremendous physical pain to the human being, and may even cause their death. Presumably, we would not think that it is justified to experiment on the human. The ends do not justify the means.  

One might think that one major difference between the case of testing on humans and the case of testing on animals is that humans are capable of giving consent and animals are not. So, on this view, if we kidnap a human for the purposes of experimenting on her to achieve some greater good, what we have done wrong, is, in part, violating the autonomy of the individual. Animals aren’t capable of giving consent, so it is not possible to violate their autonomy in this way.  

Under the microscope, this way of carving up the situation doesn’t track our ordinary discourse about consent. It is, of course, true, that humans are free to use freely (within limits) certain things that are incapable of giving consent. For example, humans can use grain and stone and so on without fear of violating any important moral principle. In other cases in which consent is not possible, we tend to have very different intuitions. Very young children, for example, aren’t capable of consent, and for that very reason we tend to think it is not morally permissible for us to use them as mere means to our own ends. Beings that are conscious but are incapable of giving consent seem worthy of special protection. So it seems wrong to test on them even if it is for the good of their own species. Is it speciesist to think that the ends can’t justify the means in the case of the unwilling human subject but not in the case of the unwilling non-human animal?

Testing on non-human animals for the sake of other non-human animals also raises other sets of unique moral concerns and questions. What is the proper rank ordering of moral obligations when the stakeholders are abstractions? Imagine that we are considering doing an experiment on Coco the chimpanzee. The experiment that we do on Coco might have implications for future chimpanzees with Coco’s condition. The research might, then, have a beneficial impact for Coco’s species—the species “chimpanzee.” Can the moral obligations that we have to concrete, suffering beings ever be outweighed by obligations that we have to abstractions like “future generations” or “survival of the species”?

‘Toto Forever’ and the Ethics of Sound Pollution

Namibian sand dunes outlined against blue sky

In early 2019, Namibian artist Max Siedentopf revealed his newest sound installation: six solar-powered speakers hidden somewhere in the Namib Desert with an mp3 player programmed to repeatedly play one song – Toto’s quadruple platinum 1982 hit, ‘Africa.’ Dubbing the project ‘Toto Forever,’  the artist explained to the BBC “[I] wanted to pay the song the ultimate homage and physically exhibit ‘Africa’ in Africa…Some [Namibians] love it and some say it’s probably the worst sound installation ever. I think that’s a great compliment.”

With nearly 500 million recorded listenings on Spotify (and over 447 million views on YouTube), Toto’s rock-pop smash hit remains as unusually popular with contemporary fans as it was when first released nearly four decades ago. Dozens of covers circulate online, redone in genres ranging from heavy metal to 8-bit electronica to jazz saxophone, and ‘Africa’ has been featured in television shows like South Park and Stranger Things, tributed by celebrities in home movies, and sampled heavily in Pitbull’s ‘Ocean to Ocean’ from the soundtrack of 2018’s billion-dollar blockbuster film Aquaman.

But what are the ethical implications of consistent sound pollution in an otherwise untouched ecosystem? Should the widespread popularity of ‘Africa’ in America allow the song to pollute Africa itself?

Although it is designed to withstand the harsh climate of Namibia’s coastal desert, Siedentopf admits that the environment will eventually “devour the installation entirely,” leaving the plastic components of the project to decay in the sand – however, long before this sort of waste becomes an issue, the persistent drum beat of the four-and-a-half minute song will inevitably affect the local environment for the worse as it, among other issues, drives away animals, thereby disrupting the natural balance of the ecosystem.

Sometimes called the “forgotten stepchild of the environmental movement,” concern for noise pollution has increased as technological developments over the last century have led to ever-widening varieties of aural litter. Although activists groups like the Noise Abatement Society or the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse are often focused on the consequences for humans who cannot escape the sounds of traffic, phone notifications, emergency sirens, and the like, the broad ecological consequences of modern technology are also an area of real concern. Consider, for example, the NAS’s wind turbines campaign that aims to raise awareness about some unexpected side-effects of this green energy source that often sounds like, in the words of a family living near a wind farm in northwestern England, “a washing machine that’s gone wrong. Its whooshing drumming just goes on and on…it’s an audio version of Chinese Water Torture. The noise is such that it is felt as much as heard.’

While wild areas are often far from quiet themselves, it is not hard to imagine how the introduction of artificial sounds can adversely affect local populations. As Kirsten Parris and Robert McCauley explain, such noise “can affect an animal’s ability to hear or make it difficult for it to find food, locate mates and avoid predators. It can also impair its ability to navigate, communicate, reproduce and participate in normal behaviours.” Although the consequences of such disturbances can take time to present themselves, the ripple effects of food chain disruption can be catastrophic in the long run.

Often, environmental activism depends on something like cost-benefit analyses to determine how much inconvenience should be allowable in return for green initiatives; in the case of ‘Toto Forever,’ a largely conceptual artwork that has already started to fade from the public consciousness, the math does not seem difficult. Not only has whatever popular aesthetic value produced by Siedentopf’s piece already begun to fade, but that value must be weighed against the invasive effects of unnecessary noise on the local ecosystem of “one of world’s oldest and most biologically diverse deserts.” More importantly, this can be a case that draws popular attention more broadly to the ethical issues of noise pollution in general – something that “a hundred men or more” could certainly do something about.

Angola Prison and the Ethics of Prison Labor

Photograph of the entrance to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, showing a stop sign and a guard station along with a sign naming the institution and the warden Burl Cain

Walking through Louisiana State Penitentiary, one might feel as though they have traveled back to the early 19th century. Instead of wasting their days away in a cell, inmates (most of whom are black) line massive farm fields harvesting wheat, corn, soybeans, milo, and cotton. Prison guards (most of whom are white) patrol the fields on horseback, prepared to subdue an unruly inmate, or worse, an organized strike. Most hauntingly, there’s a good chance that many of the prisoners working this field are descended from the slaves who worked it when it was a private plantation in the 19th century. It was during this period of private ownership that the land got its nickname, “Angola,” after the African nation where many of its slaves hailed from. Centuries later, Angola Prison is now the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, and rigorously employs inmate labor.

Conditions of prison labor at Angola are known to be particularly brutal. Once called the “Alcatraz of the South” and the “Bloodiest Prison in America,” there have been multiple alleged cases of prisoner maltreatment and torture. In the 1930s, 31 prisoners slit their Achilles tendons to protest brutal working conditions. More recently, however, allegations of slavery in court have been inmates’ primary method of resistance. Social justice organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have attacked indications of slave labor such as inmates working for as little as two cents an hour, and punishments for not working being as severe as solitary confinement. Additionally, organizations have challenged Angola Prison on allegations of inmates being denied healthcare and being forced to live in unsanitary conditions.

However, despite its seeming brutality, prison labor at Angola may be doing more to benefit inmates than to harm them. This is thanks to rehabilitative reforms made to prison operations by former warden Burl Cain. Upon taking over the prison, Cain stated that his number one priority was “moral rehabilitation” of inmates in order to reduce in-prison violence. He did this by two means: religion and labor. Religion is obvious at Angola, with Christian churches scattering the prison grounds, and services being held daily. Holding more people who are serving life sentences than Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas combined, Cain’s objective by imposing religion is to give inmates at Angola hope for their futures and motivation to behave properly. As for labor, Cain holds a similar objective. At Angola, work is intended to give inmates a day-to-day purpose by fostering skills and achievement. The type of work administered is not limited solely to the fields, however. Inmates are also encouraged to do work at the prison learning trades such as automotive technology, culinary arts, and plumbing. Those serving life sentences learn and teach these skills to inmates who have the possibility of parole, thus sustaining what is one of Louisiana’s largest vocational institutions. While using religion and labor as means to achieving “moral rehabilitation” may be controversial, the results speak for themselves: the number of assaults in the prison has decreased from 1,346 in 1992 to just 343 in 2014.

Yet, despite the potential benefits provided to inmates at Angola, serious ethical pitfalls still exist. The most obvious of these pitfalls is the fact that inmates have no choice whether they work or not. This is where the argument over prison labor slips into slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment reads, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” While explicitly lawful, America’s history of harsh incarceration practices, such as mandatory minimums and severe sentencing for drug offenses, would point to prison labor being an unethical practice. Louisiana laws are especially tough on crime. For example, the mandatory minimum sentence for second degree murder in Louisiana is life without parole, and a Louisiana citizen can be sentenced up to 10 years for writing a worthless check. Harsh sentencing laws such as these in combination with other factors contribute to Louisiana having the highest state incarceration rate in the U.S., and therefore the highest incarceration rate in the world. Because incarceration is sometimes unfair, particularly in Louisiana, enforcing labor while incarcerated could be considered slavery.

Additionally, the fact cannot be ignored that statistically, there are innocent men living and working in Angola. There have been as many as 850 exonerations in the U.S. since the late 1980s, and it is estimated that approximately one percent of America’s incarcerated population is innocent. Applied to Angola Prison, which holds about 5,000 prisoners as of 2010, this means that as many as 50 men working Angola’s fields did not commit the offenses for which they are serving time. Furthermore, the practice of prison labor falls under even more scrutiny when it is used for capital gain. In the U.S., it has become an increasingly popular practice for prisoners to be outsourced to factories and call centers of private businesses for the businesses’ profit. These “private prisons” accounted for approximately 18% of federal prisoners in 2015, and corporations as large as Victoria’s Secret and Starbucks are guilty of employing inmate labor to work for well below minimum wage. While Louisiana has continued to expand the legal rights of private prisons in the state, Angola appears to be the exception to this. Angola is almost entirely self-sustaining, with prisoners processing and consuming the goods they produce.

While Angola’s version of inmate labor may seem inhumane on the surface, there are some very real benefits to prisoners who take advantage of some of the programs it has to offer. That being said, Angola still cannot escape many of the moral shortcomings that are carried with inmate labor. Inmate labor is a slippery slope into slavery, and slavery is the last thing the U.S. should be tampering with given its place in the nation’s history. However, there is also the challenge of making the lives of prisoners serving life sentences meaningful again, and Angola at least appears to be taking steps to address that challenge. Regardless, the practice of inmate labor is riddled with ethical complexities, many of which can be solved at the source by re-evaluating the reasons a person should be incarcerated.

 

Knowing What You Don’t Know

A photograph of the word "knowledge engraved in white sandstone

It’s inevitable that there will be some things that you think you know that you don’t actually know: everyone gets overconfident and makes mistakes sometimes, and every one of us have had to occasionally eat crow. However, a recent study reports that a significant number of people in the United States face this problem of thinking that they know more than they do about a number of key scientific issues. One of these beliefs is not terribly surprising: while the existence of human-made climate change is overwhelmingly supported by scientists, beliefs about climate change diverge from the scientific consensus largely along partisan lines.

Another issue that sees a significant amount of divergence between laypeople and scientists, however, is a belief about the safety of genetically modified foods, or GM foods for short. The study reports that while there is significant scientific consensus that GM foods are “safe to consume” and “have the potential to provide substantial benefits to humankind”, the predominant view amongst the general population in the US is precisely the opposite: while 88% of surveyed scientists said that GM foods were safe, only 37% of laypeople said they thought the same. Participants in the study were asked to rate the strength of their opposition to GM foods, as well as the extent of their concern with such foods. They were then asked to rate how confident they were in their understanding of various issues about GM foods, and were also asked a series of questions testing their general scientific knowledge. The crucial result from the study was that those who expressed the most extreme opposition to GM foods “knew the least” when it came to general scientific knowledge, but thought that “they knew the most.” In other words, extreme opponents of GM foods were seriously bad at knowing what they know and what they didn’t know.

The consequences of having extreme attitudes toward issues that one is also overconfident about can be significant. As the Nature study reports, the benefits of GM foods are potentially substantial, being able to provide “increased nutritional content, higher yield per acre, better shelf life and crop disease resistance.” Other scientists report numerous other benefits, including aiding those in developing countries in the production of food. However, a number of groups, including Greenpeace, have presented various opposing views to the use of GM foods and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in general, despite the backlash from numerous scientists. While there are certainly many open questions about GM foods and GMOs in general, maintaining one’s beliefs in opposition to the consensus of experts seems like an irresponsible thing to do.

