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Elizabeth Warren’s Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act

Elizabeth Warren standing on a podium with a stool, speaking to a crowd while holding a microphone

Elizabeth Warren is the first 2020 Democratic presidential contender to date to have already distinctive policy objectives prior to her campaign. One such goal is tackling corruption. With the sitting President undergoing at least 17 known investigations, Warren’s anti-corruption program seems precisely suited to address America’s flagging reputation. America is so far from the days of the investigation of Jimmy Carter’s peanut farm that the former president himself recognizes the US as an oligarchic state. As Alexandria Ocasio Cortez highlighted recently by illustrating the absence of checks on campaign finance, Donald Trump’s administration appears to be a symptom and culmination of system-wide problems rather than a rogue outlier.

Warren’s bill, the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, recently introduced into the House, envisions a comprehensive approach to tackling the institutional structure of corruption in American politics on all fronts: legislative, executive, and judicial.

The anti-corruption bill foresees new institutional avenues for achieving these multi-pronged goals. It envisions a freestanding US Office of Public Integrity, with powers to investigate and inflict penalties for corruption and to invoke the Justice Department for serious transgressions. At the executive level, this office would include an Office of the Public Advocate to aid the public to “meaningfully engage in the rulemaking process across the federal government.” This office would also support lawsuits from private citizens to demand accountability from public agencies and corporations.

Warren’s bill also sets judicial reform in its sights: it would require courts to defer to agency interpretations of laws. It conceives more scrupulous oversight for judicial conflicts of interest, and lays out an agenda to increase the diversity of the federal judiciary.

Warren’s proposal also tackles financial conflicts in matters of public interest, enforcing transparency in research that is funded by corporations, and limiting practices that allow corporations to negotiate rule-making in their favor.

Where Warren’s anti-corruption plan seems to put its greatest emphasis is in tackling lobbying. Warren’s bill calls for the elimination of financial conflicts for public officials and prevention of companies from buying government influence. The president, VP, cabinet members and high-level officials would be barred from lobbying for life.

The bill also proposes a tax on excessive lobbying and corruption penalties to “level the playing field” for government agencies. How did America acquire such a bad reputation for corrupt lobbying practices? Lobbying in itself need not be inherently undemocratic or corrupt. There is nothing a priori wrong with interest groups informing lawmakers on particular issues. Critics argue that lobbying veers into corruption either when it is not transparent, or when moneyed interests start to gain ascendancy and drown out the mêlée of interests that intersect in a pluralist democracy.

Lee Drutman proposes that this has become the case for America’s politics. Businesses account for 95 of the 100 biggest lobbying spenders in US politics. Corporations spend more in lobbying than taxpayers do to run the House and Senate combined. In the wake of Citizens United, which deregulated lobbying even further from its already permissive bounds, 29 large corporations spent millions in lobbying in the years 2008-2010 while paying zero to negative income taxes. In the case of General Electric, this resulted in a 4.7 billion tax rebate in this three-year period alone.

These alliances between corporations and politicians do not rest easy with the American public. Only 6 percent of Americans consider lobbyists to be ethical, which places them at a bottom reputational ranking (to get a sense of context, nurses rate at the top and Congress members rank just above lobbyists). There appears to be a growing divide between voters and politicians as conflicts of interest in politics have reached a tipping point in the Trump regime. Has the US fully devolved into an oligarchy, as former President Carter believes? It remains to be seen whether voters possess the political will to instill measures for greater accountability like those proposed by Senator Warren.

Why We Shouldn’t Have to Have the White History Month Conversation

A close-up photograph of a section of dates on a calendar.

In 1915, Carter G. Woodson, a historian from Harvard University, helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). A little over a decade after the organization’s founding in 1926, the group sponsored Negro History Week, an event where communities across the country would come together to celebrate, host lectures, and conduct performances to commemorate the legacy of African Americans who had broken race barriers and made extraordinary achievements. A little more than thirty years later during the 1960’s, also the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month. To this day, Black History month is a time to recognize the accomplishment of African Americans who helped make the United States what it is today. However, as with every topic regarding race in the United States, there is always controversy, confusion, and opposition. In terms of Black History Month, it is the controversy is between African Americans and their white counterparts. Why is Black History Month so crucial, and what differentiates it from cultural pride? Consequently, why shouldn’t we ask why there is no white history month?

Continue reading “Why We Shouldn’t Have to Have the White History Month Conversation”

Gun Ownership and Suicide: An Overlooked Health Crisis  

A photograph of a gun on a table

Warning: this article contains content, information, and discussion about suicide which may be upsetting to some readers.

If you are in a crisis, help is available.

Mass shootings have become numbingly routine in the United States. When Americans think of gun violence they tend to picture high-profile shootings and the polarizing debates over gun control that follow. Yet, most tragic gun deaths occur in lonely isolation. Of the thousands of people who die by gunshot each year in the United States, suicides make up the majority.

A growing number of people are dying by suicide committed with a firearm and the issue has gone mostly unreported. In a USA Today article, Robert Spitzer, author of The Right to Bear Arms and other books on gun control says, “Gun suicides continue to be kind of an underreported story in the sense that when people think of gun violence, they think of homicides, they think of gangs or mass shooters or personal violence.”

As with gun deaths caused by homicide, accident, and mass shootings, the topic of gun control arises with suicide. Are policies regulating the manufacture, sale, transfer, possession, modification, and use of firearms an effective means of addressing the problem of gun suicide? Studies would say yes. Mandatory purchase delays on handguns have been linked to a reduction in firearm suicides and no corresponding increase in suicide by other means. Further, a cross-sectional study found that states with stronger firearm laws had a lower overall suicide rate (not simply a shift from firearm to non firearm suicide) than states with weaker firearm laws.

Firearm suicide is not limited to adults; in fact, there has been an increase in firearm suicide by youth in recent years. A January 17, 2019 study found a strong association between the prevalence of household gun ownership and the overall youth suicide rate at the state level. “For each 10 percentage-point increase in household gun ownership, the youth suicide rate increased by 26.9%.” More guns lying around means a greater risk of young people falling victim to suicide. States with Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws, which require guns to be stored in a manner that prevents unauthorized access by young people, reported overall youth suicide rates eight percent lower than states without CAP laws.

While suicide is complicated and many risk factors can play a role in the decision to carry out an attempt, evidence suggests that preventing access to firearms is one effective method of reducing overall suicide rates because, of all suicide methods, firearms are the most lethal. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that most suicides tend to be impulsive (occurring with little planning or forethought) and are a reaction to immediate stressors: “As the acute phase of the crisis passes, so does the urge to attempt suicide.” Reducing exposure to lethal means, even temporarily, can prevent suicide by reducing one’s ability to carry out an attempt. Even if someone decides to substitute a different means, they are more likely to survive a less lethal attempt. This is significant because 90% of attempt survivors will not go on to die by suicide.  

Despite the fact that gun control legislation is a fiercely debated topic within the U.S., an unlikely partnership between the medical community and gun industry is emerging in an attempt to address the issue of firearm suicide. A growing number of gun dealers, firearm instructors, and range owners are working with mental health professionals to produce educational campaigns geared toward making people more aware and comfortable talking about guns and suicide.

Programs like the New Hampshire based Gun Shop Project have created training modules that educate gun shops workers on how to spot and help potentially suicidal customers. The suicide prevention coordinator for Washington County, Utah has helped create public service announcements encouraging the family and friends of those in an emotional crisis to talk to their loved one about temporarily storing firearms away from home. Even the Firearms Industry Trade Association has released statements working to help prevent suicide by firearm. While the effectiveness of such educational programs has not been studied, Brian Mann of NPR says, “the debate over guns and violence in America is really polarized, and this is a rare collaboration. Supporters hope voluntary education and outreach will save lives.”

Media attention surrounding high-profile mass shootings and firearm homicide have focused the ongoing debate about gun control policies in the U.S. around the prevention of such tragedies. While these are issues that must be addressed, suicides make up nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths in the U.S. and the nation ranks second internationally for the highest worldwide gun suicide rate. For America to most effectively move forward with efforts to reduce gun violence, adequate attention must be given to suicide prevention.  

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention  Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 OR Text SIGNS to 741741 for 24/7, anonymous, free crisis counseling.

Death by State? The Country Discusses Abolition of Capital Punishment

image of two adjoining prison cells

Many Netflix viewers in recent weeks have familiarized themselves with the details of a set of notorious crimes committed by a criminal executed by the state of Florida in the 1980’s. The Ted Bundy Tapes tells the story of the life and crimes of Theodore Robert Bundy, a depraved serial killer who raped, tortured, and killed women and engaged in necrophilic acts with their bodies. A case like Bundy’s is just the kind of case that motivates supporters of the death penalty in their arguments for the claim that capital punishment is a moral necessity.

The series includes footage of the day Bundy was executed. Thousands of people celebrated outside of Florida State Prison. Street vendors sold electric chair lapel pins and t-shirts that read “Burn Bundy burn!”—a phrase that the crowds chanted at fever pitch while setting off fireworks nearby. Spectators held signs scrawled upon with phrases like “Toast Ted!” and “Crank up Old Sparky!” When asked about the spectacle, Bundy replied, “They’re crazy!  They think I’m crazy, listen to all of them!” The scene was not unlike the one that Charles Dickens described witnessing at the execution of François Courvoisier in 1840: “No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes … It was so loathsome, pitiful and vile a sight, that the law appeared to be as bad as he, or worse.”

These cases motivate reflection on the role that emotion plays in this most severe of punishments. Emotions spike in response to acts of senseless violence and depravity. If this happens at the level of community spectators, might there also be intense emotion in place at other stages of the criminal proceedings? What level of emotion is appropriate? What kind of emotion is appropriate, and directed toward whom? It may be that moral judgments always involve a certain amount of sentiment. Indeed, some moral philosophers have argued that moral judgments are nothing more than expressions of sentiment. On the other hand, it is uncontroversial that emotions sometimes cloud our better judgment. What’s more, not all emotions are created equal, and empathy may well count for much more than anger.

Public support for the death penalty has diminished significantly over the years, with rates of approval dropping from 80 percent in the 90’s to 56 percent as reported by Gallup in 2018. In the past year, several states have considered repeal of the death penalty. In 2018, abolition was considered by Washington, Utah, New Hampshire, and Louisiana. In 2014, the governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in the state, claiming that its inconsistent and unequal application made retaining the form of punishment morally and legally indefensible. In October of 2018, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty, as applied in the state of Washington is arbitrary and capricious and racially biased, and that as such it is inconsistent with Article I, section 14 of the Washington State Constitution. The court made use of a study produced by researchers at The University of Washington titled “The Role of Race in Washington State Capital Sentencing 1981-2014”.  The study concluded that “black defendants were four and a half times more likely to be sentenced to death than similarly situated white defendants.” Earlier this month, the Washington State Senate reinforced the reasoning of the court when they passed a measure to repeal the death penalty. The bill now advances to the House. On February 14 of this year, the proposed repeal of the death penalty in Wyoming failed in the Senate.

