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La Liga, EULAs, and Privacy in Public Spaces

photograph of televised soccer game

It was recently reported that Spanish soccer league La Liga took advantage of technology from users’ phones to detect bars that were streaming their games without a license. La Liga has now been fined $280,000 for disrespecting their clients privacy; they used the microphone as well as the phones’ GPS trackers to eavesdrop on the sound coming from users’ phones. Then, using sound detection tech similar to Shazam, they could identify locations where the game was being watched and check whether that location was a commercial establishment that had not paid to televise it.  

10 million downloads of La Liga’s app made for a vast amount of data. A Spanish court ruled that La Liga’s terms and conditions didn’t clearly articulate the possible use it would make of users’ phones and therefore fined the league and ruled that the app must be taken down by June 30th. 

Depending on the jurisdiction, there is some question regarding how binding EULA can be. Some lawyers cite British common law for precedent in the UK to suggest that contracts must in principle be negotiable: “End user license agreements – the rules that govern the use of software and even hardware which, overwhelmingly, has already been bought and paid for – violate that legal principle.” Contracts that lack this quality extend beyond EULAs, however. For example, parking validation tickets and signs in businesses attempting to limit the liability of management do not have room for negotiation. Instead, quick and non-negotiable contracts, such as those limiting liability of business for damage done to your car in a parking garage, are called “adhesion contracts”. Standards of reasonableness are often applied in circumstances where customers engage with businesses that attach these conditions to service. As Dan Ralls of “Ask a Lawyer” explains

“Courts will refuse to uphold adhesion contracts that include unconscionable or unreasonable terms—you can’t have anything too crazy forced on you. They also have to be conspicuous when entered into—some courts have invalidated tiny adhesion contracts on the backs of parking tickets, though others have enforced them.”

Though legal action based on end-user license agreements, or EULAs, is rare, in 2015, some precedent was set when testers for an Xboxlive game Gears of War leaked information about the game. Because this behavior violated Microsoft’s EULA, the leakers were banned from using Xbox both on- and offline.  

La Liga claims that their motive in coordinating audio and GPS data from their uses was to “protect clubs and their fans from fraud.” It purports to only attend to the relevant “sonic fingerprint” of the game audio and ignore more sensitive or private information its users’ microphones pick up.  

A central doctrine in how we imagine privacy from a legal perspective is the distinction of zones where there isn’t a presumption of privacy. When people expect that their activities or possessions will remain private, a greater burden of justification must be met for violating their privacy, by monitoring or collecting information on their activities or interfering with their property. In the US, this value is articulated in the Fourth Amendment. 

La Liga’s app was deemed unreasonable in its use of data from their users and did not make it clear through their EULA that this was a function the app would perform. As smartphones and similar technology become more prevalent, it will be interesting to note whether the use of data from microphones in public spaces remains out of bounds.

Ali Stroker, Radio City Music Hall, and the Value of Accessibility

photograph of the curtains coming up at Radio City Music Hall

On June 9th, Ali Stroker made history when she became the first performer in a wheelchair to receive a Tony Award. Winning ‘Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical’ for her portrayal of the boisterous Ado Annie in the Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, Stroker dedicated her award to “every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena.” Although award nominees typically wait in the audience until the winner’s name is called, Stroker was backstage, having just performed a solo as a part of the evening’s festivities. This was fortuitous: later in the evening, Stroker was unable to celebrate in the spotlight with the cast and crew of Oklahoma! after their production won ‘Best Revival of a Musical’ – the stage of Radio City Music Hall has no wheelchair-accessible ramp.

This story highlights two important issues regarding contemporary ableism: problematic representation in the entertainment industry and an overall lack of access.

Regarding the first, the fact that Stroker’s win is historic at all highlights the lack of attention that Hollywood and Broadway have given to disabled performers. Despite the fact that portrayals of disabled characters routinely receive critical acclaim, essentially all of the actors receiving those awards have been able-bodied. By the Washington Post’s count, roughly half of Best Actor Oscars, for example, have been given for depictions of people with disability or illness – but none of the actors awarded have been actual members of the disabled communities they portrayed. 