Apart from the potential negative consequences of holding such views, failing to properly take account of evidence seems to point to a more personal flaw in one’s character. Indeed, a number of philosophers have argued that humility, i.e. a proper recognition of one’s own strengths and limitations, is a virtue generally worth pursuing. People who lack intellectual humility – those who are overly boastful, or who refuse to acknowledge their own shortcomings regarding what they do not know – often seem to be suffering from a defect in character.

As the authors of the Nature study identify, a “traditional view in the public understanding of scientific literature is that public attitudes that run counter to scientific consensus reflect a knowledge deficit.” As such, a focus of those working in scientific communication has been on the education of the public. However, the authors also note that such initiatives “have met with limited success,” and their study might suggest why: because those with the most extreme viewpoints also tend to believe that they know much more than they do, they will likely prove unreceptive to attempts at education, since they think they know well enough already. Instead, the authors suggest that a “prerequisite to changing people’s views through education may be getting them to first appreciate gaps in their knowledge.”

It’s not clear, though, what it would take to get someone who greatly overestimates how well they understand something to appreciate the actual gaps in their knowledge. Indeed, it seems that it might be just as difficult to try to tell someone who is overly confident that they are lacking information as it is to try to teach them about something they already take themselves to know. There is also a question of whether such people will trust the experts who are trying to point out those gaps: if I take myself to be extremely knowledgeable about a topic then presumably I will consider myself to possess a degree of expertise, in which case it seems unlikely that I will listen to anyone else who calls themselves an authority.

As The Guardian reports, compounding the problem are two cognitive biases that can stand in the way of those with extreme viewpoints from changing their minds: “active information avoidance,” in which information is rejected because it conflicts with one’s beliefs, and the “backfire effect,” in which being presented with information that conflicts with one’s beliefs actually results in one becoming more confident in one’s beliefs, rather than less. All of these factors together make it very difficult to determine how, exactly, people with extreme viewpoints can be convinced that they should change their beliefs in the face of conflicting evidence.

Perhaps, then, part of the problem with those who take an extreme stance on an issue while greatly overestimate their understanding of it is again a problem of character: such individuals might lack a degree of humility, at least when it comes to a specific topic. In addition to attempting to address specific gaps in one’s knowledge, then, we might also look toward having people attend to their own intellectual limitations more generally. We are all, after all, subject to biases, false beliefs, and general limitations in our knowledge and understanding, although it is sometimes easy to lose sight of this fact.

The Sound of a Stradivarius: Preserving Art Through Reproduction

A Stradivarius violin displayed in a museum case

For five weeks, the town of Cremona, Italy will be working to stifle any sudden or unnecessary sounds.

Violins, violas, and cellos made by Stradivarius and Amati and Guarneri del Gesù, two other famous Cremona craftsmen, in the 17th century will be played and recorded to preserve their sounds for posterity in a sound bank. Despite restorations, estimates suggest that their unique characters will only be able to be preserved for decades longer, hence the push for this town-wide hush.

Streets in the center of the city have been cordoned off. Because they are made of cobblestone, percussive vibrations from people walking and sounds from driving in the busy center are picked up in the auditorium where thirty-two ultra-sensitive microphones are set up to capture the purest sounds of the world’s best string instruments ever created. The auditorium was designed around the sound of these instruments, yet still further adjustments have been made: elevators have been shut down, light bulbs unscrewed, and ventilation turned off. Outside the city center, the citizens have been implored by their mayor and officials to keep it quiet. A great deal of effort has been expended in order to capture only the voice of the instruments.

Why is the music of these instruments so valuable? Scientists have attempted to account for the supposedly superior sound produced by Stradivarius violins. A major thesis is that the chemical composition of the wood used in Cremona during the time of creation lent itself to superior products. That they are so widely agreed to be superior to contemporary instruments intended to capture and exceed that original excellence suggests that there are recognizable standards for the sounds these instruments are meant to produce, and that we can recognize when instruments produce such sounds well.

In view of the vastness of this project to create a comprehensive sound bank for these instruments, there is an intriguing outcome to consider. Because the talented musicians are not just recording individual notes, but transitions and styles, attempting to capture all possible sounds the instruments can make, they are effectively constructing digital copies of the instruments themselves. In the future, musicians can digitally play Stradivariuses. How will this preserve or affect the value of the sound these instruments produce?

Walter Benjamin, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), questions the meaning of art in a contemporary context where our ability to create is unprecedented and this affects our understanding of the value of individual creations of art. Though works of art have historically always been reproduced, Benjamin notes that the rise of mass production and the power to reproduce art changes the context of our appreciation of creation. He claims that reproduced art lacks the value of the original because of our relation to it, writing, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Reproduced art lacks the aura of novel creation that the artist expressed when producing.

Carl Georg Lange similarly stresses the value of origin and authenticity in the value of art. Consider cases where there is a question over two paintings concerning which was the original work of an artist. When there is uncertainty and doubt in place, Lange suggests that the pleasure both pieces elicit are the same, but once the doubt is removed, the piece revealed to not be the original work no longer has the same effect on the audience.

Would the future digital Stradivarius productions have the same response structure? There is a crucial difference in the way that music is valuable from the way that visual arts are valuable. Namely, visual arts typically are constituted by an object. What a work of music is, is an interesting philosophical question in its own right. To experience a piece of music seems inherently tied to its performance; to have a piece of music is to have it reproduced or interpreted in some way. Standing in front of a painting, Benjamin suggests we feel differently when it is the creation of the artist. What is the corollary in music?

A performance can be said to be authentic when a variety of conditions are met – when the performance produces the right pitches in the right order (pure sonicists argue this is sufficient), when the pitches produces the timbres of the composers instrumentation (advocated by timbral sonicists), or when the performance actually uses the instruments prescribed by the composer (in line with instrumentalist views). The central or essential qualities of a musical piece must be present in a performance for it to qualify as authentic, and thus the debate will be over what is essential to a work. With the advances in technology that allow for synthetic instrumentation, questions of authenticity become more complicated.

Is the violin or its product the locus of value that the audience appropriately reacts to in this case? If we were to hear two performances, one by a Stradivarius violin and one by a reproduction based on the immaculate recording currently in progress, would it be analogous to the two paintings Lange discusses? Is the way in which a Stradivarius violin is valuable a matter of our appreciation of the music it creates or the material or form constituted by the instrument able to produce the music? For over a month, the dedication of a town in Italy to remain as quiet as possible out of their collective value for this music invites conversation on these questions and the unique way humans have related to art and sounds.

Examining Masculinities: Why Gillette Struck a Nerve

A drawing of a king holding an old-fashioned safety razor with the message "Gillette Safety Razor: King of Them All"

Editor’s note: This article is the second of a brief series on Gillette’s “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” ad that aired on January 13, 2019. 

The recent Gillette short film “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” has received vocal backlash from some viewers.

Gillette’s commercial film touched on critiques of “toxic masculinity” (also known as “hegemonic masculinity”). But the short film is also firmly rooted in empathy and concern for those who identify as male and takes up male victimization. The recurrent protagonist is a boy running from a group of relentless bullies. Terry Crews is also featured, a beloved advocate for positive masculinity who has spoken out about his experiences as a victim of sexual harassment and as the child of domestic abuse. The film also references the #MeToo movement in media montages and a mock sitcom where a white man harasses a cleaning woman of colour. It exhibits ”benign” examples of misogyny, including a moment where the camera focuses in on the expression of a woman at a corporate-looking table as her male colleague silences her and speaks over her, “Actually, what I think she’s trying to say…”

At the thirty-five second mark, the camera pans across a line of men towering over barbecues, arms pugnaciously crossed, muttering in unison ”Boys will be boys will be boys will be boys” ad infinitum. The film highlights how this classic, reductive tautology serves as a straitjacket for the supposed beneficiaries of “traditional masculinity” as much as a fortress against those who are excluded from it.

It is revealing that much of the outcry against the commercial revolves around this same circular cry, “Boys will be boys!” The backlash has a confusing logic, however. Contrary to what critics say, Gillette offers positive examples of masculinity. Its very title suggests masculinity can be more than benign – it can be superlative. The film showcases a group of young men resolving a conflict among themselves, a father nurturing his tiny daughter’s self-confidence, male figures intercepting bullying among children and checking a catcaller in his tracks, and ends with lingering shots on the thoughtful, trusting, hope-filled faces of young boys.

To what, then, do its critics object? Certainly, the commercial scrutinizes a still-prevalent version of performed “masculinity.” But gender scrutiny is deeply embedded within culture and within advertising as a particularly influential capitalist cultural medium. Femininities are regularly examined. Women are routinely exposed to media and discourses that tell them how to be women. These injunctions include impossible expectations of thinness and narrowly Western beauty ideals, enforcing traditionally female occupations overcoming workforce barriers without seeming too female, balancing being caregivers, breadwinners, and managing an enviable “lifestyle” for themselves and their loved ones while exhibiting positive emotion and self-control in all things, being confident and assertive without coming across as aggressive, being maternal without giving up one’s career and vice-versa, et cetera (for more details on women and perfectionism, click here, here, and here). These themes are so ubiquitous as to be immediately recognizable in satire. (One such satire is “Man who has it all,” a social media experiment that switches the male for the female gender in providing “helpful lifestyle tips” and highlights the pressures which advertisers and culture-at-large place on women to be perfect in every way to achieve minimal respectability.)

Masculinities and femininities are undoubtedly subject to interrogation and contestation. But it seems peculiar for a short film to inspire such controversy for encouraging men to be role models for the next generation by rejecting abuse, violence, and unreasoning defensiveness.  Some may question whether companies are best positioned to further our social conscience, while others welcome corporations taking on responsibility even if driven by a profit motive to be on the side of social evolution.  

Gillette’s ad ultimately advocates an extremely parsimonious set of norms — a minimum bar of human decency by any gender standard. Some could even argue that it does so by endorsing some traditional conceptions of masculinity as honorable and strong or ‘’virtuous’’ (in its etymological connotations of ‘’manliness’’). For some, the ad endorsed truly “manly” behaviour, reminiscent of the concept of a “gentleman,” which, along with its conceptual counterpart of “ladies,” is also grounded in highly specific gendered, racial and classed identity and performance.  

The American Psychological Association recently came out with its first guide to practice with men and boys. This represents a moment of introspection in psychological discipline. The APA has had a guidebook for treating women and girls since 2007. But the need to examine masculinities as an object of observation to the sciences and not merely as the default subject is overdue by much more than a decade. As in other disciplines, the typical psychological subject was presumed to be a white male, a standing point that served as a proxy for the whole human race. While psychology is not unique in assuming a European-descended male as its implicit subject this moment is revealing how limiting a privileged standing point can be, even to those who accrued social benefits from being silently and exclusively represented as the default in the network of knowledge and power domains.

The default male figure as the unquestioned subject of knowledge traditionally understood can now also be the object of social gaze and reflection. Perhaps it is inevitable for this to be the source of some anxiety. In this case, the APA’s guidelines are well-timed to this social moment.

The Gillette Controversy: The Best an Ad Can Be?

An ad reading "Shave Yourself!" and a picture of a man pointing

Editor’s note: This article is the first of a brief series on Gillette’s “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” ad that aired on January 13, 2019. 

In January 2019, the razor company Gillette released an ad that turned out to be very controversial.  The ad, titled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” left some viewers applauding a message encouraging major steps in the right direction and left others seeking out different razor brand loyalty.

The main message of the ad discourages “toxic masculinity” and suggests that communities and parents should do more for their male children and for their communities at large.  We should not encourage the type of male aggression that leads to bullying, cruelty, and violence. We should encourage boys and young men to engage women differently—sexuality can be expressed without disrespect.  The ad features examples of fathers modeling respectful behavior for their sons and discouraging behavior that many view as excessively aggressive. The ad promotes the conclusion that our traditional caveman conception of masculinity is in desperate need of refinement.  It isn’t that maleness itself is inherently problematic.  Instead, we should be applauding and supporting more honorable traits frequently found in men.