The United States has been engaged in a conversation about issues related to state-sanctioned killing as punishment for as long as the nation has existed. Recently, arguments for repeal have focused on racial bias, cost, the proper relationship between the government and its citizens, and the possibility of executing innocent people. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty after a national moratorium in 1973, 165 death row inmates have been exonerated.

One of the central arguments in support of the death penalty has to do with retributive justice—a moral commitment to make sure that a criminal “gets what they deserve.” According to this argument, some crimes—like those that Bundy committed—are so heinous that the perpetrators deserve to lose their lives as punishment. On this view, the death penalty is a basic requirement of justice. One of the primary moral obligations of a state’s criminal justice system is to achieve justice for victims and their loved ones. If this is the case, the state is not merely permitted to execute perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, they are morally obligated to do so. Those that hold this view would likely argue, for example, that if the state of Florida failed to execute Ted Bundy, that failure would count as a serious miscarriage of justice and dereliction of duty.

This argument raises a series of questions, many of which focus on the idea that imposition of the death penalty is not merely permitted, but is actually required. This claim seems to rest on the idea that the obligation that the state owes to victims of crimes is unique and morally privileged. There are considerations that speak in favor of this idea. Many philosophers argue that the feature that makes persons distinct from non-persons is their capacity to make autonomous decisions. When people commit crimes, those crimes almost always involve violations of autonomy. In the most heinous cases—like cases of murder—the crimes involve the annihilation of the person and the autonomy that makes them one. If autonomy is highly valued by our society, as it should be, then perhaps it makes sense to place justice for victims and their families high on the list of moral priorities. Add to this the pain and suffering experienced by the loved ones that the victims left behind, and we are left with a powerful argument for giving special moral consideration to victims. These considerations are paired with a perceived (and possibly real) obligation arising from intuitions both common and strong—it is unfair when bad things happen to good people, and when those bad things are freely caused by a bad person, bad things should happen to that person. One might think that this is an issue of fairness.

Even if the state’s obligations to victims and their families is important, it is worth asking whether those obligations override the State’s other important obligations. Death penalty cases are exceptionally expensive. In earlier discussions of repealing the death penalty, Washington legislators considered the fact that capital cases cost the state at least $1 million dollars more than non-capital cases. Presumably, these funds could be used for other crucial state expenses. Even if we concede that the death penalty achieves justice for the families of victims, does the state’s obligation to achieve that justice really supersede other state obligations? Given that the offender has already been apprehended and faces life in prison, would the money be better spent on schools, roads, or health care?

Another crucial question to resolve is exactly what should count as evidence against the permissibility of the death penalty. Washington made use of research indicating racial bias within the state. Should other states with similar or identical policies and practices take that same study as evidence that their policy is susceptible to racial bias? Or is any policy potentially subject to racial bias and does the moral permissibility of the policy turn on the demographics and attitudes of the particular area in question? Are all states morally obligated to be proactive in conducting research about their own communities?
 Should evidence that a single person on death row is innocent count as evidence of the inevitably error-prone nature of the system, and should that evidence suggest that we should abolish the death penalty? How many errors are we willing to let slide?
Lack of agreement on these initial framing questions may explain why the national conversations about this issue have been prolonged and frequently unproductive.

Antinatalism: The Tragedy of Being Born

A baby's hand holding a daffodil petal

On February 7th, Mumbai business executive Raphael Samuel made international headlines by indicating his intent to sue his parents for causing his life. Samuel explained that his parents’ decision to procreate was purely in their own self-interest and never accounted for the likelihood of suffering that he would later endure; just like how he might sue someone for causing him physical and mental distress, Samuel believes that his parents’ choice to give birth to him led to essentially the same result as if he had been kidnapped: he was forced to go somewhere against his will. Although he has been unable to find a lawyer to represent him and no judge has indicated a willingness to hear the case, Samuel insists that he is mostly concerned with making a public statement to underline his belief that procreation is not necessarily a good thing – and this is also why he plans to sue his parents for only one dollar.

Samuel affirms what’s known as ‘antinatalism,’ a philosophical position which contends that it is always, in principle, wrong to procreate. Though antinatalism can take a variety of forms, a common threadline amongst its defenders is not simply that an increased population overstresses the environment or that giving birth to people leads to problems for others down the line, but rather that it is bad for the person who is born that they are born – that is to say, antinatalism argues that birth is an inherent harm, not merely an instrumental one.

In the words of philosopher David Benatar, life is “permeated by badness” to a degree that irrevocably tips the scale against any possible assessment in its favor; despite being filled with pleasurable experiences and beautiful things, the world is also home to (literally) every kind of evil and pain – to force someone into such an arena against their will is to expose them to possible goods, but guaranteed harms. Of course, death is also a harm, so Benatar insists that it is only morally permissible to perpetuate a life, not to cause one to either begin or end.

Samuel is also concerned about the impact of humanity on other species; as he told the BBC, “There’s no point to humanity. So many people are suffering. If humanity is extinct, Earth and animals would be happier. They’ll certainly be better off. Also no human will then suffer. Human existence is totally pointless.” By 2050, Samuel’s home country of India alone is predicted to have nearly 1.7 billion residents, a threatening problem that has sparked national conversations about government policies to curtail overpopulation. In Samuel’s mind, antinatalism could serve a functional role to better manage the limited resources of an already-crowded globe.

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published a paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons” where he argued that rational agents acting in their own self-interest could easily deplete a shared resource of limited size (for it always makes sense to each individual to take a little bit more, despite the eventual burden placed on the system as a whole). Particularly as questions of climate change, sustainability, and overpopulation loom in the contemporary discourse, Hardin’s illustration of a hillside laid barren by nothing but rational choices resonates more than many would care to admit.

So, although it is unlikely that many will find Raphael Samuel’s nihilistic doctrine or David Benatar’s anti-birth philosophy attractive in itself, a second look at the antinatalist thesis might make more sense than people initially think – even if it might make for some awkward tension at your next family gathering.

Unpacking the Tactic of Shutting Down the Government

A woman holding a sign that says "stop the shutdown"

800,000 federal employees furloughed, $5.7 billion demanded, and $11 billion of the American economy wasted over 35 days. These numbers dominated headlines in January as President Donald Trump entered a stalemate with Congress that launched the U.S. into its longest ever government shutdown. The stalemate occurred when Trump demanded that funding for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico (one of Trump’s campaign promises) be included in an end-of-the-year Congressional appropriations bill. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives swiftly shut down this demand, to which Trump responded by partially shutting down the federal government, putting 800,000 federal employees out of work: that is, 380,000 employees could not go to work, and another 420,000 were considered “essential” employees and had to work without pay. Vital government services were disrupted including the TSA, National Park Service, and Coast Guard. This shutdown lasted 35 days, costing the American economy about $11 billion and 0.2% of the nation’s GDP during the first fiscal quarter of 2019.

While Trump remains adamant about acquiring funding for his border wall, the American people seem uncomfortable with using a government shutdown to do so. In a CBS News poll, 70% of Americans did not believe the U.S.-Mexico border wall to be an issue worth shutting down the government for, and in a different poll, 53% of Americans blamed Trump for the shutdown. From these numbers, it is clear that the American people are not supportive of shutting down the government for a border wall, but how can government shutdowns be assessed as a political tactic in general? Is it ever ethical to shut down the government in order to reach certain political means, despite widespread public disapproval? To more accurately weigh this question, it is imperative to step away from partisan language, which can be done by comparing Trump’s shutdown to another shutdown that occurred under a Democratic administration: the government shutdown of 2013.

From October 1 to October 17 of 2013, the federal government was shut down under President Barack Obama over disagreements about the federal budget for the 2014 fiscal year. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives refused to adopt a budget that included funding for the implementation of one of Obama’s benchmark policy achievements, the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). While the 2018-19 shutdown was almost twice as long, this shutdown occurred before funding for many more federal services could be secured in the year, meaning the shutdown cost a lot more for the American economy. In fact, it cost over twice as much at $24 billion. The government opened back up after 16 days when Congress compromised on a bill that included Obamacare funding, but ensured stricter income verification rules for those trying to access health insurance exchanges.

To wade through heavy partisanship, these two shutdowns must be compared by their objective facts. Firstly, both of these shutdowns put about the same number of people out of work: 800,000. Additionally, while the 2013 shutdown cost significantly more than the one in 2018-19, it’s difficult to dispute that both shutdowns were incredibly costly to the American economy. By these facts, and the history of American government shutdowns in general, government shutdowns can be accurately described as wasteful, expensive, and harmful to many American workers, and the American public realizes this. As stated earlier, 70% of Americans disapprove of the most recent shutdown, and even more (81%) disapproved of the shutdown in 2013. What is more concerning is the fact that these shutdowns have become longer-lasting in recent decades. In the past 10 years, the government has been shut down for a total 55 days, as opposed to 29 days in the 1990s, and 14 days in the 1980s. Not to mention, government shutdowns almost never achieve their intended purpose. The 2013 shutdown failed to block Obamacare funding, and Trump had to use executive action to acquire funding for his border wall rather than successfully working with Congress to pass a bill into law. The American public sees the failures of government shutdowns, with seven in every ten Americans saying that shutting down the government is not an effective strategy for reaching policy solutions. With such low popularity and chances for success, why do politicians continue to utilize shutdowns? Is it ever permissible to shut down the government? Under what circumstances might a government shutdown be an effective tool?

While the causes of shutting down the government are variable, the effects seem to be the same: great cost to the U.S. economy, hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed, and an American public that is even more distrustful of government. Therefore, because the duty of the government is to help provide for the welfare of its people, it must be weighed what will bring more welfare to more people, or rather, what will bring less harm to fewer people. In the case of 2013, it was argued by congressional Republicans that Obamacare would limit individual freedom and collapse the American economy. So, they temporarily sacrificed the welfare of some for what, in their eyes, would be the prolonged welfare of many. Similar logic followed with the shutdown of 2018-19. Trump holds that there is a national security crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, claiming that many of the illegal drugs in the U.S. come from Mexico over the border, and that thousands of violent criminals enter the U.S. via illegal border crossings. Subsequently, he ordered a government shutdown because he is convinced that the temporary setbacks caused by a shutdown are worth preventing what he perceives as a national security crisis at the border.