At best, this sort of production choice encourages inaccurate portrayals by non-experts and perpetuates stereotypes about disabled individuals; at worst, it turns disability into a plot device to be overcome (or, even worse, into punishment for a perceived villain). For example, the 2017 film The Shape of Water was heavily criticized for its clunky depiction of American Sign Language and its explicit comparison of its disabled main character with an inhuman monster – the movie won four Academy Awards and was nominated for an additional eight. Or consider how the three-time Tony-Award-winning musical Wicked treats its character Nessarose: living in a wheelchair, the wicked Nessa not only repeats the overplayed trope of “deformity of body equals deformity of soul,” but her explicit request to be “cured” by her magical sister, in the words of Towson University’s Beth Haller, underscores the “underlying ableist message that disabled people are broken and need to be fixed.”

So, while Stroker’s success is wonderful and much deserved, it comes from within an entertainment industry rife with a problematic relationship to portrayals of disability. Representation of society’s diversity in popular culture is important for many reasons; matters of accuracy and tone are just a few.

Secondly, the inaccessibility of the Tony Awards’ stage prevented Stroker from experiencing the honored tradition of an award winner walking down the aisle while the audience applauds their success – to say nothing, of course, of her literal inability to accept the second award along with the rest of the cast and crew. As Melissa Blake explained for CNN, “For all the talk about inclusion and representation, the disability community continues to remain merely an afterthought, where places are made accessible only after people with disabilities bring it to others’ attention that they can’t get into a building or onto a stage.”

Instead of useful accommodation and equitable treatment, disabled citizens are often the recipients of technological gizmos that do more for the inventors’ social graces than the needs of the purported users. Dubbed ‘disability dongles’ by advocate and strategist Liz Jackson, devices that claim to do everything from translating written text for those who cannot see it to translating sign language into spoken words make waves on social media, but ultimately do quite little to help those who actually use sign language or have difficulty seeing. In most cases, people with disabilities simply don’t need the help – suggesting otherwise can be insultingly patronizing, if not obviously unnecessary. What would be preferable: providing a $33,000 stair-climbing Scewo (as heralded by dozens of international news outlets) to wheelchair users around the world, or simply building more ramps for them to use?

What if Stroker had been driving a Scewo on the night of the Tonys? Though she would have been able to access the stage from the audience, the expensive device climbs much too slowly for the fast-paced production of the televised broadcast; by the time Stroker would have made it to the podium, she likely would have had no time for her speech. And though it moves quickly enough on its own when not navigating stairs, it seems like a motor-powered wheelchair would actually limit Stroker’s mobility during the fast-paced dance numbers of her production (never mind what might happen were it to malfunction). Though some able-bodied people might feel pleased to hear about flashy dongles aimed to help others, such gadgets run the risk of diffusing our sense of corporate – and, indeed, our personal – responsibility to promote a just society.

Re-designing our public architecture to be more representative of the needs of all citizens is far easier, cheaper, and effective at treating every person fairly than is investing in complicated and expensive new technologies that don’t actually solve real problems. As Stroker explained to the New York Times following her win, “I think I had a dream that maybe there could be a ramp built. It’s more than just a logistical thing — it’s saying that you are accepted here, in every part of you.”

The industry would do well to listen.

Separating the Freedom of Religion from the Right to Discriminate

photograph of Israel Folau playing rugby

This week, GoFundMe shut down the campaign of Israel Folau, a top Australian rugby player who had set up an account up in an attempt to raise Aus $3 million to take legal action against Rugby Australia for terminating his contract. Folau’s contract was terminated last month for a high-level breach of the Professional Players’ Code of Conduct over his controversial social media posts. In many recent posts Folau had expressed his belief that, among others, homosexuals, adulterers, and atheists would go to hell unless they repented.