Some critics of the ad disapproved of the messenger.  Arguments on this point took many different forms. First, some offered the general objection that companies should not be in the business of making political statements.  The proper goal of a business should be to make a profit by creating and producing quality products for consumers. There is no reason to believe that companies or advertising executives are experts on social, political, or moral issues.  Advertising is difficult to escape, so the message a company puts out is seen and heard by many people. Some argue that messaging of this type should be reserved for other forums.

To this point, some argue that businesses never have pure motives.  Their motivation is always primarily to make a profit. If ethical behavior requires that the right kind of motivation or intention gives rise to an action, the motivations of businesses are simply never going to pass the test.  Companies, so the argument goes, will always pander to the interest groups that they think will be the most reliable customers and consumers of their products. Consumers don’t, therefore, have much reason to believe that the message being advanced by companies is anything more than pure manipulative rhetoric.

There are a handful of responses to these arguments.  It is true that in our increasingly globalized communities, businesses have a tremendous amount of power, arguably more power than institutions of any other type.  It is also true that profit is the primary motivation of most businesses. It does not follow, however, that profit, from a descriptive standpoint, is their only motivation.  It also does not follow, from a normative standpoint, that it ought to be their only motivation.  

Descriptively, in one sense, to even talk about the “motivations” of a business is to make a category mistake.  Despite the fact that businesses are treated as legal persons in the eyes of the law, they are not the kinds of entities that can form mental states and, as a result, are not the kinds of things that can form intentions.  The individuals who make crucial decisions for the business form intentions, not the business itself. There is no reason to think that individual business executives, just like any other people, can’t have complex motivations.  Indeed, the explicit business plan of many businesses is to deal with a social problem or injustice, with profit as a secondary but subordinate motivation.

Normatively, there are some pretty compelling arguments against the idea that profit ought to be the only motivation of a business or corporation.  If businesses have more reach than most other institutions, don’t we want them spreading positive messages?  One critical example in which corporate leadership is necessary concerns environmental issues.  As it is, people tend to view the natural world as an endless pit of resources to exploit for capitalist gain.  This is unsustainable. Don’t we want corporations to take the lead, providing examples of responsible production and consumption?  One might think that bringing an end to, or at least stemming the tide of, acts of harassment and senseless violence is an equally laudable goal.  Why shouldn’t corporations be doing what they can to bring about these kinds of consequences, given the scope and volume of their respective voices?

Some, and, arguably, the most vocal objections to the Gillette ad are objections not to the messenger but to the message.  At the moment of this writing, the YouTube link for the recent Gillette ad has 643 thousand upvotes and 1.1 million downvotes.  Objections to the ad clearly go beyond theoretical attitudes about best business practices. Some people think that men as a group are getting an unfair reputation because of the admittedly horrible behavior of a select few.  By casting men as a group as angry, aggressive bullies who prey on the weak, sexually harass women, and commit acts of mass violence, are we not engaging in hasty generalization? When companies like Gillette suggest to consumers that maleness is “toxic,” what kind of message are we sending to young boys about their innate nature? What’s more, this ad was released into the cultural context of the rising tide of the #MeToo movement. Many critics of the movement are concerned that good men are being swept up with the bad—adrift in a sea of righteous rage and vindictive resentment. Others argue that the traits that are criticized in the ad have positive effects as well as negative ones.  The same traits that might be described as “aggressive” in some contexts might be described as “assertive” in others.  Assertive traits are traits we want our children to have.  Do we really want powerful corporations encouraging our male children to dial back their assertiveness?  Does this message in some ways render men and boys impotent?

Producers and admirers of the ad might argue that, despite the appearance of serious conflict here, there is no real disagreement.  The ad was not suggesting that all men exert their aggression in problematic ways.  It was not attempting to leave people with the impression that all maleness is toxic.  Rather, it was suggesting that certain practices, certain social customs and parenting behaviors need to change.  Fathers need to model respect for women and they need to keep eyes on their sons to make sure they are demonstrating respect for women.  Gillette is not suggesting that our new conception of maleness should cast them as ineffectual or otherwise weak. Instead, they are suggesting that real male strength is demonstrated in honorable behavior.

The right message is likely to be the winning message in the long run—even if they face backlash now, they will be remembered as coming down on the right side of history.

Celebrating Invasion Day: Australia’s History War

Photo of the Sydney Harbor overlooking the Opera House and an Australian flag flying in the sky from a plane

On January 26 each year Australia celebrates its national holiday ‘Australia Day’ with official events including citizenship ceremonies and firework displays, as well as gatherings, barbecues and many other quintessentially Australian activities. But over the past several years, a debate has raged about whether it is appropriate to hold celebrations on that particular date, given its meaning for Australia’s Indigenous population (known also as Aborigines or First Nations People [1]), many of whom commemorate that particular date as Invasion Day.   

It was on January 26, 1788, that Captain Arthur Philip led the First Fleet into Sydney Cove, planting the British flag, and claiming the territory for the British Empire. The colonization of Australia meant severe degradation of traditional cultures which stretch back into prehistory.  The story of white, European settlement is, for First Nations people, a story marked — often dominated — by horrors of dispossession, massacre and attempted cultural genocide.

Inseparable from the ethical issues at stake in this debate — Aboriginal rights, justice and reconciliation — are broader philosophical issues about truth raised by vying interpretations of history. Disagreements about how the history of white settlement should be understood, and about how current generations of white Australians should respond, have become increasingly divisive over the past two decades, fuelled by the so called ‘history wars.’

At the time of European settlement, Australia had been inhabited by its indigenous occupants for over 60,000 years. That makes Aboriginal culture (though it is by no means homogenous) by far the oldest surviving, continual civilisation in the history of the world. The peoples of the First Nations made up over 600 individual Nations, with many different languages and cultural characteristics and customs.

Australia was colonized under the auspices of the doctrine of “Terra Nullius” (no-one’s land). The belief that the land did not belong to its Indigenous inhabitants rested on ignorance about the depth of the relationship of Aborigines to the land. To the European settlers, it justified their policy of driving Aboriginal people off lands in which they lived, hunted and fished, and it led also to many massacres of those who tried to resist. In the state of Tasmania, local Indigenous people were all but wiped out. In the state of Queensland, at least 65,000 estimated Indigenous people lost their lives defending their country in the frontier wars of the 1800s.

More recently, from the beginning of the twentieth century until roughly the 1960s, a government policy was in operation to remove Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal children from their Indigenous parents. The (so-called) Stolen Generation were taken and sent to homes or foster care, and in many cases were subject to abuse and neglect. A 700-page report entitled Bringing Them Home, the result of a national enquiry into the Stolen Children, was tabled in Federal Parliament in 1997. It detailed story after harrowing story of families torn apart and lives ruined by the grief and suffering visited on the victims of this state-enforced policy.

Currently, the situation for many Aboriginal people remains marked by disadvantage. For example, as of the 2016 census, First Nations People represented 3.3 percent of the total Australian population yet account for more than 28 percent of Australia’s prison population. Rates of youth suicide, violence, and substance abuse remain far higher for many Indigenous communities than for the population at large.

In the context of these egregious past and ongoing current injustices, many Indigenous people have asked the rest of the community to change the date of the national holiday celebrations. Many Aboriginal people feel both that they would like to be included in national celebrations, and simultaneously cannot feel included because of what the date means to them. They need the broader Australian community to hear their need for recognition of the wrongs they, as a people, have suffered. Indigenous television presenter, Brooke Boney said,

“This is the best country in the world… But I can’t separate the 26th of January from the fact that my brothers are more likely to go to jail than school, or that my little sisters and my mum are more likely to be beaten and raped than anyone else’s sisters or mum,” she said. “And that started from that day. For me, it’s a difficult day and I don’t want to celebrate it.”

A great many non-Indigenous people fully support Australia’s First Nations people in their call for a national holiday and celebration to be held on a date not synonymous with the pain and suffering of their people. Yet the call to change the date has encountered fierce ideological resistance from other sections of the community.  Keeping Australia Day on January 26 remains the official policy of both major political parties.

In an interview last year Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he understood that some who opposed celebrating a national holiday on January 26 did so out of respect for Aboriginal people, but said refusing to celebrate the day was “silly.” He recently wrote in a Facebook post: “Indulgent self-loathing does not make Australia stronger.”

There is a prevalent view that even though grave injustice was done to Aboriginal people in the past, colonization has also brought great benefit, and since contemporary Australians are not the perpetrators of historical wrongs, they need not, indeed should not, feel guilt or shame.

Many, especially on the socially conservative side in the history wars, argue that focusing on the darkest elements in Australian history eclipses the nation’s achievements, fosters disunity rather than togetherness and threatens to drown national pride in national sorrow. Many also feel confronted by the suggestion that they could or should feel shame for the past actions of others.

Yet the Prime Minister’s statement that “indulgent self-loathing does not make Australia stronger” appears not only to reject the so-called ‘black armband’ view of Australian history in unequivocal terms, but to seriously underestimate either the injustices done to Aborigines, or the depth of their effects. Racism of this kind that was behind the dispossession based on Terra Nullis and the policy of forced removal of Aboriginal children is constituted by a very deep-seated failure of white European colonizers to acknowledge the full humanity of their Indigenous victims.

To illustrate this failure, Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita emphasizes a couple of key moments. At the time of forced removals of Aboriginal children, James Isdell, a minister for protection of Aborigines in the Western Australian government, said that “no matter how frantic an Aboriginal mother’s momentary grief was at the time, they soon forget their offspring.” [2]

But in 1992, a high court ruling (The Mabo decision), overturned the doctrine of Terra Nullius doctrine. That judgement acknowledged that Aboriginal People’s spiritual relationships to the land are deeper than can be conveyed by the notion of ownership. [3] Then, given the definition of genocide decided by the 1948 Genocide Convention, The Stolen Generation’s Bringing Them Home report demonstrates that “The policy of forcible removal of children from Indigenous Australians to other groups for the purpose of raising them separate from and ignorant of their culture and people could properly be labelled genocidal.” [4]

These pernicious government policies represent a denial of the full humanity of Aboriginal people – their connection to their land, their love for their children. The willingness of other Australians to dismiss the feelings of hurt endured by Indigenous Australians by refusing to change the date of national celebration only compounds that injustice. As the Mayor of Darebin Council in Melbourne, Susan Rennie, told ABC Radio: “the people for whom the celebration is most hurtful should be listened to… we have consistently heard from Aboriginal / First Nations people in our community that the date is hurtful and causes distress… why wouldn’t we respond to that and think about changing the date.”

A full conception of justice would need to acknowledge what Indigenous people are saying and what they need in order for reconciliation to occur. This recognition is not merely limited to acknowledging past wrongs but perceiving ongoing injustice. That does not mean that this generation of non-Indigenous Australians, for whom there is likely to be no direct connection to those historical wrongs, should feel guilt, though some doubtless do. But it does seem to entail that a full moral appreciation of the injustices suffered include an appropriate sense of shame.

So what should a country be celebrating with a national holiday such as this? It is natural, and it is right, it seems to me, to feel a sense of pride in one’s nation. But, that sense of pride should be founded on a sufficiently deep conceptual sense of what pride is, or should be, if national pride is not going to collapse into nationalism and jingoism. To take full moral possession of the dark aspects of a nation’s history is not anti-patriotic but authentically patriotic. True patriotism should be genuine love of one’s country, and not a hollow, jingoistic nationalism of the sort which leads someone to confuse acknowledging the shame many Australians feel with “indulgent self-loathing.”

 

Notes

[1] First Nations is plural because there were thousands of tribes many with their own language and cultural traditions inhabiting Australia prior to colonization.  