However, whether or not an issue is worthy of a shutdown is dependent upon how one prioritizes national concerns. For instance, while Trump believes there is a security threat at the border, congressional Democrats see this threat as minimal, if there is even a threat at all, and do not see a border wall as an effective way to alleviate this threat. More central to the issue of government shutdowns in general, however, is how one defines “welfare of the people” as the government is supposed to provide. Trump and other border hawks may define welfare as security and protection of a nation’s citizens and adopt policies in line with what they believe will fulfill that definition. Alternately, Obama and Democrats may define welfare as a right to health under any circumstances, which would justify their push for the Affordable Care Act. Regardless of partisan alliances, shutting down the government is a drastic measure that should be reserved for drastic issues. The core of the debate lies in what one defines as a “drastic” issue.


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.

In Colorado, The Right to Comprehensive Sex Education

A photograph of the Colorado Capitol Building in Denver, with green grass and blue sky

On January 30th, 12-year old Moira Lees testified at the Colorado Capitol in favor of HB19-1032, the new bill centered around sex education for public schools in Colorado. Moira was one of at least six other students who testified in support of the new bill. She bravely talked about how she wished that they taught what consensual relationships are at her own middle school. Consent was just one of the topics presenting in the new sex-education bill for Colorado which was an updated version of a sex education bill from 2013.  

In 2013, the General Assembly of Colorado revised a 2007 law on comprehensive sex education in public schools. This new law said that students had the right to a curriculum that was age appropriate, medically accurate, culturally sensitive to LGBT and disabled individuals, and must include information about safe relationships and sexual violence. However, schools were able to find loopholes in the bill. Schools that wanted to offer an abstinence-only curriculum could contract with non-profit groups and would provide the abstinence only education on school grounds on the weekends. Another loophole allowed charter schools to teach their own versions of human sexuality that often didn’t meet state standards. These loopholes were motivation behind the new bill, HB19-1032 that was testified for on January 30th.

The new bill proposes to get rid of abstinence-only education but most paramount, it teaches consent in sexual relationships. Susan Lontine (D-Denver), the bill’s proposer, says that the bill describes “how to communicate consent, recognize communication of consent, and recognize withdrawal of consent.”  This was one of the least discussed topics during the 10-hour long testimony, mostly because it was one of the unanimously agreed upon topics. Centennial Institute Director Jeff Hunt is a critic of the bill but agrees with the consent portion and believes that people of faith also support it. Hunt states that the lengthy testimony was centered more around debate of topics that should be openers for family discussion about values as opposed to public school curriculum.

Another important part of the bill is that the curriculum will have open lessons about human sexuality. The bill opens with a survey form 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey that states 9.6% of females and 18.5% of LGBT-identifying kids have felt physically forced into sexual relationships against their will. “These statistics reflect a dire need for all Colorado youth to have access to comprehensive human sexuality education that teaches consent, hallmarks of safe and healthy relationships, self-acceptance, and respect for others,” according to HB19-1032. Lessons about human sexuality cannot be “explicitly or implicitly” endorsing religious ideology and shame-based language should not be used.

Those opposed to HB19-1032 worry that parents would not have full knowledge of the information that their children are receiving, according to Jeff Hays, GOP Chairman. The bill states that parents would be notified about human sexuality classes and given the option to remove their children but would not be notified about the specific lesson plans. Colorado Catholic Conference worries that the teachings will stigmatize Catholic beliefs and will teach children that the church’s values regarding sex, relationships, and gender are wrong. Also under review is that currently HB-19-1032 does not require schools to tell students about “safe haven laws” which allows a parent to turn over a newborn less than 72 hours to any fire station or hospital with no questions asked, in order to protect the lives of newborns. If HB19-1032 is passed, schools would have to choose between teaching this new curriculum or teaching nothing at all on the matter.

At the heart of the debate regarding HB19-1032 is a question about the purpose of childhood education and how sex education supports those goals. According to philosopher Joel Feinberg, education is a part of the “right to an open future” and enables children to gain the knowledge, skills and tools, to shape their own individual life plans. The goal of sex education is for students to learn about sex and sexuality to gain skills for healthy relationships and manage one’s own sexual health. However, the question of the matter resides in if schools owe it to children to teach sex education in a comprehensive manner.  

Not teaching children on comprehensive sex education to the extent that bill HB19-1032 does could cripple youth’s ability to exercise their current and future sexual rights. Having sexual rights is to have one’s control over their own body and sexuality without violence, coercion, and intimidation. Without education on the subject, students could be exposed to additional harm including assault, sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancies. This bill is unique in that it addresses many aspects of “traditional” sex education like the biological aspects of sex but it also dives deeper into the social aspects.

The need for sex education corresponds to our developmental stages, according to Sigmund Freud and other developmental psychologists. During adolescence (twelve to eighteen years old) a major task is the creation of a stable identity and becoming a productive adult. Dramatic changes occur that lead to increased opportunities to engage in risky behaviors like sexual promiscuity. Adolescents are novices in reflective cognitive thinking which is why education on risky behavior, like sex education, is important at this stage of development.

But a government-mandated sexual education program feels, to some parents, like a violation of their autonomy. Some parents want to be a part of the discussions revolving around these topics, in order to talk about family values and have open discussions. There is the fear that when the state regulates this curriculum, it takes away from the parent’s say in the matter. At the same time, without this regulation, teachers could have full freedom to teach as they please on the course matter. Without regulation, teachers would have the opportunity to teach their own code of sexual ethics.

Kids are under more influence than ever about what is deemed as “acceptable” sexual behavior in society, from mass media to their friends, family, and religious expectations. With these added pressures, it is more important than ever for legislation like bill HB19-1032 to define to what extent teachers, schools, and the government have responsibility in teachings students about sex education.


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.

Esquire and the Life of an American Boy

Sculpture of Esquire magazine's logo

This month Esquire magazine published an article titled “The Life of an American Boy at 17” on their website. It profiles the day-to-day of a white, male teenager from Wisconsin named Ryan, who seems to have a life similar to many other white, male teenagers from Wisconsin: his routine consists of getting up early to work, going to school, hanging out with friends and his girlfriend, and playing videogames. When asked about various social and political issues he expresses his beliefs, although it’s not clear how well he has them worked out (when asked what he thought about the #metoo movement, for example, he responded “I’ve heard of that…What does it mean again?”). All in all, the article profiles what appears to be an average, not terribly politically engaged or well-informed teenager.

The response to the article, however, has been more than mere frustration at its lack of content. One criticism is that it was a questionable choice on Esquire’s behalf to present a profile of a white teenager during Black History month. This is not to say that there must be a moratorium on stories about white people during the entirety of February, nor is it to say that a profile on what it means to grow up as a white male teenager in the current political climate would not be worthwhile. However, since the profile is presented as the first of a series on growing up in America from the perspective of many different types of people – “white, black, LGBTQ, female” according to Esquire’s editor Jay Fielden –  the choice to present this particular profile first, and during Black History month, struck some as tone-deaf.

Others criticized Esquire for portraying the profile’s subject as a victim of political correctness: in response to saying that he supported Trump, for example, Ryan lamented that “Last year was really bad…I couldn’t say anything without pissing someone off.” As many online responded, given the challenges faced by members of the other groups that Esquire will ostensibly profile in the future, the fear of “pissing someone off” is pretty small potatoes. “Finally, the representation we’ve been waiting for” expressed one popular Tweet in response to pictures from the Esquire piece, one in which the profiled subject is holding a hunting rifle: “magazine covers are very important and powerful real estate…they empower those that feel reflected…and the people who see this don’t super need to feel empowered right now! Especially the ones with guns!!!”

In a defense of the piece, however, Fielden explains what he takes to be serious issues facing people like Ryan today, as well as his own children:

We disagree as a country on every possible cultural and political point except, perhaps, one: that private life, as a result, has also become its own fresh hell. This has made the very social fabric of modern democratic civilization – watercooler BS, chats with cabbies and total strangers, dinner parties, large family gatherings – sometimes feel like a Kafkaesque thought-police nightmare of paranoia and nausea, in which you might accidentally say what you really believe and get burned at the stake. A crackling debate used to be as important an ingredient of a memorable night out as what was served and who else was there. People sometimes even argued a position they might not have totally agreed with, partly for the thrilling intellectual exercise playing devil’s advocate can be, but mostly for the drunken hell of it. Being intellectually puritanical was considered backward. More often than not, it was all a lot of fun.

Fielden’s worries seem to be the following: in such a partisan climate one must be constantly on their guard about the kinds of beliefs they express, lest they be chastised by those who disagree, whereas perhaps in a different time people may not have been so worried about offending others, and so felt much more free to express their beliefs (no matter how potentially offensive). Dealing with this climate must be particularly difficult for teenagers, Fieldman goes on to claim, and especially white teenage boys, who need to wrestle with concepts like “#MeToo, gender fluidity, Black Lives Matter, ‘check your privilege,’ and #TheFutureIsFemale.”

While the kinds of concerns expressed by Fielden and Ryan are readily found online, it’s not clear how warranted they are. The worries that Fielden expresses above, for example, border on hyperbole: despite his portrayal of a “Kafkaesque thought-police nightmare,” dinner parties full of enjoyable conversation and arguments are alive and well, and people do, in fact, continue to “BS” around the watercooler. Fielden is perhaps correct that society has started to take the kind of talk that used to be dismissed as inconsequential more seriously, but it seems that, if anything, this is a change for the better, not the beginning of a slide into some 1984-style dystopia. (For example, one is reminded of Trump’s claim that his infamous remarks about where he felt entitled to grab women was simply “locker [room] talk”: while Trump was no doubt correct that there does occur locker room talk with similarly vulgar content, society moving in a direction in which such talk ceases to exists hardly seems lamentable.)

Part of the problem with Fielden’s concerns that Ryan is being unduly censored for expressing his political views is that he does not seem to have given those views too much thought. From the article:

The most popular opinion at [Ryan’s high school] West Bend seemed to be anti-Trump. Ryan, raised in Republican households, was surprised by the vitriol. “Everyone hates me because I support Trump?” he says. “I couldn’t debate anyone without being shut down and called names. Like, what did I do wrong?” […] I also ask him about Trump’s reputation as a misogynist.  “He is respectful towards his wife, as far as I know,” he says. “I don’t think he is racist or sexist.”

Ryan is certainly not alone is not being as informed about his beliefs as he could be. But if one expresses a political opinion without an adequate understanding of why one holds it then it does not seem like a bad thing that they should be taken to task for it. If this is what those like Fielden and Ryan are worried about – the loss of the ability to express one’s views no matter how well-supported without being challenged – then these worries seem to be misplaced.

We’ve seen that there do seem to be good reasons to be concerned with both the timing of Esquire’s profile, as well as the way in which an average white, male, American teenager is portrayed as a victim for his political views. Perhaps one thing we can take away from the article, then, is that instead of society becoming more “intellectually puritanical,” as Fielden puts it, we should consider it progress that people are starting to prefer that their “crackling debates” and watercooler conversations start from a more informed position.