Folau is challenging his dismissal in the Fair Work Commission, arguing Rugby Australia violated his religious freedom. He is an evangelical Christian, and he claims that it is his responsibility to preach his religion. “I am… a Christian. My faith is the most important thing in my life. I try to live my life according to the Bible and I believe it is my duty to share the word of the Bible,” he said. GoFundMe’s manager Nicola Britton said in a statement “as a company, we are absolutely committed to the fight for equality for LGBTIQ+ people and fostering an environment of inclusivity.” 

The Fair Work Commission’s decision regarding Folau’s claim to have had his right to freedom of religion violated may have important ramifications for future challenges in workplaces and religious institutions both for religious people who want to exercise their right to carry out the tenets and responsibilities of their religious worship, and also for those against whom such freedoms may discriminate.

The Folau case is another iteration of an issue that has been widely problematized following Australia’s new same-sex marriage laws which came into effect in 2018; after which religious people’s concerns that they would not be allowed to refuse services to, or would be forced to teach the legitimacy of, same-sex couples led to the government conducting a review into religious freedom and to canvassing the possibility of legislating extra protections as well as instituting a commission to oversee protection of freedom of religion. 

“Unfortunately, GoFundMe has buckled to demands against the freedom of Australians to donate to his cause,” a spokesman for Folau said. “There appears to be a continuing campaign of discrimination against Israel and his supporters.”

Following GoFundMe’s closing of Folau’s funding campaign, he has received a $100,000 donation from the Australian Christian lobby. ACL managing director, Martyn Iles said “They [quiet Australians] feel the pinch of political correctness and the erosion of their basic freedoms.” Setting aside the point that Folau is anything but a ‘quiet Australian’, the salient point in these responses by Folau and his supporters is that they portray him as a victim of discrimination whose freedoms are being eroded. 

Freedom is at the core of many of our ethical principles and moral and political values. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the general assembly in 1948, specifies many types of freedom – such as freedom of speech, assembly, religion – that are enshrined as universal moral rights. 

These liberties serve as the fundamental lynchpin of democracy. In the Folau case, more than one fundamental democratic principle is at stake, and they appear to be at odds with one another. The first is the right to believe in, practice, and undertake religious activities. This right is enshrined in Article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights (ICCPR), to which Australia was an original signatory. The second is the right to freedom from discrimination, and according to Article 18 governments can limit religious freedom if it is “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

Either those principles clash because they are fundamentally incompatible, or they clash in practice because of disagreements about how to apply them. This therefore raises the question of what exactly freedom of religion entails, and whether it includes the right to discriminate against those who do not share such beliefs. In short: how far does a person’s right of religious expression extend? 

The limitations placed on freedom of religion in Article 18(3) of the ICCPR provide an essential qualification on the capacity of one right to disproportionately impinge upon the exercise of other rights. Any concessions for freedom of religion must be balanced against rights to equality and non-discrimination. Freedom of religion is a right designed to protect religious persons from discrimination, it is not a free pass to allow the religiously-sanctioned discrimination against others, and those who try to co-opt it as such are being disingenuous. 

In a statement in defense of his claim that his religious freedom was being violated, Israel Folau said: “What makes our country so wonderful is that we have such a diverse community made up of so many different cultures and values.” It is hard to read this remark as anything other than stunning hypocrisy, given that his mission appears to be nothing short of homogenization of the culture into a salvific vision of Christianity.

It is also worth remembering that freedom of religion is not traditionally a core tenet of the Christian religion – a fact to which the centuries of zealous missionary efforts to convert non-Christians the world over is testament. Freedom of religion, as enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18, is a core secular principle. It is only when laws are no longer determined by religious beliefs that people’s freedom to worship in their own way becomes possible.

Free Speech and Good Omens

photograph of Good Omens advertisement on escalator

On May 13th, a Christian group called Return to Order began circulating an online petition to “Tell Netflix: Cancel Blasphemous ‘Good Omens’ Series.” So far, the petition has received over 21,000 signatures and has attracted the attention of many more. It generated substantial buzz in news sources and on social media, but perhaps not for the reasons that those who started it had hoped—Good Omens, an adaptation of a book written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, was produced as a collaboration between Amazon and the BBC. The series was not made by nor is it hosted on Netflix. There is little that Netflix could do to get the series cancelled. 