[2] Raimond Gaita, A Common Humanity: Thinking About Love & Truth & Justice, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 1999, p57. My analysis here draws especially on several chapters that pertain to issues of Aboriginal dispossession and genocide in his book A Common Humanity.

[3] Gaita, 1999, 74.

[4] Gaita, 1999, 116; https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/pdf/social_justice/bringing_them_home_report.pdf 234-239

Computer Simulations and the Ethics of Predicting Human Behavior

A row of black supercomputer processors

In an episode of the British sketch comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look, a minister of finance is sitting across from two aides, who are expressing their frustration at how to deal with a recent recession. They have run a number of scenarios through a computer simulation: increasing or decreasing value-added tax, lowering or raising interest rates, or any combination thereof, fail to produce any positive result. The minister then suggests adding a new variable to the simulation: “Have you tried ‘kill all the poor’?” At his behest, the aides run the simulation, and show that it wouldn’t have any positive result, either. The minister is insistent that he merely wanted to see what the computer would say, as an intellectual exercise, and would not have followed its advice even if the results had been different.

Although this example is clearly fictitious, computer simulations that model human behavior have become a reality, and bring with them a number of ethical problems. For instance, a recent article published at The Atlantic reports results of the Modeling Religion Project, a project which addresses questions about “the most compelling features of religion” by “turning to an unconventional source: computer modeling and simulation.” According to the project, some of these models “examine processes of group formation, religious leadership, extremism and violence, terror management, ritual patterns, and much more.” One such model, called MERV, models “mutually escalating religious violence,” while another called NAHUM models “terror management theory.” For instance, one recent publication coming out of the project called “Can we predict religious extremism?” provides a tentative answer of “yes.”

These and other models have been used to test out various policies in an artificial environment. For example, the Modeling Religion in Norway project is currently modeling policy decisions concerning the immigration of refugees into Norway: “Governments and organizations seek policies that will encourage cohesion over conflict,” the project outline states, “but it’s hard to know what ideas will lead to harmony and tolerance, facilitating integration between local and immigrant communities. Problems like these need a road-map that can point us towards a better future, and tools for considering all of the possible outcomes.” One study suggested that, since Norwegians have a strong social safety net, religiosity is expected to continue to decrease in Norway, since one factor that predicts higher degrees of religiosity is a feeling of “existential anxiety” (to put it bluntly, the researchers suggest that the less worried one is about dying, the less religious one will tend to be).

While such models might be interesting as an intellectual exercise, there are a host of ethical concerns when it comes to relying on them to influence policy decision. First and foremost there is the concern about how plausible we should think such models will be. Human behavior is complex, and the number of variables that influence that behavior is immense, so it seems near impossible for such models to make perfectly accurate predictions. Of course, these models do not purport to be able to tell the future, and so they could still at least potentially be useful at predicting broad trends and changes, and in that regard may still be useful in guiding policy decisions.

Perhaps an even more significant problem, however, is when the example of comedic fiction becomes disturbing close to reality. As The Atlantic reports, Wesley Wildman, one of the directors of the Modeling Religion Project, reported having developed a model that suggested that the best course of action when dealing with extremist religious groups with charismatic leaders was to assassinate said leader. Wildman was, understandably, troubled by the result, stating that he felt “deeply uncomfortable that one of my models accidentally produced a criterion for killing religious leaders.” Wildman also stated that according to a different model, if one wanted to decrease secularization in a society that one could do so by “triggering some ecological disaster,” a thought that he reports “keeps me up at night.”

Some of the results produced by these models clearly prescribe immoral actions: there seem to be very few, if any, situations that would justify the triggering of an ecological disaster, and it seems that assassination, if it should ever be an option, should be a very last resort, not the first course of action one considers. Such simulations may model courses of action that are most efficient, but that is hardly to say that they are the ones that are most morally responsible. As Wildman himself noted, the results of these simulations are only potentially useful when one has taken into consideration all of the relevant ethical factors.

One might worry about whether these kinds of simulation should be performed at all. After all, if it turned out that the model predicted that an immoral course of action should result in a desired benefit, this information might be used to attempt to justify performing those actions. As The Atlantic reports:

[Wildman] added that other groups, like Cambridge Analytica, are doing this kind of computational work, too. And various bad actors will do it without transparency or public accountability. ‘It’s going to be done. So not doing it is not the answer.’ Instead, he and Wildman believe the answer is to do the work with transparency and simultaneously speak out about the ethical danger inherent in it.

If one is indeed worried about the ethical ramifications of such models, this kind of reasoning is unlikely to provide much comfort: even if it is a fact that “if I don’t do it, someone else will,” that does not absolve one of their moral responsibility (since they, in fact, did it!). It is also difficult to tell how being transparent and discussing the ethical danger of their simulation’s proposed course of action would do to mitigate the damage.

On the other hand, we might not think that there is anything necessarily wrong with merely running simulations: simulating ecological disasters is a far cry from the real thing, and we might think that there’s nothing inherently unethical in merely gathering information. Wildman certainly does seem right about one thing: regardless of whether we think that these kinds of models are useful, it is clear that they cannot be relied upon responsibly without any consideration of the moral ramifications of their results.

The US, the UN, and Human Rights Investigations

Photo of the UN flag flying against a blue sky with white clouds

The United States has stopped cooperating with United Nations human rights investigations in the US. There are at least 13 requests for inquiry that have gone unanswered since May 7, 2018, and the only UN investigators that have operated in the US in Trump’s administration were invited by the previous administration under President Obama.

Human rights are norms that apply to all members of the community and attempt to protect our basic human dignity from abuse in the political, legal, and social spheres. These rights include freedom of expression/religion, the right to a fair trial if charged with a crime, and the right to participate in political activity.

The UN investigators organized by President Obama were looking into extreme poverty in the US. Extreme poverty violates human rights because of the suffering experienced at the time, and the purported human right to autonomously guide one’s own life. When you live in extreme poverty, often this affects your health, which limits your options in life, and also the poverty creates a situation of need that shapes the choices you make. Because you will enter choice-making scenarios, such as where to live, what jobs to pursue and accept, what food to purchase, etc., from his position of need, these choices are not autonomous but coercive. Your continued survival and baseline well-being are the deciding factor; in a real way you are not free to choose your life’s direction.

The Trump administration has implemented a number of controversial policies that have received outrage by the national population, let alone the international community. The administration has reintroduced mandatory minimum sentencing (contra right to a fair trial), has moved to rescind DACA (contra right to education and right to arbitrary detention), selectively banned immigration from Muslim-majority nations (contra freedom of religion and non-discrimination), invited an anti-LGBT+ hate group to the UN commission on the Status of Women (contra non-discrimination, equal protection under the law, and undermining the rights of LGBT+ people and women), just to name a few.

The UN has reached out regarding incidents in the US under the Trump administration only to be met with silence: “Among the formal approaches that have failed to receive a response from the US over the past several months are queries about family separation of Central Americans at the US border with Mexico, death threats against a transgender activist in Seattle and allegations of anti-gay bias in the sentencing to death of a prisoner in South Dakota.” When events like the family separations at the southern border of the US occur at the administration’s injunction, there is no further authority to regulate the practices; they are legally permissible unless some court can declare them illegal in some way. The huge bureaucratic force of the executive branch was (and is) behind a system that separated families and housed many in cages, all performed according to policy.

A major role of the United Nations is to monitor and report on the condition of respect for human rights in countries around the world. This is a crucial function because there are multiple ways that the living conditions for people can violate their human rights, even in manners systematically supported or allowed by governing systems. The UN human rights investigators serve as an external check on the effects of the policies that sovereign nations can enact.

Countries sometimes enact policies that directly violate human rights, such as the border policies in the US recently, but systemic conditions in a country can also create or reinforce conditions that violate human rights, such as the poverty being investigated by the UN before the Trump administration ceased to cooperate. Both of these routes to human rights violations are concerning, of course, but what is perhaps most troubling is that direct rights violations are being blocked from UN and international scrutiny.

For the UN to be effective in holding sovereign nations accountable, nations need to cooperate and take its authority seriously. For the US to cease to interact and respect the UN’s human rights investigations is a blow to their international authority and may have long-term effects on the effectiveness of extra-national checks on the living conditions of citizens. One advantage of having a body like the UN perform such checks is that it reduces the pressure on individual nations to perform the checks or feel individual burden to perform humanitarian interventions.  Cooperating with the UN thus has the benefit of highlighting and hopefully cooperating with international standards of human rights within one’s own country, and maintaining an international body that can serve as such a check on nations in the future as well.


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Considering Custody Arrangements for Companion Animals

Two beagle puppies on leashes sitting in a field of green grass

In most states, pets are viewed as personal property in the eyes of the law.  Last year, California shook up the status quo by passing Assembly Bill 2274, which was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September. The law will allow judges in divorce cases to make more nuanced decisions when it comes to animal custody.  Prior to the passing of the bill, courts were required to divide community property roughly equally. Judges now have the flexibility to consider factors like which of the parties in the relationship provides care to the pet in the form of walking, feeding, accessing veterinary services, and providing shelter and protection.  Pleased pet owners in California claim that, in passing this law, California has rightly recognized companion animals as members of the family.

Most states continue the tradition of treating companion animals as property, but California is not alone in its move to recognize the unique importance and status of companion animals.  In January 2017, a law went into effect in Alaska that required courts to take into account the well-being of the animal when making divorce judgments about animal custody.  Alaska’s law goes further than California’s—in California courts are merely permitted to consider factors other than equity of distribution when awarding custody.  Alaska’s law also allows courts to include pets in domestic violence protective orders.

Opponents of the new California law argue that if judges are permitted to make custody decisions pertaining to pets, the courts will inevitably be clogged.  Child custody hearings already draw out divorce proceedings to unbearable lengths. If the court takes careful, conscientious care to place pets where they belong in every single divorce case, opponents argue that it will surely extend the time it takes to go through the divorce process to an unmanageable and undesirable length.

Opponents of the bill also argue that once custody hearings become the norm for animals like cats and dogs, there can be no conceivable end to the types of creatures who might be deserving of consideration in a divorce proceeding.  Further, some opponents argue that the factors involved in these kinds of decisions will inevitably involve anthropomorphizing animals to some extent. Though it may be true that animals can be harmed to some degree by changes to their living situation, typical companion animals simply don’t have the mental capacity to understand the nature of divorce or to be traumatized by it.  As a result, there is a reason for treating decisions about custody of animals very differently from, say, custody of children.

Supporters of the law argue that it is about time that legislators recognize that the interests of animals ought to be taken seriously.  Animals, after all, are not objects.  The common custom of treating animals as property fails to take into account that they are sentient beings, capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.  Some non-human animals are capable of a much wider range of experiences and emotions. Treating a companion animal no differently than one might treat a sofa or a desk lamp is an archaic and morally indefensible practice.  Philosophers from times long past may have viewed animals as automatons, but we know more about the psychology of animals than we ever have before. We know that they experience a range of emotions, and those considerations should be factored into custody decisions.

Other arguments in favor of the bill are more anthropocentric.  The bonds that human beings form with their companion animals are intimate and intense.  Many people are forgoing having children, and those people often take the care relationships that they form with their animals very seriously.  The custody of an arrangement for a pet, then, is tremendously important to the human caregivers. If one party in a relationship takes on more of these care obligations, that seems like a consideration that should be taken seriously.

One objection to the California law in particular is that it does not go far enough.  The law allows judges to take the well being of the pet into consideration when making custody decisions, but it doesn’t require the judge to do so.  As a result, the message is sent that the interests of companion animals deserve to be taken seriously when a particular judge decides to take them seriously, but not otherwise.  This feature of the law makes consideration of animal interests too strongly contingent on the whims of individual judges or on the attitudes of the parties seeking the divorce.