Considering the Consequences: Withdrawing from the INF Treaty

Photograph of Reagan and Gorbachev shaking hands and holding a document

In a very dramatic speech on February 1, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the US is suspending its obligations under the INF Treaty effective February 2 due to Russia’s continuous violation of the Article XV of the treaty, which obligates parties “not to produce, possess, or flight-test a ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile system with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.” Russia followed the US decision just hours after the Secretary Pompeo’s speech.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 in order to prevent both the US and then the Soviet Union from developing an entire class of nuclear weapons, leading to a gradual removal and destruction of more than 2600 missiles. The Treaty was celebrated as one of the most advanced and consequential agreements between the two world powers that aimed to bring more security to the North Atlantic Area, and most importantly to calm down the tensions caused by the Cold War. The purpose of these missiles was to threaten the possibility of nuclear war in Europe, as they were not easily noticeable on radars due to their short flight times and unpredictable flight patterns. Notably, this treaty was not only important for Europe, as it also imposed a ban on using “all types of ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles” anywhere in the world.

The US has first warned about Russia’s violation of the treaty in 2014, and since then has been imposing various policies and sanctions trying to leverage Russia to comply with the treaty. Russia has rebutted those claims, asking that the US provides evidence, while also giving a list of US violations. As time passed the US allies started to increasingly align with the US assessment and ultimately “concluded that Russia has developed and fielded a missile system.” The Euro-American front seemed to be clear in their position towards Russia, but some of the first reactions coming from Europe seem hesitant to completely side with President Trump, as most of those countries view this treaty as a pillar of their security architecture. Several questions arise after the withdrawing from the treaty: what are the major consequences of the withdrawal, and was the decision to withdraw more opportune then the policy of trying to leverage Russia back to compliance?

The array of consequences are still debated, especially the results of this decision on the peace and security in the world. America’s European allies have already expressed their disaffection with President Trump’s decision as they fear that Russia is once again going to be able to target all parts of the European territory. Another fear also accompanies that of the Russian attack: the decoupling of US and European security. European allies have relied for a long time on US interest in keeping Europe safe, but President Trump has often emphasized that this responsibility is now on Europeans themselves. The transatlantic area has been under a strain for a quite some time, and the withdrawal is going to provide just another kick in the already tense relationship. There is a lot of discussion on whether NATO is going to be able to balance between the allies as the new challenges arise, but the next steps have yet to be seen.

Another important factor is that the US will now be free to develop intermediate range missiles as a deterrence mechanism against China, but this might also indicate a beginning of a new arms race. China has not been part of the INF, and as such was not restrained to develop intermediate-range missiles which led to China’s missile arsenal consisting of approximately 95% of intermediate-range systems. However, the fact remains that if US and China commence the arms race, the chances of a potential new INF treaty that would include China, Russia, and European allies seems less likely especially as the US will need to ensure support both from Europeans and Russians in order to compel China to join.

The previous administration pursued the approach of targeted policy and sanctions to try to convince Russia to get back to compliance to the INF Treaty. Although this approach did not result in Russia’s policy reversal and decision to comply, one question remains open: why did the US withdraw without a readily available alternative, and would remaining a party to the treaty make any future negotiations easier? In case of the START I Treaty, Russia and US readily replaced the expiring treaty with its refreshed version New START, just half a year after its expiry. Exiting the treaty obligations while the treaty was still in force, despite the fact it had been violated by one party, makes it much harder to renegotiate as it opens space for potential disagreements on things that the previous agreement had established and clarified, and most importantly allows for a period of arms race before any new potential agreement is reached. Consequently, one must take into account the long lasting process that goes into negotiating any kind of arms deal, especially between two world powers. In evaluating the consequences of the withdrawal one ought to take into account the possibility of renegotiating the status quo.

The full range of consequences of the US and Russian withdrawal are not yet clear, but we can only hope that we are not going to repeat the mistakes of our past.

The Perils of Globalizing Mental Health

Photograph of 1944 poster that says "mental health is your concern"

In an age where self-care is a commonly touted virtue, it’s easy to take for granted what a recent development the gradual de-stigmatization of mental illness is. Celebrities constantly come forward with harrowing stories of struggle and recovery, pop-psychology blogs and websites abound, and every day we see more open and honest discussions about the foundations of and treatment options for mental illness.

Perhaps the globalization of this phenomenon is even more surprising. Mental health has truly become a global concern, with researchers and psychiatrists from a diverse array of cultural backgrounds contributing to our understanding of mental illness. Counseling is now considered an essential part of post-disaster relief packages, trauma being an assumed result of natural disasters. In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Indonesia in October of 2018, for one recent example, clinical psychiatrists and trained volunteers were deployed by the World Health Organization to administer psychological first aid. These changes seem to signify the end of stigma, indicating more effective approaches to treating nebulous and painful conditions that afflict people around the world.

But despite the growing global concern over mental illness, the West still acts as a dominant force in the discourse around mental health. The DSM, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a handbook of symptoms and treatment options for mental illnesses compiled by the American Psychiatric Association, is considered the gold standard for diagnosing mental illness around the globe.

We rarely stop to ask whether or not applying American understandings of mental health can have a detrimental effect on the way mental illness is treated in non-Western cultures. Our culture has come to consider conditions like depression and schizophrenia solely through a biomedical lens, as illnesses entirely dependent on a complex set of neurological misfirings rather than cultural causes.

But in his book Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, Ethan Watters examines the ways in which the biomedical approach taken by Western psychiatry can have a negative effect on those suffering from mental illnesses in places with different understandings of what it means to have a unified sense of self. He argues that importing Western cures for mental illness, which are deeply rooted in our own cultural mores, to other nations is unethical.

Watters distinguishes between the pathoplastic and pathogenic causes of mental illness. Mental illnesses don’t function in the same way that diseases like cancer do, where the  expression of the disease is completely independent of cultural context. There are two ways that mental illness can express itself; the pathoplastic causes, which are individualized and culturally-specific, and pathogenic causes, the underlying psychological imbalances.

The difference between pathoplasticity and pathogenicity is explored by novelist Esmé Weijun Wang in her collection of essays The Collected Schizophrenias. She sees a vital distinction between “explanations”, the “spiritual narratives” that color pain and illness with cosmic significance, and “causes”, the neurological reasons for mental illness that are uniform for humans across the board. In other words, the pathoplastic causes of a disease, the explanations can have meaning for the afflicted, whether these explanations are rooted in culturally-specific expressions of pain or find outlets in things like religion.

Most researchers dismiss the pathoplastic causes as irrelevant, but Watters posits that “culture and social setting play a more complicated role in the disease than simply influencing the content of the delusion.” In Western society, we push the narrative that mental illness is biomedical, an illness as removed from cultural influences as cancer, but research suggests that the biomedical approach, taken solely on its own, can be harmful and even heighten stigma against mental illness.

Despite our growing interest in helping the mentally ill, stigma against mental illness in the West has actually been increasing since the 1950’s. According to a 1996 study,

Among adults who associated mental illness with psychosis, the odds of describing a person with mental illness as violent in 1996 were 2.3 times the odds of describing a person with mental illness as violent in 1950 […] Perceptions of dangerousness were associated with causal attributions of mental illness. Causal attributions of genetics or chemical imbalance increased the odds of perceiving a person with schizophrenia as dangerous to themselves and others.

While “perceptions of dangerousness appear to have stabilized” between different illnesses from 1996 and 2006, with “no significant differences […] in the public’s perceptions of dangerousness of adults with schizophrenia or depression,” the perception of dangerousness hasn’t faded from mental illness as a whole. The biomedical perspective on mental illness, the study suggests, has insidiously increased stigmatization by casting the mentally ill as inherently dangerous, helpless prisoners of their own minds. Watters suggests that the Western approach, while offering valuable insights on the underlying causes of disease, can be dehumanizing for the afflicted. It reflects a very Western sense of the body as divorced from culture, a neutral space only affected by genetic predispositions. Watters argues that what we’re actually importing to other cultures is not Western psychiatry but the Western idea of the self, our conception of what it means to be a functioning member of society. In our culture, we tend to have a strongly internal locus of control, meaning most Americans view themselves as completely in control of their lives, whereas other cultures have a more external locus. Our approach towards mental illness reflects this; those with mental illness are often viewed as lacking the willpower to overcome their condition. Despite the biomedical approach most Westerners subscribe to, which should firmly place the cause of mental illness outside of the afflicted, these beliefs persist.

This issue is part of an important ongoing conversation about the impact of globalization and Western hegemony. In the next century, we’ll see more natural disasters caused by climate change, which will inflict trauma on large populations of those already disenfranchised by poverty and disease. More trauma means more counseling and medication, specifically Western counseling.

Diagnoses can stick, sometimes doing more harm than good. Esmé Weijun Wang remarks that in Western society, “it is easy to forget that psychiatric diagnoses are human constructs, and not handed down from an all-knowing God on stone tablets; to ‘have schizophrenia’ is to fit an assemblage of symptoms, which are listed in a purple book [the DSM] made by humans,” and therefore not infallible. While therapy is undoubtedly useful for many, we should be cautious before applying it as a universal cure-all, and encourage rather than discourage global diversity in the field of mental health.

Is J. Cole the Savior of Hip-Hop?

J. Cole sitting at a signing table shaking the hand of a fan

Editor’s note: this article contains quotations that use vulgar and/or offensive language.

The rap game has always been divisive. Since the birth of hip hop, the music genre has been divided into two schools of thought: the old school vs the new school. For decades, the founders of rap, the pioneers who provided the foundation for hip-hop, have remained locked in an seemingly everlasting battle with the up-and-coming rappers who are shifting the sound of the genre. Those who advocate for old school rap, otherwise known as “old heads,” claim that old school rap is vastly better than the new rap that is coming out and that present day rappers are ruining the craft. In turn, up-and-coming rappers have responded by saying that the old heads are outdated and simply can’t accept change. Despite the controversy, rapper J. Cole has seemed to find a middle ground and begun to end the debate without picking a side. The Dreamville rapper’s influence has impacted the rap game for the past decade, and seems to be making a complete shift in hip-hop.  Both Cole’s music and how he impacts others begs the question: is he the savior that hip-hop needs?

The state of hip-hop today is one that can’t be described with a single adjective. Even now, in real time, rap music continues to morph into something different as new artists apply their own spin to the genre. Regardless of whether new rap is good or bad, it is making hip-hop lovers and scholars, artists and fans alike, pick a side. It could be argued that the division in rap can take away from the genre itself. Perhaps J. Cole is the emcee who can regulate the issue. But why J. Cole? After all, there are many other impactful rappers such as Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino who could also be considered saviors of hip-hop. Similar to Cole, the messages in Kendrick songs such as “i”, and Gambino’s hit “This is America” indicate that they are leaders of the genre and individuals who can bring stability to the rap game.  What makes J. Cole stand out?