The fallout from this flub was amusing. Gaiman responded to the incident on Twitter: “”I love that they are going to write to Netflix to try and get #GoodOmens cancelled. Says it all really. This is so beautiful … Promise me you won’t tell them?” Both Netflix and Amazon had some fun with the mix-up on Twitter. Netflix tweeted, “ok we promise not to make any more,” and Amazon replied, “Hey @netflix, we’ll cancel Stranger Things if you cancel Good Omens.” Needless to say, the series was not cancelled.

The series stars David Tennant as the demon Crowley, and Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale. It is set at the end of days during the rise of the antichrist. The unlikely pair has developed a fondness for the human race and they work together to save it. In their petition, Return to Order expresses concern that the show “is a mockery of God’s order and religion, and makes Good and Evil seem equal and interchangeable.” They also complain that God is voiced by a woman (Frances McDormand) and they voice their fear that, the series is “another step to make Satanism appear normal, light and acceptable.”

From a legal standpoint, there is nothing wrong with what Return to Order did. The members have a constitutional right to free speech, and in this instance they inadvertently used that right to heartily embarrass themselves. The stakes in this debate are insignificant and it is easy to simply find the story amusing. There are, however, compelling moral issues lurking behind the scenes, obscured by the mistake. 

Art is a form of speech.  When we disagree with what we take to be the content of the message, should we campaign for the speech in question to simply go away? In this particular case, the answer may seem obvious—if a person doesn’t like what they take to be the message of a piece of art, that person is free to simply avoid that piece of art. No one is forcing anyone to watch Good Omens. The answer may not be as clear in other cases.  

There is no reason to believe that Gaiman or Pratchett are trying to sweeten up Satanism to make it go down easier. Perhaps if members of Return to Order took the time to watch Good Omens, they would realize that the message of the series is not what they assumed that it was (and they’d also be aware of who made it). What about cases in which the message is more reasonably offensive to a religious community? In 1987, New York artist Andres Serrano photographed a plastic crucifix submerged in his own urine and titled it “Piss Christ.” This offended many Christians. In 2011, the photograph was displayed in an exhibition called, “I Believe in Miracles.” A group of protesters entered the exhibition, threatened the guards with a hammer, broke the plexiglass and destroyed the photograph.

This issue is morally complex. A person’s core beliefs tend to be fundamental to their identity. When those beliefs are treated with disrespect, often the person who holds them feels that their dignity is being disrespected as well. Complicating matters is the fact that beliefs that turn out to be false can, nevertheless, be fundamental to a person’s identity. It can often feel, then, that demonstrating respect for the dignity of other people involves demonstrating respect for beliefs that we might think are false and even harmful. It is difficult to know how to keep discourse respectful under these conditions. There are obligations on both sides.

Some argue that, at least in certain cases, respectful discourse shouldn’t be our first priority. Some messages are so hateful and potentially harmful that they should have their platform taken away immediately. If messages are racist, sexist, or homophobic, they simply do not deserve a platform of any kind. There may be benefits to criticizing things like religion, however, because religion is a belief system that people can choose to either accept or reject. Some argue that there is no similar benefit to hate speech.  

Others argue that the healthiest environment, intellectually and morally, is one in which all ideas can be expressed. Philosopher John Stuart Mill famously argued that ideas, even if insidious, should not be suppressed. In On Liberty, Mill argued that 

“the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”

This is a somewhat settled matter when it comes to the obligations of government; free speech is crucial to a thriving democracy. But determining what to do in our private and creative lives is more difficult. We must find ways to speak truth and also to respect dignity, to express ourselves but also to understand and appreciate that our words have consequences. We also have obligations as listeners. It may be that the most effective way to deal with speech we dislike is not to cancel or destroy the speech, but to use our own voices to express why the speech might be problematic.