Ultimately, many argue that this law constitutes a step in the right direction for the cause of animal welfare.  That said, it is worth pointing out that our practices with respect to animals are far from consistent. We arbitrarily designate some animals as “companion animals” and we let these animals live in our homes.  For many, these animals become highly valued members of the family. The decision concerning which animals will become members of the family is largely based on species membership.  Cats, dogs, birds, and guinea pigs are animals we might consider bringing home to join our families.  Most people wouldn’t consider taking on a chicken, turkey, hogs, cow, or sheep as a companion animal. This is largely a matter of historical practice.  The new California law recognizes that the interests of animals deserve to be taken seriously, but, by focusing on companion animals in divorce cases, it places animals into different categories arbitrarily.  If the interests of companion animals deserve to be taken seriously, so too might the farm animals that we raise in inhumane conditions and slaughter unnecessarily for food.

Judd v Weinstein: Reexamining Ex Post Facto

Photograph of a gavel next to two large books

In the United States hundreds of new laws come into effect every year at both the state and federal level. Some of these laws criminalize actions that were once legal, while others simply serve to reform the existing judicial system. The concept of retroactive punishment has been a concept debated in the philosophy of law since the beginning of time. At the heart of this debate lies the relationship between the law and morality as well as the purpose of the law itself. One recent example which demonstrates the tension between the law and morality is Ashley Judd’s lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein. In the case, Judd cites a law which prohibits sexual harassment of the nature which Judd is alleging. However, Judge Philip S. Gutierrez dismissed this charge because, at the time of the alleged harassment, late 1996 to early 1997, the law cited did not extend to producers such as Weinstein. While Judd is still able to pursue a defamation charge against Weinstein, the dismissal of the harassment allegations seems troubling, especially considering Weinstein’s current legal standing with sexual harassment and assault. Was it wrong for Gutierrez to dismiss the charges? Should a person be punished for an act that was not illegal at the time that it was committed? And is the purpose of the law inherently tied to morality?

The allegations against Weinstein that began in 2017 not only ushered in the #MeToo movement, but also posed questions about the ties between the law and morality. In one specific case, Ashley Judd vs Harvey Weinstein, Weinstein’s actions toward Judd, which include harassment of a sexual nature while he was in a position of power over Judd, were found to be legal for Weinstein at the time that he committed them. Despite the fact that Weinstein’s actions would be illegal today, a judge found that he could not be charged with these allegations in the present. The inapplicability of retroactive laws, otherwise known as ex post facto, is an important concept in the philosophy of law. An ex post facto law is defined as “a criminal statute that punishes actions retroactively, thereby criminalizing conduct that was legal when originally performed.” Currently, there are two statutes in the United States Constitution that prohibit ex post facto laws, Art 1, § 9 and Art. 1 § 10

The prohibition of ex post facto laws is not unique to the U.S. with many countries observing the unjust nature of such laws. In fact, the illegitimacy of ex post facto shares widespread support in part due to its prevalence in U.S. courts since the 18th century. U.S. Supreme case Calder v. Bull (1798) established the fundamental aspects of ex post facto laws including laws that “create or aggravate the crime or increase the punishment or change the rules of evidence for the purpose of conviction.

A more recent Supreme Court decision which is often cited is that of Beazell v Ohio (1925). In this case, the majority held that “any statute which punishes as a crime an act previously committed, which was innocent when done, which makes more burdensome the punishment for a crime, after its commission, or which deprives one charged with crime of any defense available according to law at the time when the act was committed, is prohibited as ex post facto.” Ex post facto is not only considered essential to the integrity of the judicial system but can also be argued for on the basis of morality.

While one might admit that Weinstein’s actions were morally wrong, one could ultimately hold that it is unjust to punish him for an act he committed that was (unfortunately) legal at the time. Punishing him might set a bad precedent that would essentially undermine the value that laws hold. Why even pass new laws making sexual harassment illegal if one can be punished without the laws taking effect? On the other hand, proponents of punishing Weinstein would argue that what makes Weinstein deserving of punishment in this case is the abhorrent and immoral nature of his actions. If the purpose of law is to either punish those who deserve to be punished or contribute to the welfare of society, then Weinstein could be justifiably be punished either way. But can we truly pick and choose which actions justify ex post facto and which do not? If I were to buy cigarettes today and it becomes illegal to purchase cigarettes in 2 weeks, should I be punished for the time I bought cigarettes? What if I were to prank-call my neighbor? Or drive the speed limit in the fast lane? Though these scenarios are small, they all demonstrate that it seems silly and unreasonable to apply ex post facto punishments in every situation, but it also becomes hard to draw the line in which cases are appropriate. The judge’s logic in this case as well as the general attitude that law and morality should stay separate is relatively popular within legal positivism.

On the other hand, some proponents of natural law might argue that retroactive laws can and should indeed be enforced. This is because the justification for punishment stems not only from the breaking of a man-made law, but also a moral law. Though an act might not have been illegal within code, it is still against the fundamental moral laws reinforced by a higher power. Debates about ex post facto laws were especially prevalent during the international Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. The state of international law during the Nazi era did not indicate an illegality of some of the most morally repugnant actions of Nazis at the time, including the Holocaust. Regardless of this fact, many in the international political and judicial community felt that officials in the Nazi regime should be punished for their crimes against humanity. However, not everyone agreed, including Jewish legal scholars, such as United States federal judge Charles Wyzanski Jr., who stressed the violation of the ex post facto principle in several cases during the Nuremberg trials. But perhaps, to many people, the decision to punish Nazis for every morally reprehensible act they committed is necessary and just regardless of the circumstances. If the purpose of law is to punish, prevent future crime, or both, it seems that there are many instances, Weinstein’s included, that could morally merit the application of ex post facto punishment.

Though Judd will not be able to pursue sexual harassment charges against Weinstein, many others are successfully pursuing their cases of sexual assault against Weinstein at a trial in New York in 2019. While many would argue that Weinstein’s harassment of Judd should have been illegal in the first place, it is also possible to recognize the importance of upholding the integrity of the law and the ex post facto principle. As we continue to modify and enhance laws against sexual harassment, one can hope that cases such as Judd’s find proper legal and moral justice in the future.

The Resurgence of Tarot

Photograph of the Moon tarot card propped against a crystal with several other tarot cards arranged in the background

New Age religious practices are on the rise, from neo-paganism to astrology. In 2012, barely more than half of Americans characterized astrology as “unscientific.” Crystal healing and spiritual practices have also made a comeback as a means of individual meditation cobbled from ancient traditions.

Tarot is another practice enjoying a new cultural moment.  It is the inspiration for products sold by GOOP to Dior to Etsy. Tarot card apps abound, including the Golden Thread app which teaches the user the symbolism associated with each card. This fascination is not entirely new – it mirrors the New Age fascination of the 60s and 70s, famously exemplified by Salvator Dali in his Tarot series.

The history of Tarot cards history is somewhat murky. It is speculated that Tarot cards originated as a game akin to contemporary card games. Artist Bill Wolf suggests that the diverse imagery on the cards allowed for creative games where ”the random draw of the cards created a new, unique narrative each and every time the game was played, and the decisions players made influenced the unfolding of that narrative.”

One of the most famous editions of Tarot is the “Motherpeace” version, developed in the 1970s by feminist researchers Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble. The deck depicts feminine figures in ancient mythology and is influenced by the works of Alice Walker. Described by Alice Walker as a “mirror that constantly shows the truest face,” Motherpeace has remained in print since its debut. The appeal of Tarot to second-wave feminism is tied with its emphasis on women’s spirituality. It emphasizes intuition, meditation, and caring spiritual practices as an alternative to institutionalized religious practices that have frequently excluded women, LGTBQ individuals, and other “outsiders” from enjoying equal standing. Tarot similarly enjoys a strong following from the LGTBQ community and people of color.  

Why was Tarot such a recurrent symbol for reclaiming the power of marginalized individuals?  While tarot cards are represented in pop culture as the purview of professional psychics, cards are just as likely to be used by meditation groups, individuals, or friends musing over the twists of daily life over a cup of tea or a tumbler of wine. It is a quintessentially accessible practice that satisfies some need for symbolic representation that institutionalized religion formerly filled for many.

Some of these symbols are less vernacular today than at the time of their composition (hence the proliferation of new editions of the Tarot). The changing decks bear in common that they encourage the reader to see one’s life in more complex ways than one, linear narrative, prompting different possible lenses to one’s current situation. The user learns to develop layered interpretations of seemingly straightforward imagery. While the Death card is notorious in pop culture, its meaning is one of change and transformation rather than intimating literal demise.  

Far from being strictly a divination practice or predicting one’s future, tarot cards are understood as an “invitation to the present moment.”  

Can there be an ethics of Tarot? Taken as a hobby by individuals or among friends, it can be a game or a series of meditation props for evaluating different aspects of life in working through present concerns. The latter could be understood to be a similar practice to meditation, or reading self-help books, but with a randomized approach.  

Professional tarot card readers exist, however. If Tarot cards are essentially random meditative symbols, what sort of services does a paid reader provide?  

People seeking tarot card readers are often at a knotty intersection in their lives, torn about a decision, or stuck in a recurring cycle of behavior. Sometimes they are ravaged by grief or anxiety. In short, people tend to seek out Tarot readers for the same reasons they seek out therapists. But why choose a Tarot reader over a trained therapist? Tarot reader Thom suggests that one reason is economic: most people are not covered by insurance that would enable them to see a therapist for the long-term care that is required to be effective. Thus, Tarot responds to a serious gap in mental health services for many people. While clients pay Tarot readers out of pocket, meetings are often infrequent and reserved for times when the person feels particularly stuck on a question and needs a listening ear.  

Tarot readers typically offer an open and accepting environment and frequently embrace holistic approaches to responding to questions that incorporate the client’s worldview. The use of neutral symbols invites client participation and interpretation, allowing for a more equal power and epistemic dynamic than in a typical clinical situation. A recurring theme among codes of ethics by tarot readers encourages clients to use their own inner guidance. Like therapists, Tarot readers rely on interpersonal skills of listening to clients and helping them to interpret their own narratives through dialogue.  

In some ways, Tarot readers mirror the emotional labour that women often provide informally and without pay, but with remuneration. It is both paid and un-credentialed, and thus occupies a halfway space between the unpaid work characteristic of women, and the accreditation of that labour which demarcates paid caring professions.

The goal of responsible Tarot readers is not to replace professional help for serious concerns. Biddy Tarot emphasizes the importance of referral, sending clients seeking specific answers for health, legal, relationship or financial issues to the appropriate professionals. The ideal Tarot reader seems to offer a safe, confidential and informal space where individuals can talk about their lives in a holistic way. Like the randomness of the cards itself, Tarot readings offer a non-hierarchical approach to finding emotional equilibrium and progress through the unavoidable challenges and joys of daily life.

The Rise of Political Echo Chambers

Photograph of the White House

Anyone who has spent even a little bit of time on the internet is no doubt familiar with its power to spread false information, as well as the insular communities that are built around the sharing of such information. Examples of such groups can readily be found on your social media of choice: anti-vaccination and climate change denial groups abound on Facebook, while groups like the subreddit “The Donald” boast 693,000 subscribers (self-identified as “patriots”) who consistently propagate racist, hateful, and false claims made by Trump and members of the far-right. While the existence of these groups is nothing new, it is worth considering their impact and ethical ramifications as 2019 gets underway.

Theorists have referred to these types of groups as echo chambers, namely groups in which a certain set of viewpoints and beliefs are shared amongst its members, but in such a way that views from outside the group are either paid no attention or actively thought of as misleading. Social media groups are often presented as examples: an anti-vaxx Facebook group, for example, may consist of members who share their views with other members of the group, but either ignore or consider misleading the tremendous amount of evidence that their beliefs are mistaken. These views tend to propagate because the more that one sees that one’s beliefs are shared and repeated (in other words, “echoed back”) the more confident they become that they’re actually correct.