For starters, 2018 was a huge year for J. Cole. The North Carolina rapper kicked off the year by dropping KOD, his fifth studio album in April. The project came in as No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. It was the year’s biggest week for an album, bringing in 397,000 album equivalents in a little under a week after the album’s release. KOD consisted of introspective songs regarding Cole’s legacy, but it also comments on the state of the rap game and the newer artists that have inherited it. On the track “1985,” Cole touches on the divide between the old and new school of hip hop. He raps:

“All these niggas popping now is young,

Everybody say the music that they make is dumb,

I remember I was 18,

Money, pussy, parties, I was on the same thing,

You gotta give a boy a chance to grow some”

Cole also discusses the persona that many rappers in the past several years have adopted. They’re tattooed from head to toe, do a range of different drugs, and use mumble rap as their go-to flow. As if he is talking directly to one of the new generation of rappers, Cole goes on to say:

I got some good advice, never quit tourin’,  

‘Cause that’s the way we eat here in this rap game,

I’m fuckin’ with your funky lil’ rap name,

I hear your music and I know that rap’s changed,

A bunch of folks would say that that’s a bad thing,  

‘Cause everything’s commercial and it’s pop now.”

After KOD released, “1985” turned heads. It made some members of the hip-hop community rejoice and it rubbed others the wrong way, specifically rapper Lil Pump. Considered one of the new generation of rappers who uses mumble rap, the Florida rapper had dissed J. Cole on a track called “Fuck J. Cole” that was teased on social media, but never released. “1985” was believed by many to be J. Cole’s response, including Pump himself. He responded to “1985” over social media and surprisingly, rather than Cole giving a rebuttal, a video emerged with Lil Pump and J. Cole interviewing each other. The two emcees sat down in Cole’s recording studio, The Sheltuh, and talked about how they came up in the rap game, their similarities, their differences, and ultimately reconciled over the rap beef from before. The exchange demonstrated how although Cole was commenting on the new generation of hip-hop, he wasn’t demonizing it. In fact, his connection with Pump shows how he can bridge the gap between the old school and the new school. At 34 years old, J. Cole technically should be considered an “old head.” After all, he signed with Jay Z’s Roc Nation label back in 2009 after founding his own Dreamville Records label in 2007. But Cole’s music continues to evolve, so it’s difficult to categorize him with the old head emcees who haven’t been making music since the early to late 2000’s. Cole talks about the disparity between hip-hop generations and where he fits on “Middle Child,” a single he dropped in January of 2019. The song confirmed that Cole is a hybrid, possessing the ability to connect to both younger and older generations of hip-hop. The song is Cole reflecting on his current position. He raps:

“I’m dead in the middle of two generations,

I’m little bro and big bro at once,

Just left the lab with young 21 Savage,

I’m bout to go and meet Jigga for lunch”

This line exemplifies Cole’s position of being in the middle of hip-hop generations, as he is collaborating with artists like 21 Savage, but also working with artists like Jay-Z, who’s been in the rap game for over twenty years.  

Regardless of age, Cole continued to bridge the gap between the old school and new school through the songs that he featured on throughout the rest of 2018. Cole ended up hopping on the tracks of various veteran emcees, including Wale and Royce da 5’9. But he also featured on recent Dreamville signee JID’s song “Off Deez,” as well as R&B/hip-hop artist 6lack’s song Pretty Little Fears. Cole then capped off his features for the year when he hopped on rapper 21 Savage’s hit song “A Lot” in December. JID, 6lack, and 21 are all younger artists who are on the rise in hip-hop and have a very different sound than Cole himself. Collaborating with them demonstrates how the old school and and new schools of hip-hop can coexist.

But the overarching question is: does Cole’s ability to connect the hip-hop generations make him rap’s savior? It could be argued that he’s not the only veteran rapper working with younger artists. On his most recent album, Dedication 5, Lil Wayne featured the late XXXTENTACION. Drake has rapped on songs with 21 Savage and other young artists such as BlocBoy JB. Kanye West, no matter how controversial, has also bridged the gap between the new hip-hop generation by working with artists such as Lil Pump and YNW Melly. A counter argument could be that J. Cole simply impacts listeners in a different way than other rappers do in terms of the messages that his raps convey. Cole talks about politics like in tracks like “High for Hours,” where he reflects on a conversation with former President Obama about police brutality. Or he’ll talk about beauty standards like he did on his single “Crooked Smile.” The positivity in Cole’s music can be inspiring for listeners, and that inspiration isn’t something that all rappers can achieve. Still, it could be argued that Kendrick Lamar also has a positive impact with his music and therefore could also be rap music’s savior. For instance, Kendrick’s song “Complexion” talks about self love and embracing blackness. Therefore, is it safe to say, with full confidence that Cole is hip-hop’s savior? It’s possible, but the music from other impactful artists cannot be ignored. Most likely, it’ll be left to time to decide who will have the most impact on the music genre.

From Blackface to Homophobic Tweets: Prioritizing Deontology over Consequentialism?

Governor Ralph Northam delivers a speech

Though 2019 has only just begun, several politicians and celebrities have already become embroiled in scandals concerning their past conduct, with proof of racism, homophobia, and sexism coming to light online through social media. The most recent debate has centered newly elected Virginia governor Ralph Northam, who appears in a racist photo circulated online from his 1984 medical school yearbook on February 1. The picture, which features Northam, shows two people standing side-by side, one in blackface and one in a Klu Klux Klan outfit. It is unclear which person is Northam, but he has admitted that one of the people in the photo is him. Democrats and Republicans alike over the past weekend have called for Northam to resign over the photo, as well as the NAACP. It seems as though everyone is in agreement that Northam’s actions were unacceptable and call for a resignation. However, in an opinion article in The Guardian, Shanita Hubbard points out the clear disconnect that many have between racist actions and racist policies. Hubbard does not intend to undermine the seriousness of blackface, but rather contends that “Policies that harm black bodies deserve the same outrage as blackface.” Is Hubbard right that actions that lead to racist ends deserve the same moral weight as those that treat people as a means for entertainment? Is one worse than the other? And how can we interpret the societal reaction, or lack thereof, in response to racism through the lens of moral philosophy?

Blackface is undoubtedly racist, both in its origins and in its function as in act in the modern day. Blackface in the United States was used as a way to mock, denigrate, and perpetuate racial stereotypes about black people throughout and following the history of slavery, with white actors and “comedians” impersonating black people during minstrel shows throughout the mid-19th century into the 20th. Though many caught wearing blackface in the modern day claim ignorance to its racist history, the essential function of blackface is to use black bodies as a means to an end — usually comedy, the perpetuation of stereotypes or the reinforcement of white supremacy.

The use of a person or group of people and their skin color as a means to an end can be interpreted most clearly as morally abhorrent under a deontological moral philosophy. In deontological ethics, actions are good or bad “because of some characteristic of the action itself” rather than the outcome of the action. Immanuel Kant is one of the most renowned deontological ethical philosophers. He believed in a supreme principle of morality which could be used to justify all other moral obligations. Kant’s Categorical Imperative includes the idea that it is immoral to use someone merely as a means to an end, and that all people regardless of the circumstances must be treated as an end in themselves. The action of blackface clearly violates this principle, and it might in part be that for this reason people across many political and philosophical ideologies react strongly in condemnation, while failing to assign the same condemnation to other racist actions which lead to racist outcomes.

Hubbard addresses this problem in her article, arguing that “If the litmus test for accountability is transparent racism, then this same vigor must be applied to policies and practices and the politicians who impose them.” Why is it that many are willing to condemn an action which uses a person or group as a means, but aren’t as eager to condemn actions that harm people based on these same identities?

One stark example that Hubbard gives is the issue of voter suppression, which often impacts people of color, specifically African-Americans, more than any other group. Politicians such as Brian Kemp, who have been responsible for the widespread implementation of voter suppression, have not been met with the call to resign as strongly as politicians such as Northam. Hubbard chalks up the difference in reaction to racist actions and racist policies to a difference in the blatancy, and the ability of politicians to hide behind the supposed amorality of their policies. However, Hubbard’s frustration can also be directly linked to a moral system which condemns on the basis of the consequences of one’s actions. This type of moral philosophy is known as consequentialism, and it gives no bearing to the intention of an actor, but rather the harm caused by their actions. While Hubbard is not calling for such a moral philosophy to take precedent, she is pointing out the clear lack of support for using this doctrine as a standard when it comes to racism.

One might also interpret this problem to arise from the moral doctrines society believes to be fundamental in combination with which groups are included within these moral philosophies. Another example of outrage over the use of a group as a means to an end is the controversy which surrounded Kevin Hart in December concerning tweets and comments from his past which were blatantly homophobic. Hart used homophobia for comedy and also social status, which was met with public outrage strong enough to have him removed from hosting the 2019 Oscars. However, similar backlash and condemnation is not always met with politicians or celebrities who implement or donate to causes which perpetuate the marginalization of LGBTQ+ folks. In this situation, which mirrors that of Northam, it seems that it is more mainstream to condemn a person for using a person or group as a means but not to condemn a person for causing substantial harm to a person or a group.

The application of these moral principles to both these situations is not to imply that the unified condemnation comes out of a place of genuine concern from all those doing the condemning. In fact, the concern about the racist actions of Governor Northam from the right may very well be, as Chauncey Devega argues “an opportunity to score political points by distracting public attention” from the wrongs committed by the Republican party when it comes to issues of racial justice. Without giving credit to those making the argument as being ‘moral’ ones, we can still assess the basic function of the argument in its appeal to the public’s ethos. Further still, incidences of blackface may not represent just one morally wrong action, but be a symptom of a larger moral problem within society. It is also important to note that while these philosophies may be used as guiding principles for how one assesses moral blame, they do not always necessarily, or have historically, extended to all people in society. However, it is important for us to truly assess why we believe an action or a person is immoral so that we understand the moral values present or lacking in our society.

The Venezuela Crisis and National Self-Determination

Photograph of a Venezuelan flag in the foreground and a crowd of protesting people in the background

In January, the political turmoil facing Venezuela escalated when National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president of the nation, directly challenging the authority of the recently sworn-in President Nicolás Maduro. This event has further fractured the government of Venezuela, which was divided in 2017 when Maduro formed a new legislature, called the National Constituent Assembly, to compete with the opposition controlled National Assembly. Guaidó has defended his action under Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which allows for such a declaration in the event of a president’s absence or inability to serve. According to Guaidó and other members of Maduro’s opposition, Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent and invalid, leaving Venezuela without a true president.

Alongside these political controversies, an equally serious economic crisis has unfolded. Venezuela’s struggling economy has collapsed under the weight of hyperinflation over the past few years, with the annual inflation rate up to November 2018 reaching 1,300,000 percent. This has caused widespread shortages in food and medical care. The failure of Maduro’s administration to prevent this financial crisis contributed to his low popularity in 2018. Opponents say his desperate grasp for power in the face of a possible election defeat resulted in illegal measures and a rigged election.