Pastor Fritts, the First Amendment, and Public and Private Reason

photograph of Knox County Sheriff's seal

On June 19th, a restaurant in Tennessee declined to host an event sponsored by a local church group after the church’s pastor made headlines calling for the state-sponsored execution of LGBTQ individuals. All Scripture Baptist Church, an independent congregation in Knoxville led by pastor (and former deputy of the Knox County Sheriff’s office) Grayson Fritts, had planned to hold a ‘Small Town Soul Winning’ event at a Cracker Barrel in Cleveland, TN, but a campaign sparked by the Tennessee Democratic Party quickly led to the popular southern-comfort restaurant chain issuing a statement citing their “zero-tolerance policy for discriminatory treatment or harassment of any sort” as well as their strict prohibition of “any type of protest or public demonstration” on company property. They have advised Fritts and his group that they will not be welcome at any of their locations.

In addition to his hateful comments (which likened LGBTQ people to “freaks” who were “infesting the nation,” called homosexuality a “capital crime” that should be punished with death, and named diseases like HIV and AIDS “their reward for engaging in this kind of behavior”), Pastor Fritts attracted national attention because of his bivocational position as a Knox County sheriff’s deputy. Though Fritts was asked to take a buyout offer for his position and has been placed on leave until it takes effect next month, he has been a government employee for nearly twenty years.

A case like this presents several interesting conflicts: for example, a private citizen publicly calling for violence against a marginalized group is something which clearly violates both ethical and legal norms. Particularly if Fritts’ words incited physical violence, we might rightfully expect him to be held accountable for them. However, Fritts as citizen has not (evidently) engaged in physical violence, and has expressed his homophobic preferences under the guise of his religious faith a category we often take to allow for unusual exceptions for what’s allowed in the realm of speech (if not of other forms of action). If Mr. Fritts thinks that his spirituality entails his anti-LGBTQ position, then he might well expect the freedoms of the First Amendment (including the freedom of speech and religious practice) to protect his expressions from governmental oversight, however unpopular they might be (and provided they do not inspire anyone to action).

However, in addition to his pastoral position, Fritts had (until placed on leave as a consequence of his comments) served as a deputy in the Knox County sheriff’s department. His suggestion that the state should prosecute members of the LGBTQ community, leads to immediate questions about Fritts’ capability to fairly serve as an officer of the law. If the homophobia in his sermon evidenced his true convictions about social policy, then it seems unlikely he would be able to protect and serve the citizens whom he thought deserving of moral punishment. Following the public outcry over his inability to perform his duties in light of his sermon’s content, Fritts was removed from active duty and will soon leave the department.

Western philosophers frequently discuss the importance of free speech, often treating it as one of, if not the, foundation upon which philosophical inquiry can stand. In chapter two of On Liberty, for example, John Stuart Mill famously defended “the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” Granted that they did not incite violence, Mill would generally support Fritts-the-citizens’ expressions not because he would necessarily agree with the message, but rather because Mill would agree with the quip from Evelyn Beatrice Hall (often mis-attributed to her friend Voltaire or, sometimes, to the American Patrick Henry) that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Although he too valued free inquiry, Immanuel Kant took a different approach to the free expression of that inquiry. In his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?,” Kant explains how the social roles we inhabit limit how we can rightfully behave. When functioning as the representative of an organization – as one does when they wear a uniform or speak in an official capacity – Kant calls this the “private” use of reason (since the speaker’s reasoning abilities are being applied to the private purposes of the group); when arguing on one’s own behalf – in, say, self-published writings under one’s own name – this is Kant’s “public” use of reason.1 Because the development of widespread public use of reason is essential for the continued development of society (“enlightenment”) overall, Kant thought that it should be free in a roughly Millian sense. However, the private use of reason can be rightly constrained in all sorts of ways particularly if the private application of one person’s reason could limit the public use of another’s.

For example, Kant points out how an officer on duty cannot criticize his orders without undermining the authority of his office; when representing his duties as an officer, the soldier is restricted to obeying his superiors, but when speaking “publicly” as an individual citizen, “he could not rightfully be prevented from taking notice of the mistakes in the military service and from submitting his views to his public for its judgment.” Or, similarly, Kant talks about how citizens are obligated as citizens to pay their taxes, but they are free (as individuals) to express doubts about the propriety of those taxes. This two-tiered split between the public and private spaces is a hallmark feature of post-Enlightenment thinking.