The potential dangers of echo chambers have received a lot of attention recently, with some blaming such groups for contributing to the decrease in rate of parents vaccinating their children, and to increased political partisanship. Philosopher C Thi Nguyen compares echo chambers to “cults,” arguing that their existence can in part explain what appears to be an increasing disregard for the truth. Consider, for example, The Washington Post’s recent report that Trump made 7,645 false or misleading claims since the beginning of his presidency. While some of these claims required more complex fact-checking than others, numerous claims (e.g. that the border wall is already being built, or those concerning the size of his inauguration crowd) are much more easily assessed. The fact that Trump supporters continue to believe and propagate his claims can be partly explained by the existence of echo chambers: if one is a member of a group in which similar views are shared and outside sources are ignored or considered untrustworthy then it is easier to understand how such claims can continue to be believed, even when patently false.

The harms of echo chambers, then, are wide ranging and potentially significant. As a result it would seem that we have an obligation to attempt to break out of any echo chambers we happen to find ourselves in, and to convince others to get out of theirs. Nguyen urges us to attempt to “escape the echo chamber” but emphasizes that doing so might not be easy: members of echo chambers will continue to receive confirmation from those that they trust and share their beliefs, and, because they distrust outside sources of information, will not be persuaded by countervailing evidence.

As 2019 begins, the problem of echo chambers is perhaps getting worse. As a recent Pew Research Center study reports, polarization along partisan lines has been steadily increasing since the beginning of Trump’s presidency on a wide range of issues. Trump’s consistent labeling of numerous news sources and journalists as untrustworthy is clearly contributing to the problem: Trump supporters will be more likely to treat information provided by those sources deemed “fake news” as untrustworthy, and thus will fail to consider contradictory evidence.

So what do we do about the problem of echo chambers? David Robert Grimes at The Guardian suggests that while echo chambers can be comforting – it is nice, after all, to have our beliefs validated and not to have to challenge our convictions – that such comfort hardly outweighs the potential harms. Instead, Grimes suggests that “we need to become more discerning at analysing our sources” and that “we must learn not to cling to something solely because it chimes with our beliefs, and be willing to jettison any notion when it is contradicted by evidence.”

Grimes’ advice is reminiscent of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who considered the type of person who forms beliefs using what he calls a “method of tenacity,” namely someone who sticks to one’s beliefs no matter what. As Peirce notes, such a path is comforting – “When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches,” Peirce says, “it very likely takes the happiest course. It hides the danger, and then calmly says there is no danger; and, if it feels perfectly sure there is none, why should it raise its head to see?” – but nevertheless untenable, as no one can remain an ostrich for very long, and will thus be forced to come into contact with ideas that will ultimately force them to address challenges to their beliefs. Peirce insists that the we instead approach our beliefs scientifically, where “the scientific spirit requires a man to be at all times ready to dump his whole cart-load of beliefs, the moment experience is against them.”

Hopefully 2019 will see more people taking the advice of Grimes and Peirce seriously, and that the comfort of being surrounded by familiar beliefs and not having to perform any critical introspection will no longer win out over a concern for truth.

Aging and Blaming in the Criminal Justice System

Photograph of a long hall of cells with light and a dome at the end

A recent study in the medical journal The Lancet suggests that, if trends hold, 50% of babies born today will live to be over 100 years old.  Though long life is typically thought of as a good thing, some of our ordinary practices may need to change to track philosophical and practical challenges posed by longer life spans.  In particular, we need to reflect on whether our attitudes about blame and punishment need to be adjusted. For example, last year, John “Sonny” Franzese was released from an American prison at the age of 100.  Franzese was sentenced to fifty years for a bank robbery. The unique challenges and philosophical questions posed by extreme old age cast the moral permissibility of incarcerating the elderly into question.

Arguably, we need to think critically about duration of punishment. The criminal justice system in The United States relies heavily on retributivism as a justification for sentencing.  The concept of blame is central to a philosophy of retributivist justice. As an act of retribution, criminals are often given multiple life sentences or are sentenced to a number of years in prison that far exceeds the amount of time that criminal could reasonably expect to be alive. There is room for debate concerning the usefulness of blame as a moral concept.  Supposing, however, that blame is an important evaluative attitude in our moral lives, there is good reason for reflection on whether and under what conditions other moral considerations are more important than whether an agent is morally blameworthy. As lifespans increase, a life sentence becomes a still more serious proposition. At what point, if any, does respect for human dignity outweigh our retributivist concerns to ensure that a blameworthy agent is held responsible for their actions?

Intuitively, regardless of the nature of the crime, there are some upper limits to how long it is appropriate to punish someone.  For example, in his paper Divine Evil, David Lewis points out that it could never be just to punish a person infinitely for a finite crime.  Of course, in the context of the paper, Lewis is arguing that an omnibenevolent God couldn’t sentence a person to an eternity of torment in hell for a finite sin, but the main point here holds.  If human beings were immortal, it would be unjust to hold them in prison forever with no chance of release as punishment for a single crime or series of crimes.  That suggests that there is a time at which continuing to punish a blameworthy person is no longer morally justified. Some countries, like Portugal, Norway, and Spain, don’t sentence convicted criminals to life in prison at all.  In many other European nations, a life sentence always includes the possibility of parole. The understanding seems to be that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is a human rights violation. Even if the United States does not come around to thinking about the issue in this way, as human lifespans continue to get longer, it’s important to identify the point at which punishment is no longer morally permissible.

For retributivism to be justified, our assessments of blame must be apt.  For our judgments of blameworthiness to be apt, it must be the case that we are blaming one and the same person who engaged in the wrongdoing for which they are being blamed.  Increased lifespans muddy the waters of identity judgment. An extremely elderly person may have little to no psychological continuity with the being they were when they engaged in wrongdoing.  In his paper The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality, Bernard Williams argues that if a being were immortal, or even if that being were to live an exceptionally long life, that being would either become extremely bored or would change so much that they would no longer be justified in judging future experiences as their own experiences.  Living a flourishing human life is a matter of setting goals and completing projects.  The kinds of goals we set goes a long way to establishing who we are as people. If we continue to set goals of the same type, Williams argues, we will inevitably get bored.  If we set different goals, we will eventually become totally different people, unrecognizable to our former selves.

Aging criminals aren’t immortal, but as human lifespans continue to increase, it may well be the case that they resemble their former selves in very few respects.  If this is the case, it is far from clear that our identity judgments are justified or that our assessments of blameworthiness are apt. This recognition should also cause us to reevaluate our goals when it comes to punishment.  As prisoners age, should our philosophy of punishment still be retributivism?

If blame is a useful moral concept, it is, at least in part, because a moral community that makes use of blame has a mechanism for encouraging bad actors to change their behavior in the future.  To successfully bring about this change in behavior, it is important that the behavior in question is a salient thread in the life narrative of the wrongdoer. Once enough time has past such that this is no longer true, it’s possible that continuing to blame a wrongdoer no longer serves this important social function in our moral community.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

On Gene Editing, Disease, and Disability

Photo of a piece of paper showing base pairs

On November 29, 2018, MIT Tech Review reported that at Harvard University’s Stem Cell Institute, “IVF doctor and scientist Werner Neuhausser says he plans to begin using CRISPR, the gene-editing tool, to change the DNA code inside sperm cells.” This is the first stage towards gene editing embryos, which is itself a controversial goal, given the debates that rose in response to scientists in China making edits at more advanced stages in fetal development.

Frequently the concern over editing human genes involves issues of justice, such as developing the unchecked power to produce humanity that would exist solely to service some population – for example, organ farming. The moral standing of clones and worries over the dignity of humanity when such power is developed get worked over whenever a new advancement in gene editing is announced.

The response, or the less controversial use of our growing control over genetic offspring, is the potential to cure diseases and improve the quality of life for a number of people. However, this use of genetic intervention may not be as morally unambiguous as it seems at first glance.

Since advanced testing was developed, the debate about the moral status of selective abortion has been fraught. Setting aside the ethics of abortion itself, would choosing to bring a child into the world that does not have a particular illness, syndrome, or condition rather than one that did be an ethical thing for a parent to do? Ethicists are divided.

Some are concerned with the expressive power of such a decision – does making this selection express prejudice against those with the condition or a judgment about the quality of the life that individuals living with the condition experience?

Others are concerned with the practical implications of many people making selections for children without some conditions. It is impractical to imagine that widespread use of such selection would completely eradicate the conditions, and therefore one worry could be that the individuals with conditions in the hypothetical society where widespread selection takes place will be further stigmatized, invisible, or have fewer resources. Also, the prejudice against conditions that involve disability might lead to selections that result in lack of diversity in the human population based on misunderstandings of quality of life.

Of course, on the other side of these discussions is the intuitive preference or obligation for parents or those in charge of raising people in society to promote health and well-being. Medicine is traditionally thought to aim at treating and preventing conditions that deviate from health and wellness; both are complex concepts, to be sure, but preventing disease or creating a society that suffers less from disease seems to fall within the domain of appropriate medical intervention.

How does this advancement in gene editing relate to the debate in selective birth? The Harvard example seeks to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, taking sperm and intervening to prevent disease. Lack of human diversity, pernicious ablest expressive power, and negative impact on those that suffer from the disease are the main concerns with intervening for the purported sake of health.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

The Slave Bible: Editing the Word of God

Photograph of Slave Bible showing the edited Exodus passage

D.C. is home to a variety of museums, but the latest addition, the Museum of the Bible, is a little different from the rest.

The one-year-old museum is home to a variety of exhibits – ancient Cannanite pottery, artifacts from Jerusalem and some experiences tailored toward families. There is an indoor “ride” experience that flies you over religious symbolism in DC and an immersive theatre that tells Bible stories in a unique way.

But the newest exhibit is an “artifact in focus”, a display built around a single item on loan from Fisk University. Unsurprisingly, the artifact is a Bible. Perhaps more surprisingly, it’s not a Bible belonging to anyone famous. Instead, it’s a version from the early 1800s that was used to convert slaves in the Caribbean.

Except this “Slave Bible”, as it is called, has been selectively edited to remove all references that paint slavery in a bad light, while including those that seem to justify or glorify slavery. These decisions were made in order to discourage a slave uprising.

For example, according to Seth Pollinger, director of museum curatorial at the Museum of the Bible, almost all of the book of Exodus is omitted from the Slave Bible. Moses telling Pharaoh “Let my people go” is cut, while the story of the Ten Commandments remains. The entire book of Revelations was also cut because the story as seen as one of “overcoming” which  might inspire some slaves to take action against their masters. 90 percent of the Old Testament and nearly half of the New Testament is missing from the Slave Bible.

Meanwhile, verses that encourage slaves to be obedient remain. So do stories like that of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery.

According to Pollinger, only two other copies of this Bible exist that we know of. It also was not used in the United States.

It is important to note that this Bible was only used by a select group of missionaries. Most missionaries were teaching slaves about Christianity with complete Bibles.

A large portion of the exhibit is dedicated to visitors’ responses. The Museum seems to understand that this lesser-known artifact could lead to all sorts of discussions on religion, history and race.

Interpretations of religious texts have routinely been used to oppress groups throughout history and are still an important tool for various political movements throughout the world. It seems that as long as there is religion, there will be political controversy surrounding it.

But this Slave Bible goes a step deeper than that. It is not simply the case that some missionaries used Bibles to justify slavery. They explicitly omitted portions of the book that would pose problems for the existing political order in the Americas at the time. With this act, there is a sort of subconscious acknowledgement that supporters of all types of slavery would find little moral justification in scripture, and that the book features several messages of liberation and stories of slaves seeking freedom.

The cognitive dissonance is fascinating. These missionaries’ literal mission, if you will, was to preach about faith from a book that featured messages they did not agree with. If the Bible is intended to be the word of God, what is the justification for editing it?

It is clear here that the missionaries’ aims were tied up with the economic and political goals of those overseeing slaves in the Caribbean. By aligning themselves with a despicable social system, missionaries had to ignore the word of God to spread Christianity.

Is Christianity still Christian if over half the Bible is omitted? This is a theological question but also an ethical one. For while slaves were being taught from one version of the Bible, their masters were aware of another.