Many foreign governments have taken sides in the dispute over the presidency, recognizing either Maduro or Guaidó as the legitimate leader. The United States and most South American countries support Guaidó, whereas Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey support Maduro. The U.S. has also contributed aid in the form of food and essential supplies to ease shortages. While this aid may seem immediately to be beneficial to the Venezuelan people, Maduro has argued that accepting the aid would constitute a fatal blow to the self-determination of the nation. In a speech regarding the aid, Maduro denounced the effort as a ploy to undermine the sovereignty of his government, saying “We are not beggars.” Following this reasoning, the military, which supports Maduro, has blocked the aid shipment from reaching Venezuela.

Is the U.S. aid effort a cover for a more nefarious foreign policy aim? It seems far-fetched, but some people and organizations have lent support to the theory. Notable independent aid organizations, including the Red Cross, have decided not to get involved for fear of politicizing their efforts. Former United Nations special rapporteur Alfred de Zayas has argued vocally against U.S. involvement in Venezuela. According to de Zayas, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. against Maduro’s government were a major factor in the economic crisis now facing the country. He also claims that the goal of U.S. intervention is not to help the citizens of Venezuela, but rather to gain access to the country’s significant oil reserves. De Zayas was among over 70 academics who signed an open letter to the Trump administration decrying the United States’ involvement in Venezuelan domestic affairs. The current U.N. organization has also made a statement against U.S. sanctions in Venezuela, and the U.N. charter includes “self-determination of peoples” as part of its mission.

It is also important to note that the U.S. has a long and well-documented history of interference in Latin American governments. According to John H. Coatsworth, the U.S. has successfully brought about regime changes at least 41 times, usually to bring about political or economic goals. Although there were many direct interventions, some of the interventions were more indirect. Whether any coup d’états came about because of humanitarian aid is debatable, but Bolivia did expel USAID, the agency providing aid to Venezuela, from its borders after the Bolivian President Evo Morales accused the agency of a conspiracy against the country.

Considering the evidence, it is difficult to determine who is telling the truth. The United States may be genuinely interested in preventing further starvation and disease, or it may be seeking to undermine the Maduro government and install a pro-U.S. regime. Maduro might be working to head off a hostile coup d’état, or he may be clinging to power against the will of people. In all likelihood, each story carries some truth to it, but neither shows the whole picture. Assuming some degree of truthfulness, there is still a salient ethical question of values. In the U.N., Russia and the United States have presented opposing proposals for action; Russia has argued for a non-interventionist policy, while the U.S. argues for the rescuing of human life at all costs. Is human life worth the cost to national self-determination? Aside from the possibility that the lot of Venezuelan citizens would be worse in the long term after taking U.S. aid, is self-determination alone a value worth sacrificing lives for? The starving masses are innocent and probably had nothing to do with any of the political decisions which led to the current situation—do they deserve to die as a result of political forces outside of their control? On the other hand, some would argue that a life without dignity—national or otherwise—would not be worth living.


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Nasty, Brutish and Online: Is Facebook Revealing a Hobbesian Dystopia?

Mark Zuckerberg giving a speech against a blue background

The motto and mission of Facebook – as Mark Zuckerberg (founder and CEO), Facebook spokespeople, and executives have repeated over the years ad nauseam, is to “make the world a better place by making it more open and connected.” The extent to which Facebook has changed our social and political world can hardly be underestimated. Yet, over the past several years, as Facebook has grown into a behemoth with currently 2.2 billion monthly and 1.4 billion daily active users worldwide, the problems that have emerged from its capacity to foment increasingly hysterical and divisive ideas, to turbocharge negative messages and incendiary speech, and to disseminate misinformation, raises serious questions about the ideal of openness and connectedness.

The problems, now well documented, that have attended Facebook’s meteoric rise indicate that there has been a serious, perhaps even deliberate, lack of critical engagement with what being ‘more open and connected’ might really entail in terms of how those ideals can manifest themselves in new, powerful, and malign ways. The question here is whether Facebook is, or is able to be – as Zuckerberg unwaveringly believes – a force for good in the world; or, rather, whether it has facilitated, even encouraged, some of the baser, darker aspects of human nature and human behavior to emerge in a quasi Hobbesian “state of nature” scenario.  

Thomas Hobbes was a social contract theorist in the seventeenth century. One of the central tenets of his political philosophy, with obvious implications for his view of the moral nature of people, was that in a “state of nature” – that is, without government, laws or rules to which humans voluntarily (for our benefit) submit, we would exist in a state of aggression, discord and war. Hobbes famously argued that, under such conditions, life would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” He thought that morality emerged when people were prepared to give up some of their unbridled freedom to harm to others in exchange for protection from being harmed by others.

The upside was that legitimate sovereign power could keep our baser instincts in check, and could lead to a relatively harmonious society. The social contract, therefore, is a rational choice made by individuals for their own self-preservation. This version of the nature and role of social organization does, to be sure, rest on a bleak view of human nature. Was Hobbes in any way right in that a basic aspect of human nature is cruel and amoral? And does this have anything to do with what the kinds of behaviors that have emerged on Facebook through its ideal of fostering openness and connectivity, largely free from checks and controls?

Though Facebook has recently been forced to respond to questions about its massive surveillance operation, about data breaches such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, about use of the platform to spread misinformation and propaganda to influence elections; and its use for stoking hatred, inciting violence and aiding genocide, Mark Zuckerberg remains optimistic that Facebook is a force for good in the world – part of the solution rather than the problem.

In October 2018 PBS’s Frontline released a two-part documentary entitled The Facebook Dilemma in which several people who were interviewed claimed that from unique positions of knowledge ‘on the ground’ or ‘in the world,’ they tried to tell Facebook about various threats of propaganda, fake news and other methods being used on the platform to sow division and incite violence. The program meticulously details repeatedly missed, or ducked, opportunities for Facebook company executives, and Mark Zuckerberg himself, to comprehend and take seriously the egregious nature of some of these problems.

When forced to speak about these issues, Facebook spokespeople and Zuckerberg himself have consistently repeated the line that they were slow to act on threats and to understand the use of Facebook by people with pernicious agendas. This is doubtless true, but to say that Facebook was unsuspecting or inattentive to the potential dangers of what harms the platform might attract is putting it very mildly, and indeed appears to imply that Facebook’s response, or lack thereof, is rather benign; while not making them blameless exactly, it appears designed to neutralize blame: ‘we are only to blame insofar as we didn’t notice. Also we are not really to blame because we didn’t notice.’

Though Facebook does take some responsibility for monitoring and policing what is posted on the site (removing explicit sexual content, sexual abuse material, and clear hate speech), it has taken a very liberal view in terms of moderating content. From this perspective it could certainly be argued that the company is to some extent culpable in the serious misuse of its product.

The single most important reason that so many malign uses of Facebook have been able to occur is the lax nature of editorial control over what appears on the site, and how it is prioritized or shared, taken together with Facebook’s absolutely unprecedented capacity to offer granular, fine-tuned highly specific targeted advertising. It may be that Facebook has a philosophical defense for taking such a liberal stance, like championing and defending free speech.

Take, for example, Facebook’s ‘newsfeed’ feature. Tim Sparapani, Facebook Director of Public Policy from 2009 to 2011, told Frontline, “I think some of us had an early understanding that we were creating, in some ways, a digital nation-state. This was the greatest experiment in free speech in human history.” Sparapani added, “We had to set up some ground rules. Basic decency, no nudity and no violent or hateful speech. And after that, we felt some reluctance to interpose our value system on this worldwide community that was growing.” Facebook has consistently fallen back on the ‘free speech’ defense, but it is disingenuous for the company to claim to be merely a conduit for people to say what they like, when the site’s algorithms, determined by (and functioning in service of) its business model, play an active role.

In the Facebook newsfeed, the more hits a story gets, the more the site’s algorithms prioritize it. Not only is there no mechanism for differentiating between truth and falsehood here, nor between stories which are benign and those which are pernicious, but people are more likely respond to (by ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’) stories with more outrageous or hysterical claims – stories which are less likely to be true and more likely to cause harm.

Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor, told Frontline:  “…In effect, polarization was the key to the model – this idea of appealing to people’s lower-level emotions; things like fear and anger to create greater engagement and, in the context of Facebook, more time on site, more sharing, and therefore, more advertising value.” Because Facebook makes its money by micro-targeted advertising, the more engagement with a story, the more ‘hits’ it gets, the better the product Facebook has to sell to advertisers who can target individuals based on what Facebook can learn about them from their active responses. It is therefore in Facebook’s interest to cause people to react.

Facebook profits when stories are shared, and it is very often the fake, crazy stories, and/or those with most far-flung rhetoric that are most shared. But why should it be the case that people are more likely to respond to such rhetoric? This brings us back to Hobbes, and the question about the ‘darker’ aspects of human nature: is there something to be gleaned here about what people are like – what they will say and do if no one is stopping them?

The ‘real-world’ problems associated with fake news, such as violence in Egypt, Ukraine, Philippines and Myanmar, have emerged in the absence of a guiding principle – an epistemic foundation in the form of a set of ethics based on a shared conception of civilized discourse, and a shared conception of the importance of truth. In this analogy, the editorial process might be thought of as a kind of social contract, and the effects of removing it might be read as having implications for what humans in a ‘state of nature,’ where behavior is unchecked, are really like. Perhaps too much openness and connectivity does not, after all, necessarily make the world a better place, and might sometimes make it a worse one.

The conclusion seems unavoidable that Facebook has provided something like a Hobbesian state of nature by relaxing, removing, failing to use all but the most basic editorial controls. Yet it is equally true that Facebook has facilitated, encouraged and profited from all the nasty and brutish stuff. If the Hobbesian analogy is borne out, perhaps it is time to revisit the question of what kinds of controls need to be implemented for the sake of rational self (and social) preservation.

 

News Fatigue and the Duty to Stay Informed

Photograph of a newspaper held up by two arms

It seems that we ought to do our best to stay informed: we should know the important happenings in the world around us not only for our own edification, but so that we can be positioned to make the most informed decisions. For example, it seems that voters should be informed: when voting for a political candidate or party you should know something about who you’re voting for, partly because your decision could have potentially significant ramifications for many people. Part of staying informed requires that we keep up with the news, at least to a certain extent. Doing so, however, has never felt more exhausting.

Last year a study conducted by the Pew Research Center reported that close to 7 out of 10 Americans “feel worn out by the amount of news there is these days”; a previous study from the same center during the 2016 election coverage reported that about 6 in 10 Americans reported feeling “exhausted” by the amount of news coverage. Expressions of feeling news fatigue are also common on social media, especially after newsworthy events, ones that seem to be occurring with ever-increasing frequency.

Part of the problem seems to be that the news is simply more available than it used to be, with more outlets and more ways in which to hear about it. As reported at the New York Times, media literacy professor Dan Gilmour puts part of the blame on “the incredible rise of the ubiquitousness of social media,” along with the fact that there are so many other platforms and devices across which one can hear about current events.