What, then, was Fritts’ sermon doing? Was it the public expression of an individual simply speaking his mind? Or was Fritts acting as a representative of a particular office?

Kant clearly would think the latter. His primary example of a private use of reason which can be easily abused is the office of clergymember who defines certain dogmas as ‘orthodox’ to limit the freedom of church members’ thinking. To Kant, preachers should preach within the boundaries of their ordination; if a preacher wishes to go beyond those doctrines in their personal writings or conversations, they are free to do so – but such distinctions should be clearly marked. By saying anything from the pulpit, it is implied that this is the official position of the organization, just as how saying anything while wearing a uniform lends the authority of that uniform to the words. It is imperative for Kant that individuals like Mr. Fritts, who (at the time) carried both governmental and ecclesial power, make clear in what mode they are speaking – as representatives of their respective organizations or as free individuals with opinions of their own.

Because Fritts was speaking not just as Mr. Fritts, but as Pastor Fritts, Kant would likely support cautionary limitations on his freedom of speech insofar as Fritts’ words conflict with the cohesive message of his religious community as a whole. These restrictions might not take the form of legal proscriptions from the state, but would be the responsibility of the (in-theory) misrepresented group itself to restrain their rogue member. The fact that Fritts’ particular congregation is aligned with his perspective simply means that it would fall to his wider faith community as a whole to condemn his speech and the entirety of the small church body’s viewpoint.

Furthermore, by failing to distinguish between Mr. Fritts, Pastor Fritts, and Officer Fritts, Kant would condemn the improper confusion of multiple public roles. Kant points out in “What is Enlightenment?” that anyone who does believe things contradictory to their office “would not be able to administer his office with a clear conscience. He would have to resign it.” Because Fritts’ speech has given clear evidence that his biases reveal underlying convictions contradictory to a police officer’s oath of public service, Kant would likely doubt Fritts’ ability to perform his sheriff’s duties in the proper way and support his professional removal.

So, as with many things in Kant, the conclusion here is complicated, but at least one thing is clear: he saw the cooptation of another person’s thinking as downright sacrilege, as well as the likely result of misrepresenting a group’s identity. Because enlightenment requires everyone to be able to think for themselves without relying on others to do it for them, Kant thought that everyone should be free to think and argue whatever they like – but in order to think rightly, we need to be able to trust that the representatives of an organization fairly reflect their group. For Pastor Fritts to ostensibly speak for a centuries-old faith community with billions of members worldwide (many of whom are members of the very marginalized group he slandered) – obligates him to treat his words more carefully.

Perhaps this is, in part, why Mr. Fritts’ own Bible cautions people from becoming teachers, lest they “receive the greater condemnation” (James 3:1).


1 Notice that this is roughly backwards from how we often talk about the ‘private’ and ‘public’ categories today. Many thanks to both @ergo_praxis and Florence Bacus (@morallawwithin) for their assistance in clarifying this tricky point of Kant’s. Any confusion of mine that remains is certainly despite their efforts.

Separating Character from Policy at the Ballot Box

close-up photograph of old ballot box

The Democratic primary and 2020 presidential election are just around the corner. The Democratic nominee’s best chance of winning likely involves trying to get votes from Trump supporters in swing states. In an effort to do this, the nominee will almost certainly attack Trump’s personal moral character. As polls suggest, many of his supporters won’t care. They’ll draw a sharp line between the person and their policies. I am going to argue that they’re basically right to do this. Trump should be voted out of office because he’s been a terrible president — not because he’s been a terrible person.

Endless ire is directed at Trump for being a morally terrible person in his private life. He deserves it. The full list of Trump’s personal moral flaws is far too long to review here, though many of the most egregious are well known. He’s repeatedly cheated his employees, business partners, and students of his fake university; he’s also cheated on his wives. On countless occasions, he demonstrated himself to be an unrepentant racist, ableist, homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic, misogynist.