Slaves mistakenly thought that by learning from this book, they were sharing knowledge and a religious identity with their masters that helped explain why they were slaves. While it should come as no surprise that people practicing slavery would lie to those they are subjugating, it is easy to imagine it never crossing the minds of the slaves who thought they were learning from well-meaning missionaries. This was their first brush with the religion and they were being duped.

History is full of highly questionable religious motivations for political and societal wrongs, but actions as blatantly hypocritical as these can still come as a surprise. It reminds us of the unfortunate power of cherry-picking, especially when it comes to religious texts. While some verses may seem to provide justification for an action, others may seem to condemn it. This is why it is important to keep religious texts intact, so that their message cannot be blatantly misconstrued by acts of omission.

Even without editing, the Bible has been used to justify slavery, segregation, homophobia, and countless other systems and ideologies meant to exclude or oppress groups of people. It has, of course, inspired countless people to engage in acts of kindness as well. While Americans pride themselves on the country’s freedom of religion, personal religious attitudes will still influence political persuasions, and thus, policymaking. It is important to remember that freedom of religion doesn’t mean that the Bible has had no bearing on our politics. It is an integral part of the history of the Americas and remains influential to this day. It is still used to form moral frameworks and to frame ethical questions. Our interpretations may differ, but as the story of the Slave Bible has shown, religious texts can be used as tools of power – for good or for evil.

Self-Care in the Late Capitalist Era

Photo of a lowlit room with candles and a mirror and a bed

As the time for New Year’s resolutions rolls around once more, the term “self-care” is more prevalent than usual. But what really is a “care of the self”?  

For decades, self-care has been associated with women’s empowerment.  In the context of women’s traditional roles as unpaid caregivers, self-care is a radical action: by prioritizing her own needs, a woman affirms that she exists for herself and not merely for others.  Audre Lorde also saw its political potential for individuals marginalized by their race and sexual orientation: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” For people who are typically erased from public life, loving and caring for oneself when society does not is a subversive practice.

The meaning of self-care has gradually come to be associated with enjoying small pleasures in the midst of a busy life, marketed especially to women who still overwhelmingly bear the heavy dual burden of being primary caregivers and workforce labourers. But what happens when late capitalism has permeated the notion of “self-care”, encouraging consumption itself as part of a holistic spiritual practice? Or when a “care of the self” becomes an Instagram label, used to showcase the results of a lip-plumping kit, manicure, or an Insta-filtered and staged $10 macchiato? What philosophy is at stake when magazines and periodicals tout this particular set of soy candles or bespeak aromatherapy or that $2500 per diem psychotherapy and spa program as the self-care du jour?  

Another version of a “care of the self” focuses primarily on bodily wellness. There are positive trends here. The combination of the body acceptance movement with girl power results in a new focus on #strongwomen rather than the thinness ideal long associated with the fashion industry. But some have argued that the #strongnotskinny ideal and its own genre of #fitspo is just as demanding of an ideal for women in its own way as the former, emaciated heroin-chic ideal, despite being a healthier and more rewarding overall goal.  

Even in bodily fitness, consumerist and late-capitalist signifiers of fitness tend to be emphasized over internal measures of physical well-being. Workout clothing has long shifted from repurposed tank tops and sweatpants from the back of one’s closet to a 9.6 billion dollar industry of its own. And the quintessentially American obsession with fitness has led to a series of performative fads, from expensive and restrictive diets that advertise one’s enlightened eating habits to pricey workouts.

But if late capitalism and performing membership of a leisured life have all but subsumed a “care of the self”, what might be an authentic or original version of the concept?  

Michel Foucault explored the Socratic notion of self-care as interlinked with another duty: self-knowledge. The project of self-care for the ancient Greeks, particularly through Socrates, demanded commitment to an ongoing cognitive process – a critical sounding of one’s ideas of oneself and the world. It is only through a relationship to truth-telling via rigorous ”dialectic” (literally, talking or thinking through something) that a person lives up to their own human potential. Socratic dialectic is a pre-modern mode of thought that is not wholly reducible to the scientific mode which relies on an opposition between subject and object to come to “objective” assessments of reality. It falls more under the notion of a “practice” or “techne” in Hellenistic culture.

This cognitive emphasis on self-care is radical for several reasons. It might be tempting, in the context of a biomedical view of the body, to focus on the physical and emotional benefits of learning and of cognitive behavioral therapy. While such effects exist, we could easily become locked in a therapeutic vision that envisions human flourishing and excellence primarily in terms of physiological and emotional factors. Once the parameters of flourishing are so reduced, it is possible to commodify them: the complex of factors constituting physical wellness can be subsumed into ”fitspo” and the richness of emotional lability can be swapped for positivity injunctions of #gratitude, #hygge, and #blessed.  

Instead, ancient notions of self-care invite us to fundamentally revisit our ideas of what constitutes human flourishing. Honest, self-reflective thought is difficult to commodify. As a consequence, a commitment to a discipline of critical thinking that engages oneself and one’s place in the world might represent the most promising subversion of capitalism to date.

This has direct political consequences. Plato would see Socrates’ own death as an exemplary instance of “parrhesia” – speaking one’s truth even when it is costly.  Such disciplined candour is an unavoidably political act in view of the fact that human beings are irreducibly political animals. Audre Lorde’s self-care may be much more appealing to the contemporary reader than Socrates’ — perhaps because self-preservation is a core feature of her version of self-care.  

Some of us today are fortunate enough to live in a society where self-examination and challenging of belief systems do not come at such a high price as that paid by Socrates.  However, late capitalist societies present their own peculiar challenges to self-knowledge where visions of self-fulfillment are daily bought and sold, promised and pursued. This New Year, we might put this meta-resolution at the top of our list: to see how a relentless commitment to truth-seeking can transform our lives and our world.

The Persistent Problem of the Fair Algorithm

photograph of a keyboard and screen displaying code

At first glance, it might appear that the mechanical procedures we use to accomplish such mundane tasks as loan approval, medical triage, actuarial assessment, and employment screening are innocuous. Designing algorithms to process large chunks of data and transform various individual data points into a single output offers a great power in streamlining necessary but burdensome work. Algorithms advise us about how we should read the data and how we should respond. In some cases, they even decide the matter for us.

It isn’t simply that these automated processes are more efficient than humans at performing these computations (emphasizing the relevant data points, removing statistical outliers and anomalies, and weighing competing concerns). Algorithms also hold the promise of removing human error from the equation. A recent study, for example, has identified a tendency for judges on parole boards to become less and less lenient in their sentencing as the day wears on. By removing extraneous factors like these from the decision-making process, an algorithm might be better positioned to deliver justice.

Similarly, another study established the general superiority of mechanical prediction to clinical prediction in various settings from medicine to mental health to education. Clinical predictions were most notably outperformed when a clinical interview was conducted. These findings reinforce the position that algorithms should augment or replace human decision-making, which is often plagued by prejudice and swayed by sentiment.

Despite their great promise, algorithms carry a number of concerns. Chief among these are problems of bias and transparency. Often seen as free from bias, algorithms stand as neutral arbiters, capable of combating long-standing inequalities such as the gender pay-gap or unequal sentencing for minority offenders. But automated tools can just as easily preserve and fortify existing inequalities when introduced to an already discriminatory system. Algorithms used in assigning bond amounts and sentencing underestimated the risk of white defendants while overestimating that of black defendants. Popular image-recognition software reflects significant gender bias. Such processes mirror and thus reinforce extant social bias. The algorithm simply tracks, learns, and then reproduces the patterns that it sees.

Bias can be the result of a non-representative sample size that is too small or too homogenous. But bias can also be the consequence of the kind of data that the algorithm draws on to make its inferences. While discrimination laws are designed to restrict the use of protected categories like age, race, sex, or ability status, an algorithm might learn to use a proxy, like zip codes, that produces equally skewed outcomes.

Similarly, predictive policing — which uses algorithms to predict where a crime is likely to occur and determine how to best deploy police resources — has been criticized as “enabl[ing], or even justify[ing], a high-tech version of racial profiling.” Predictive policing creates risk profiles for individuals on the basis of age, employment history, and social affiliations, but it also creates risk profiles for locations. Feeding the algorithm information which is itself race- and class-based creates a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby continued investigation of Black citizens in urban areas leads to a disproportionate number of arrests. A related worry is that tying police patrol to areas with the highest incidence of reported crime grants less police protection to neighborhoods with large immigrant populations, as foreign-born citizens and non-US citizens are less likely to report crimes.

These concerns of discrimination and bias are further complicated by issues of transparency. The very function the algorithm was meant to serve — computing multiple variables in a way that surpasses human ability — inhibits oversight. It is the algorithm itself which determines how best to model the data and what weights to attach to which factors. The complexity of the computation as well as the use of unsupervised learning — where the algorithm processes data autonomously, as opposed to receiving labelled inputs from a designer — may mean that the human operator cannot parse the algorithm’s rationale and that it will always remain opaque. Given the impenetrable nature of the decision-mechanism, it will be difficult to determine when predictions objectionably rely on group affiliation to render verdicts and who should be accountable when they do.

Related to, but separate from, concerns of oversight are questions of justification: What are we owed in terms of an explanation when we are denied bail, declined for a loan, refused admission to a university, or passed over for a job interview? How much should an algorithm’s owner need to be able to say to justify the algorithm’s decision and what do we have a right to know? One suggestion is that individuals are owed “counterfactual explanations” which highlight the relevant data points that led to the determination and offer ways in which one might change the decision. While this justification would offer recourse, it would not reveal the relative weights the algorithm places on the data nor would a justification be offered for which data points an algorithm considers relevant.

These problems concerning discrimination and transparency share a common root. At bottom, there is no mechanical procedure which would generate an objective standard of fairness. Invariably, the determination of that standard will require the deliberate assignation of different weights to competing moral values: What does it mean to treat like cases alike? Should group membership determine one’s treatment? How should we balance public good and individual privacy? Public safety and discrimination? Utility and individual right?

In the end, our use of algorithms cannot sidestep the task of defining fairness. It cannot resolve these difficult questions, and is not a surrogate for public discourse and debate.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

To Clean or Too Clean? The Problem of Over-Cleanliness

Photograph of a hand drier and a hand sanitizer dispenser attached to a tiled wall

Rubbing hands with hand sanitizer is a frequent habit for many, but are we becoming too clean for our own good? By extension, are we inadvertently creating an environment which is dangerous for children’s developing immune systems? Exploring the ethics of the rise of sanitizing products in our society is necessary in order to determine a healthy balance between taking advantage of antibacterial advancements without overusing these products and limiting our bodies’ exposure to bacteria, and preventing the development of superbugs.  

Over the past few years the discussion surrounding over-cleanliness has risen in prominent news organizations including The New York Times, NBC News, and NPR. Scientists have been researching the effects of taking long showers, changing clothes frequently, and washing hands regularly on our overall health. Microbiologists such as Mary Ruebush are emphasizing that our stringent hygiene routines are having a negative effect on our health, by increasing the risks of developing allergies and weakening our immune systems. This of course, does not mean that by taking a shower every day you are bound to get ill, but rather that the combination and overuse of too many antibacterial products both on your body and in your living environment can wipe out even beneficial bacteria, resulting in a possible compromise to your health.

Over-cleanliness is especially harmful to young children and can be explained using the “Hygiene Hypothesis” developed by epidemiologist David Strachan in 1989. This hypothesis as described in a BBC article, states that exposure to infections early in life provides a strong defense against allergies into adulthood.  Unbeknownst to this knowledge parents are getting stricter about the environments they exposure their children to, unlike previous generations of parents who were more lenient. In August of 2016, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine compared the immune profiles of both Amish children growing up on small family farms to those of Hutterite children who grew up on large industrialized farms. The Amish children lived in a microbe rich environment and due to their increased exposure to factors such as barn dust, had relatively low incidences of asthma. Hutterite children on the other hand, did not display the same low incidence of asthma, illustrating that exposure to diverse microbe populations is beneficial to children’s overall health.