While it is then hard to avoid the news, it is also hard to avoid the temptation to make sure that there isn’t any breaking news that you haven’t yet heard. This is no doubt one of the major contributors to news fatigue: curiosity and fear of missing out, combined with the immediate availability of information, gives checking the news an addictive quality. Various remedies for news addiction have been proposed, from installing browser plug-ins to block news stories from social media, to engaging in a self-imposed news diet. Gilmour also suggests that there are steps that news outlets themselves can take, arguing that like the “slow food” movement that focuses on more conscientious buying and preparing of food, journalism ought to adopt a “slow-news” movement that focuses on presenting a depth of information as opposed to rapid-fire news bites characteristic of 24-hour cable news.

One worry with oversaturating oneself with the news is that news fatigue can result in avoiding the news altogether. As Ruth Palmer and Benjamin Toff at NeimanLab argue, news avoidance is not only bad since it will result in less well-informed citizens, but that it will “[perpetuate] or even [increase], existing inequalities,” since according to their studies “more women than men avoid news,” with the result that women may then be more “poorly positioned to advocate for themselves politically.”

In addition to the quantity and availability of the news, surely part of the news fatigue problem is also that so much news is demoralizing. It is exhausting not only to try to keep up with everything that’s happening, but when so much of what is happening involves political corruption, reports of which powerful man abused what number of women and in which ways, and other tell-tale signs of mass ignorance and carelessness (anti-vaccination movements gaining popularity, climate change denial, overt dishonesty, etc.) it can become existentially burdensome to keep up with the goings-on of a world in troubling times.

It is, of course, a privilege to merely have to read about such events as opposed to experiencing them directly. However, it seems that in addition to remaining well-informed, a citizen also ought to do their best to enact positive change, and the constant bombardment of bad news can make it seem as though one’s efforts are futile. The potential consequences of news fatigue may not merely be a lack of knowledge that comes from news avoidance, then, but also a lack of motivation for action from feeling as though one will be unable to make a difference. This is not to say that one ought to distance oneself from demoralizing news and just read feel-good stories or watch puppy videos instead; on the contrary, often the most important news is what we might think of as “bad news,” and such news can often act as a catalyst for individuals to take actions towards positive change. The challenge, though, is to make sure that one does not become burned out on bad news to the point of complacency.

There is perhaps one final contributing factor to news fatigue, which is the need to not only keep up with the news, but to verify it. If one is worried that a news source is biased, or has not reported the whole story, one then has to do the extra work of making sure that they aren’t missing something crucial and haven’t been misled. For example, rarely will I ever accept as definitive any item of news presented through someone’s social media account: I will always track down what I take to be a reputable source to make sure that what’s being presented is actually true. Or consider the tendency of news outlets to distort the findings of scientific studies to present some eye-catching headline about food, health, or what have you: doing your due diligence in making sure that you are being presented with facts and not merely sensationalized reports requires additional effort and commitment, which could again contribute to a sense of fatigue.

What kind of measures ought we to take in order to try to balance the requirements of being a well-informed citizen and the risks that come along with news fatigue? As we saw above, there are perhaps obligations on news media to “slow down” the news, although doing so may present conflicts of its own, as such outlets are faced with the challenge of presenting everything newsworthy while trying to do so in a way that is in-depth. We also saw that there are measures that the individual can take, in selectively interacting with the news in order to give themselves an occasional break. I don’t think there is a perfect formula for determining when one has consumed “enough” news. Instead, balancing the duties of being well-informed while also not overdoing it to the point of a backlash of news-avoidance or complacency will require each individual to critically assess their tolerance while also keeping in mind their duty to stay informed.

University Administrations, Private Governments, and Denise Bennett

Photograph of the stone facade of the University of Idaho Library

On Wednesday, January 30th, administrators at the University of Idaho triggered the college’s emergency text alert system designed to notify students of impending threats to the campus. According to the message, Denise Bennett, a tenured journalism professor, had been banned from campus for “admittance to police of meth use and access to firearms” and, if seen, students were directed to call 911. Despite the message’s implication, Bennett was not near campus at the time and had not been arrested (or even detained) by police; instead, this incident was part of a complicated drama between Bennett and her employer that merits a brief overview.

For some time, Bennett has been an outspoken critic of the administration headed by University President Chuck Staben, a saga that was elevated to a new height when Bennett was abruptly placed on indefinite administrative leave in mid-January following a profanity-laden email she sent to several administrators voicing her concerns over how grant money had been mishandled. When students began to organize protests and other public action groups to express their anger about the university’s treatment of Bennett, the school appeared to respond by issuing the text alert in a move now being criticized as an “unconscionable and unnecessarily cruel and manipulative step” by the administration to “seize the narrative” concerning Bennett’s employment. The text alert came roughly 70 minutes before the start of a planned student rally in support of Bennett.

The conflict between Bennett and her employer might be a good example of what philosopher Elizabeth Anderson describes in her recent work Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) as an asymmetrical power relationship not unlike a dictatorship. Comprising the Tanner Lectures she delivered at Princeton in 2015, as well as a series of critical responses, Anderson’s book lays bare a series of problematic features about the false dichotomy between free and state-controlled markets: in reality, Anderson argues, late-market capitalism has produced a third operating paradigm where private institutions are able to “impose controls on workers that are unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.” Whereas public governments are required to (at least in theory) listen to constituent concerns and advocate for the public’s best interests, private governments answer only to the behest of the market restricted by the loosest possible interpretation of labor laws. In this work, Anderson issues an important rallying cry for political and moral philosophers to attend to a relatively new area of concern within the discipline: the power granted to non-governmental organizations to control the private lives of their employees, even when those employees are ‘off the clock.’

In Bennett’s case, her employer – the University of Idaho – appears to be risking legal charges of defamation against its employee by continuing to release seemingly irrelevant information about Bennett’s character. The university’s official statement on the matter admits that the text alert contained “an unusual level of detail for such a communication,” but insists that it possessed information at the time which “raised concerns about the safety of our campus community.” It is impossible to assess the truth value of this claim from this side of the wall around the private government of the UI, but the information clearly serves to upset the supposedly-voluntary labor negotiation Bennett is currently in with her boss. Insofar as this is true, Bennett appears to be a good candidate for a case study of Anderson’s concluding observation that “The vast majority [of workers] are subject to private, authoritarian government, not through their own choice, but through laws that have handed nearly all authority to their employers.” And although it remains to be seen how Bennett’s story will end, this will hardly be the last example of a 21st-century worker helplessly conflicting with the laws of her private governance; if Anderson is right, then the public discourse must become aware of the “the costs to workers’ freedom and dignity that private government imposes on them” if justice can realistically be pursued.

The Pink Tax (And Why It’s Time Women Opt for the Blue Razors)

Photo of three pink razors in a diagonal line on a white background

Paying significantly more money for a product based almost exclusively upon its pink color seems ridiculous. However, many women are unaware that they are doing exactly that on their weekly trips to the grocery store. In fact, the physical separation of men’s and women’s products in many stores often prevents both sexes from ever noticing the price difference between products. Awareness of the “pink tax” and the ethical debate associated with gender-based pricing has risen significantly in recent years. In fact, both New York and California have made gender-based pricing against the law and many consumers are calling for more states to do the same.

In order to grasp just how widespread and significant this issue is becoming a study was published in New York City called “From Cradle to Crane: The cost of being a female consumer”, which was research conducted to encourage government action. The study, as referenced on an NPR broadcast, illustrated that on average women are paying 7-8 percent more than what men were paying for comparable products in departments such as clothing. However, personal care products are the items most notorious for blatant price discrepancies, being on average 13 percent more expensive for women across a variety of products including deodorant, shampoo, shaving cream, and particularly razors.

In fact, many news outlets including NPR, NBC, and CNN have investigated these price differences at drugstores and grocery stores across the country to understand how this discrimination plays into female consumers’ everyday lives. Karen Duffin from NPR went to a Walgreens in Times Square and found one packet of the same basic razors from the women’s section and the other from the men’s. The brand and quantity for both packets remained the same, however, the men’s razors were priced at 59.9 cents per razor, whereas the same razors for women were doubled at $1.25 per razor. Also, price differences are not exclusive to retailers. Investigative reporting on The Today Show actually depicted gender-based pricing in services such as dry cleaning as well. A male and female reporter both bought the same white button-down shirt from the same department store in men’s and women’s aisles and took them to a dry cleaning store. The male reporter’s total bill totaled only $2.50 while the female reporter’s bill totaled $5.00. When asked about the price difference, the manager explained that the machines used to press the shirts were only made in sizes suitable for men’s clothing, women’s smaller shirts are unable to fit in these machines and thus must be hand-pressed. This difference in pricing between genders introduces the ethical issue of why services such as dry cleaning are designed for male consumers while not acknowledging the needs of female consumers. In other words, why can we not begin to standardize these sorts of businesses so that one sex is not charged more for the same service than the other.

Although a few dollars here and there may not seem like a significant issue for female consumers, these slight differences in pricing for comparable products result in women paying an annual “gender tax” of approximately $1,351 extra annually compared to men, according to the Study of Gender Pricing in NYC. The difficulty in addressing this issue, however, is because it is difficult to determine exactly where in the supply chain the price hikes are added to feminized products, as trade lawyer Michael Cone explains to CNN Money. Cone is convinced that price gouging is occurring on women’s products. The study elaborates on the example of women’s shirts:

“[S]hirts with buttons on the right side (for men)…were taxed a couple percentage points less than shirts with buttons on the left side (for women). He brought both examples to the federal court claiming that US import tariffs discriminate based on gender, however both of his claims were dismissed.” (Sebastian, 2016)

Higher taxes on women’s products, (for example, shoes: the tax on men’s shoes is set at 8.5 percent whereas women shoes are taxed 10 percent) have been under research for over 15 years. The United States is also not the only country becoming increasingly aware of the implications associated with gender-based pricing. In Britain, the issue has been brought to Parliament as women “could be paying up to twice as much as men for what appeared to be identical products” (Sebastian, 2016).

Another important ethical question is if perhaps these price differences are not discrimination at all, and are simply due to legitimate contrast in the ingredients and formulas between men’s and women’s products. However, the New York City study brings up a counterargument that these higher prices are difficult for women to avoid and that “individual consumers do not have control over the textiles or ingredients used in the products marketed towards them, and must make purchasing choices based only upon what is available in the marketplace.” As a result the choices made by marketers and manufacturers place a substantially higher financial burden upon female consumers in comparison to males.