Beyond the benefits of exposure to dust, Jack Gilbert a co-author on the New England study as well as author of the book Dirt is Good argues in an NPR article that parents should allow children to get dirty more frequently. Gilbert’s primary concern is with the immediate sterilization of children after playing outside or with animals. A common example is, “if they’re interacting with a dog, and the dog licks their face, that’s not a bad thing. In reality, that could be extremely beneficial for the child’s health.” In order to minimize his concerns regarding over-cleanliness in modern children’s home environments, Gilbert suggests that parents should protect children by encouraging them to “eat more leafy vegetables, a diet rich in fiber as well as reducing the sugar intake, but generally allowing your kids to experience the world. As long as they are properly vaccinated, there shouldn’t be any threat, and they will actually get a stronger and more beneficial exposure.”

In a world where bacteria are demonized, and products promise to eliminate 99.9% in one quick swipe, parents must become well informed on the adequate amounts of antibacterial soaps, sanitizers, and wipes to use. Firstly, it is essential to remember that not all antibacterial products are harmful for children or adults. An article published in the Chicago Tribune by Brian Sansoni seeks to remind us of the various ways in which antibacterial soaps can be used safely and beneficially by consumers. These soaps, as emphasized by Sansoni, “eliminate bacteria that can lead to skin infections, intestinal illnesses, or other commonly transmitted diseases;” these products are essential in instances of close contact with highly infectious individuals as well as settings of food preparation, particularly in schools. This article is a useful tool in reminding parents, school teachers, and especially health care professionals that responsible use of these products is highly advisable, and the complete dismissal of these important advancements could result in increased disease transmission particularly in places where there are vulnerable individuals.

Finally, understanding the relationship between consistent use of antibacterial soaps and increasing antibacterial resistance is key to the prevention of superbugs. An article from Science in The News at Harvard University explains antibiotic resistance in reference to the additive Triclosan (which is present in most consumer hand soaps and toothpastes). Triclosan has not been proven to be harmful to humans, but there is evidence to suggest it may be contributing to increasing risk of drug resistant bacteria. (For a clear explanation of how Triclosan works, this link provides a helpful diagram.) As a widespread issue this could become harmful if bacteria populations are exposed to Triclosan repeatedly and soon develop mutations to survive the exposure, this could influence the effectiveness of antibiotics prescribed by doctors as well. As this article describes, “limiting the use of Triclosan to only products where it will be most effective could be very important.”

Overall, creating an environment for children where the mantra “Dirt is Good” is counterbalanced by an appreciation for healthcare advancements utilized responsibly is the most effective path to encourage parents to use these antibacterial products sparingly.

Bothsidesism and Why It Matters

Image of many protesters in Charlottesville

In early December, Kelly Craft, the new US ambassador to Canada, stated in an interview that she believes “both sides” of climate science. When asked directly whether that meant that she believed that human-made climate change was a real phenomenon, she stated that “both sides have their own results, from their studies, and I appreciate and respect both sides of the science.” As many pointed out, this position is misinformed: there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that human-made climate change is indeed a real phenomenon; indeed, it was expressed by a recent report conducted by hundreds of scientists from the US itself. This is not to say that there are not unresolved questions about climate change, nor is it to imply that there is universal agreement amongst scientists with regards to the facts about climate change. And there are of course those who continue to deny that climate change is occurring, or occurring for the reasons that scientists have stated. Nevertheless, the mere fact that there are two sides to an issue does not mean that both sides are equally well supported by evidence or that there are no reasons to prefer one side over the other.

Recently, there seems to have been an increase in the amount of, for lack of a better term, bothsidesism. One such instance that many found particularly egregious was Donald Trump’s comment in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests last year that there were “very fine people on both sides,” which many interpreted as Trump lending his support for, or at the very least failing to condemn, white nationalism. More recently, PayPal banned a number of accounts associated with the far-right group Proud Boys, but at the same time also banned accounts belonging to a number of anti-fascist groups. As The Guardian reports, many found PayPal’s grouping together of these two sides as a failure to distinguish between groups that spread hate speech and those that attempt to fight against it. As was the case in the aftermath of Trump’s remarks, PayPal’s actions were interpreted by some as another instance of catering to the interests of the far-right.

Although these cases are different – the first involving Craft’s treating “both sides” of climate science as equally legitimate, and the second involving the equivalent treatment of far-right hate groups and those protesting against them – they have something important in common. In these cases there are, broadly speaking, two sides to some issue. The balance of reason and evidence, however, supports one side over the other: there is overwhelming evidence to believe that human-made climate change is a genuine phenomenon, for example, and overwhelming reason to believe that white nationalist hate groups are morally reprehensible. Bothsidesism occurs, then, when the mere fact that there is more than one side to an issue is, itself, taken to imply that there is a reason to remain agnostic with regards to an issue, or else to imply that both sides are equally worth considering.

We need to be careful here: there are many issues about which there are competing views, and in which it may very well be appropriate to say that one appreciates that there are good arguments on both sides. The problem I have in mind is not like this. Instead, the problem with bothsidesism is that a disagreement is presented as a legitimate one, with both sides deserving equal discussion, simply because there is disagreement, and not because there is, in fact, good reason to consider both sides.

Legitimate disagreements, on the other hand, are driven by a search for the right answer to a question, and so both sides are given careful consideration because one wants to figure out which one is right. Many recent incidents of bothsidesism, however, appear to not be driven by any concern for the truth, but are instead motivated by political or other practical concerns. After Craft’s remarks on climate change, many pointed out that her husband is a multi-millionaire coal magnate, and thus Craft herself is presumably highly motivated to deny the existence of climate change. Critics of Trump after his Charlottesville remarks argued that Trump was trying to prevent the alienation of a key demographic of votes, while critics of PayPal argue that they are motivated by monetary concerns, not wanting to lose users who might have far-right political affiliations.

There are many potentially moral concerns surrounding the kind of bothsidesism considered here. First, there are always potentially bad consequences in spreading misinformation – in these cases, this misinformation involves the implication that both sides are equally well supported by evidence. Second, a consequence of the spread of this information is an emboldening of those holding the minority view. For example, as Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman at The New York Times argued, Trump’s “equating activists protesting racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists” after Charlottesville “buoyed the white nationalist movement.” Continuing to believe that there are equally good arguments on both sides of the climate change debate could have disastrous consequences of its own, as continuing to debate an issue that has received scientific consensus threatens forestalling important actions related to preventing further environmental damage.

Some have proposed that the best way to deal with certain types of bothsidesism is to refuse to engage in debate, thus refusing to give a side that is not worth consideration and kind of consideration at all. For example, in response to a recent report from the UK by Ukip MEP Stuart Agnew denying the existence of climate change, MEP Molly Scott Cato created a petition of “politicians, scientists, academics and campaigners” to pledge to “refuse to debate those who deny that human-made climate change is real.” Cato’s goal is to stop giving a “voice to the pseudoscience of climate change deniers; we must urgently move the debate on to how we address the causes and effects of dangerous climate breakdown.” Refusing to debate the existence of climate change thus prevents climate denial from being given any sort of legitimacy, and thus can prevent the harms associated with failing to take action with regards to climate change.

Again, we should not conclude that there are no legitimate cases in which there are two sides of an issue that deserve equal consideration; nor should we think that it is always appropriate to refuse to engage in debate when we disagree with a minority view. But when views are motivated not by a concern for the truth, or when the motivations behind holding one’s views are morally reprehensible, giving such views equal consideration simply because they are contrarian can be actively harmful.

New Year’s Resolutions and The Problem of Self-Promising

Photograph of an open notebook with a pen on it; written on the notebook is "New Years Resolutions"

For many people, early January provides an opportunity to reflect on the successes and failures of the previous year with an aim to set goals for improving one’s character going forward. Though difficult to trace, the practice of setting ‘New Year’s resolutions’ may have its roots in ancient religious celebrations thanking various gods for their favor and promising continued faithfulness throughout the coming year. Of the many who christen a new calendar with some hopeful ambition, it is estimated that fewer than 10% actually succeed in setting new habits or breaking old ones. I take it for granted that most readers will, in general, agree that promises should be kept – what, then should we think about breaking resolutions? As we look forward to 2019, should we be worried that we might be setting ourselves up for additional moral failures if we similarly neglect the gym, the savings plan, the sleep schedule, or the nicotine patch? In short, is it wrong to break a promise to yourself?

Thomas Hobbes, the English political philosopher (and eponymic inspiration for a certain cartoon stuffed tiger), certainly thought not; in Book II, Chapter 26 of his magisterial 1651 work Leviathan, Hobbes writes, “Nor is it possible for any person to be bound to himselfe [sic]; because he that can bind, can release; and therefore he that is bound to himselfe onely [sic], is not bound.” Because any promise requires both a promise-maker and a promise-receiver – where, in virtue of the promise, the former is bound to act in a particular way with respect to the latter – a case of self-promising is, at best, odd. A promise-receiver is always able to release a promise-maker from their obligation to fulfill the promise, so if the receiver and the maker are one and the same, then promising something to yourself — as in the case of a New Year’s resolution — could never actually be binding. If you (as the maker) no longer wish to fulfill the promise, then you (as the receiver) can automatically release yourself from the obligation.

Consider a promise that Calvin has made to Susie about repaying a debt of two dollars; as the promise-maker, Calvin can only be released from his commitment if Susie, the promise-receiver, chooses to free him. Such is, Hobbes thinks, the function of a promise: it guarantees future action even if the agent desires to do otherwise. If Calvin fails to return the two dollars, then he has committed a moral violation — that is to say, he has done something wrong. But what if Calvin has only made a promise to himself? Say, for example, that Calvin has made a New Year’s resolution to eat a healthy breakfast every day, but finds himself tempted to instead eat a bowl of chocolate cereal sometime during the first week of January. As the promise-receiver, Calvin could simply release himself (as the promise-maker) from the obligation to eat a healthy breakfast and continue on without a moral care. Consequently, the lack of their binding obligation led Hobbes to think that self-promises were simply impossible.

However, several contemporary philosophers aren’t so sure: Derek Parfit has argued that a past version of yourself and a future version of yourself are not exactly the same thing as the present version of yourself, so it is not quite right to say that you are simultaneously promise-maker and promise-receiver — to break a resolution, on this view, is to break a promise made to a historical version of yourself. Connie Rosati contends that self-promises serve as a validation of our sense of personal authority, so to break a resolution is to undermine that which gives us confidence in our general ability to make decisions and exercise our autonomy. Rather than see self-promises as impossible, these views present them as gauges of our sense of self over time.

Most interestingly, in arguing against Hobbes, Allen Habib thinks that the power to release yourself from a reflexive promise actually serves as evidence for the normative power behind promises in general, saying “the possibility of promisee release adds flexibility and power to the practice of promising, and this in turn makes the sorts of arrangements that can be made with promises more subtle and useful.” That is to say: Habib rejects Hobbes’ implicit idea that obligations are only truly obligatory if they are unavoidably binding. What happens if a promise somehow becomes impossible to fulfill (Habib uses the example of a casino burning down on Tuesday after I promise to drive you there on Wednesday)? In such a case, whether the promise-receiver intentionally releases the promise-maker or not, the promise itself has become “orphaned” and, thereby, is no longer binding.

In general, Habib argues that it is actually beneficial to maintain this more flexible view about the contextual features of promises writ large, including in the case of self-promises. So, concerning Calvin’s resolution about healthy breakfasts, his obligation to honor his self-promise might be justifiably jettisoned if the context he finds himself in changes sufficiently (say, if he finds himself trapped inside a chocolate cereal factory with nothing else to eat), but might not justifiably change simply on a whim (at least not without Calvin being guilty of shirking the obligation just as much as he would be guilty towards any other promise-receiver).

So, as we look ahead to 2019, if you are the sort of person who is inclined to commit to a project of self-betterment, then know that you have some philosophical heads supporting you in your quest. And if your resolution involves looking for a few new philosophers to read, then any of the names mentioned in this article would be a good place to start.