This discrimination deserves more media attention, which is why many of these studies are becoming a call to action for women to become aware of price discrimination in products they buy. This awareness also has the potential to encourage women to compare products marketed to either men or women in a variety of categories, and base their product choices upon unit price instead of merely packaging. Eventually, if women begin utilizing this knowledge to put pressure on companies, more state governments would be willing to introduce a ban on gender-based pricing. In the meantime, it may be worth walking a few aisles further and picking up that blue razor.

 

Questioning the Morality of Raising Neanderthal

A human and neanderthal skull facing each other on a black background

In 2013, Harvard professor George Church raised the possibility that an “extremely adventurous female human” might one day serve as a surrogate mother to a cloned Neanderthal child. In the recent bestseller Sapiens, author and historian Yuval Noah Harari discusses the possibility of resurrecting Neanderthal, reintroducing the idea into popular discussion. Bringing Neanderthal back to life would be an instance of what many scientists call de-extinction. The idea that something like this may be possible is certainly both intriguing and entertaining. But, to paraphrase Jurassic Park, when it comes to using emerging technology in this way, are people spending so much time thinking about whether they could that they haven’t stopped to consider whether they should?

One argument in favor of using the technology is an argument for a kind of reparations paid to other species for our history of destructive, parasitic behavior. Many historians believe that homo sapiens were likely largely responsible for the extinction of Neanderthal. The answer to the question of whether we ought to resurrect our long lost cousins is a species of a larger question pertaining to human obligation. It is undeniable that homo sapiens have been among the planets most destructive animals—we are responsible for the extinction of a startling number of species. As genetic technology progresses, do humans have an obligation to revive the species they’ve wiped out? How many species ought we to resurrect? All of them? Only some of them? How should we decide? Should we only revive the species that continue to exist in collective memory? Do we have an obligation to revive long lost species?

This motivates questions about the nature of our moral obligations. Do we have such obligations to species, or only to concrete entities? If we have obligations to species, then perhaps we do have an obligation to create new members of long lost species. If we have obligations only to individual sentient beings, then we aren’t really atoning for our sins by bringing to life those new individual beings; after all, those aren’t the beings that we harmed.

Is biodiversity good in itself, regardless of what it brings about? If so, perhaps the more species we revive the better? Should we instead focus on the potential consequences of bringing a species back to life? If so, consequences for whom? If it was anthropocentrism that took the species out in the first place, and if we take ourselves to have moral obligations to bring species back into existence, we probably shouldn’t appeal to anthropocentric considerations in our arguments for which species, if any, to bring back.

Many of those interested in reviving extinct species are not motivated by ethical considerations. Instead, they want to test the limits of what is scientifically possible. This raises a distinct set of ethical questions. Many argue that knowledge is intrinsically valuable. If this is the case, perhaps we ought to maximize the things that we know. This would include knowledge of how to revive lost species and of what would happen if we did. It may well be, however, that not everything that is, in principle, knowable, is something that should be known. Perhaps we need to put some checks on what we do with emerging technologies.

Some raise ethical concerns with the cloning of Neanderthal in particular. The history of western thought is replete with examples of philosophers extolling the virtues of human reason. Neanderthals, if revived, would share many of the same reasoning capabilities as humans. Is it morally defensible to intentionally create creatures that share features in common with humans, but whom we know will be significantly less intelligent?

As it is, homo sapiens aren’t great at reasoning about species membership.  We tend to treat the suffering of animals like cats and dogs very seriously, while ignoring the suffering of others, especially those that we are accustomed to using for food. In what ways should we expect humans to treat Neanderthals? Would homo sapiens treat differences in species membership as if it justified differences in moral treatment? Neanderthals would surely be intelligent enough to include in the category of persons. Would homo sapiens be disinclined to treat them with the dignity that membership in the moral community carries?  

Objections to reviving Neanderthals tend to rest on the idea that the species is very similar to our own, but less intelligent. Interestingly, intelligence doesn’t seem to be a factor in the arguments for or against bringing other species back from extinction. When scientists consider reviving, for example, a woolly mammoth, they aren’t worried about whether the resulting creatures will be too smart or not smart enough. Is it simply that we are concerned about creating intelligent beings that resemble us too closely? Could that possibly be a morally relevant consideration?

Another objection to the whole enterprise has to do with the fact that the planet faces overpopulation and resource depletion already. Do we really want to introduce new beings into a situation like that? Would doing so make matters worse for the beings that already exist?

Other arguments have to do with the scope of the project. Arguably, it is cruel to create a member of a species without creating others with which that being can interact. We know that, like humans, Neanderthals were social animals. A crucial part of living a flourishing life for a Neanderthal would be the ability to interact feely with other Neanderthals. If our experiment doesn’t allow for that possibility, it is probably best to refrain from engaging in it at all.

Finally, were this experiment to ever take place, researchers would need to be very careful. Specific family relationships would likely matter to Neanderthals in very similar ways to the ways in which they matter to humans. These beings wouldn’t be reducible to an experiment.

Admittedly, this scenario is farfetched, but it is more than just sci-fi.  In 2003, scientists brought back the previously extinct Pyrenean ibex, only to watch it die shortly after birth.

The Deeper Significance of Women Presidential Candidates

Kamala Harris giving a speech, smiling and speaking into microphones, with people crowded around

Women presidential candidates are appearing in unprecedented numbers for the 2020 election. So far, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tulsi Gabbard have announced their intentions to run. This surge corresponds to the 2018 midterm elections, which also saw record numbers of women obtaining seats previously held by men. In the wake of the 2016 election, when the presidential confirmation of a Donald Trump won the day over an eminently qualified female candidate, it seems that more women are ready to run and more people are eager to elect them.

 From the stoic prudence of Angela Merkel to the fallen humanitarian Aung San Suu Kyi, it is clear that women are as capable and complex as their male peers in positions of leadership. Women are leaders around the world, though recently they constituted only 6 percent of international leaders compared to male heads of state.  

American voters believe women score equally or higher than men in terms of valued leadership qualities, but women still lag behind men in positions of power, including their most glaring omission in the role of the US presidency.

Reactionary streams in American politics likely bear some role in women’s lagging parity. The most recent iterations include the conservatism of the neo-Nazi movement espoused by Richard Spencer, the unlikely stardom of Jordan Peterson, purveyor of 19th century psycho-social truisms presented as original contrarian theories, and the backlash to the #MeToo movement among Republican leadership exemplified in the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after his histrionic confirmation hearing.

At the same time, these reactions to change suggest that unparalleled changes are occurring. Among them is a redefinition of character norms.  

Our very notion of “virtue,” a core term in philosophical discussions about character, has gendered connotations. The word “virtue” in English derives from the Latin word for “manliness.” While the ancient Greek term for virtue is gender-neutral, i.e. excellence (arete), Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics treats personal greatness as the birthright of a very few men. Aristotle speaks of courage and justice, but also liberality and magnanimity, character traits which reflect a superior social standing. Aristotle, like so many of his successors, demarcated virtue and public life as the space for the few males who belonged to an emancipated, land-owning, citizen class. This separation was made possible by setting aside manual and household labor or “economy” – literally, household management, as the province of women, slaves, and the non-citizen class of men. It was this vast majority’s task to create value which would accrue to the men in charge. It is thus no surprise that “magnanimity” or “greatness of soul” (characterized by a sense of entitlement) also figures largely among Aristotle’s virtues.

Because women, slaves, and non-citizen men performed the labors of life, Hellenistic aristocratic men enjoyed leisure or “paideia,” which permitted education and a public life that are essential for political participation. This primary division of labor and leisure justified an oligarchic and patriarchal logic: might equals right. This is the circular logic of power: those who are in power must have managed it by being somehow superior (an argument Aristotle makes in his Politics) or conversely, those who are in power determine the rules because they can enforce them. The latter is put forward by Plato’s Thrasymachus in the Republic (Thrasymachus, incidentally, may be one of the most socially-realist characters in early philosophical literature). This ancient rationalization of “might equals right” has enjoyed a surprisingly long shelf life. America’s founding fathers similarly opted for a “republic” rather than a democracy, ensuring that only a very few, adult, European-descended, property-owning men could vote. Even today, the fundamental logics of white supremacy and extreme capitalism can be parsed in very similar lines.

Given that women, persons of color, and LGTBQ individuals have been running for office in record numbers since Trump, it will be interesting to see the kind of politics that arises from communities that are not accustomed to power and representation as their birthright. Figures like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and the Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggest visions for a more inclusive distribution of power, labor, representation and compensation. In the long, painful stages of late capitalism where a middle class has all but disappeared, and the majority of Americans are carrying most of the burdens of contemporary life while only a very few enjoy its rewards, it seems that voters are ripe for a new kind of politics.

Democracy and the Next Generation

Photo of kids and older adults at a protest

A group of young people are suing the US government over the damage being done to the environment. The lawsuit claims that the government has not done enough to fight climate change, and it makes sense that youths are bringing the suit – it is the next generation that will feel the effects of environmental damage most strongly. They claim they are experiencing harms due to the government’s neglect of environmental concerns that amount to the government not living up to constitutional commitments of ensuring them of rights to life, liberty and property.

This lawsuit represents a thorny political issue: where is the voice of the next generation represented in government?

In a representative democracy like the US, adults have the opportunity to vote to express their preference for how the government should be run by selecting the politician who will make decisions regarding policy. A background assumption of such a system is that different voters may have different interests and the government should be in touch with these interests. People living in urban areas may want different policies than those in rural areas; home-owning married folk may favor different tax policies than long-term singles; people who have experienced medical conditions and financial uncertainty may prioritize interests differently than individuals who have not. Ideally, the representatives that result from voting represent the interests of the voters. However, it bears note that even under these conditions, a group of people is left out of the polling –those too young to vote and the interests of future generations.

The concern over the influence of age on what interests are being represented in voting is not abstract or new. Voting practices in the US skew towards older individuals. In the 2016 presidential election, 71 % of the over- 65 population voted, compared with 46 % of 18- to 29-year-olds. If we consider voters to be self-interested, then this leaves the interests of the young under-represented and the interests of future generations out of the equation altogether.

With long-term projects and programs, older voters have less vested interest in how they turn out because they will experience fewer consequences of the programs. On the other hand, older voters have had more life experiences and arguably may vote “wiser.” Preserving and protecting the environment is clearly a long-term project, as the environment is something that future generations inherit and the treatment we expose our resources to may be largely irreversible.

Young people vote less, and future generations currently have no vote. One solution to this representation problem is to have entities vote on behalf of future generations. Civic organizations with fiduciary concerns for future generations could be given some voting weight alongside the individual voters, granting the limitation in the ability or practicality of living voters to live up to obligations to these groups.

Without such solutions looking likely now, we are faced with lawsuits like the current one these young people are lobbying against the government – claiming that their interests are not being respected on a grand scale. The suit may not be successful, as it calls for changes in policy by judicial decree, which is a potential violation of separation of powers. However, it embodies a tension in the size of the problems facing our government and the limited scope of the mechanisms for choosing solutions.