Many people, including those in the media, treat the fact that Trump is a terrible person as a decisive reason not to vote for him. The implication is that Trump’s personal moral failings make it wrong for people to support him politically. This is a mistake: sometimes, we should support candidates who say and do morally terrible things in their personal life.

When, exactly? Whenever the person who has done morally terrible things would do more good in office than any other candidate. To be clear, I agree that Trump has done morally terrible things in his personal life and I agree that people shouldn’t support him politically, but I deny that we shouldn’t support him politically because he’s done morally terrible things in his personal life.

Rather, our support for political candidates should be almost exclusively determined by how good it would be for the world if this candidate were elected — relative to our alternatives. This position may seem odd, but it’s one that I think many will find plausible upon reflection. To see why, consider an analogy. Suppose that there are ten people trapped in various places around town in a snowstorm. You have the keys to the only snowplow, which you can give to one of two people. The first is a moral saint whose moderate snowplow driving skills would result in just three people being rescued. The second is a moral reprobate whose superior snowplow driving skills would result in all ten people being rescued. Suppose, furthermore, that whoever ends up driving the plow will become (locally) famous and receive numerous accolades for their rescue mission. Though, neither will use their newfound place in the spotlight to do anything else as important as saving lives.

Who should get the keys? It seems clear that you should give the keys to the moral reprobate who is going to save all ten lives over the moral saint who is only going to save three. This is so even though you’ll be giving power to a person who has done morally terrible things in their personal life. This is regrettable, but ensuring that more good people are saved is simply more important than ensuring that those doing the saving are themselves good people.

Now, the president can shape domestic and foreign policy in ways that affect the lives of billions of people, including future generations. This means that the reason to prioritize the value of a president’s effects on the world over their personal moral character is exponentially greater in the real world than in my snowplow case.   

Perhaps you’re worried that my analogy is too simple. After all, some of the particular ways in which Trump was a morally terrible private citizen provided good evidence that the policies he would enact would likewise be morally terrible, and indeed they were. If this is right, then Trump’s personal moral failings are at least indirectly relevant to whether we should support him politically. This much seems right to me. But this does not vindicate the ever-so-common assumption that a candidate’s personal moral failings themselves determine whether we should support a candidate politically.

In fact, if I am right, many candidate’s personal moral failings should play almost no role in our political deliberation. This is because personal moral failings simply tell us less about how a candidate would act in office than the candidate’s platform and political affiliation. Moreover, moral failings often tells us very little about what candidates would do in office. For instance, Trump’s infidelity told us nothing about how he would try to change the tax code or our healthcare system or much of anything, really. On the other hand, Trump’s history of xenophobic comments was good evidence that he would support xenophobic policies. So, a candidate’s personal moral failings can be quite relevant to the question of whether they deserve our political support, but this will only apply in cases where the candidate’s personal moral failings provide good evidence of political moral failings. This consideration won’t apply in cases where a candidate’s personal moral transgressions are unrelated to policy issues (e.g. infidelity) or when they’ve genuinely disavowed past moral transgressions (e.g. opposition to gay marriage).    

My view may seem to be on shaky ground when applied to Trump: he’s such a uniquely morally terrible person. But I’m not so sure it is. To see why, simply imagine that we’re faced with the choice of electing one of two candidates. One acts just like Trump does in his personal life, but would use his political power to enact whatever you take to be the best possible policies. Perhaps this includes mitigating the effects of climate change, providing universal healthcare, ending factory farming, and so on. The second is a moral saint in their personal life, but would do exactly what Trump has done in office. Whom should we elect? I think the answer is clear.

USA vs. Thailand and the Limits of Sportsmanship

photograph of two female soccer plays celebrating during match

The first round of this year’s Women’s World Cup saw a rather lopsided result, with team USA defeating team Thailand by a score of 13-0. This has been by far the largest margin of victory so far, with the second largest coming from a 4-0 victory of France over South Korea, and with goal differentials generally averaging around 1 or 2. While it is certainly not unheard of to see such one-sided results (compare results from the 2015 Women’s World Cup, which recorded several comparable outcomes), that team USA beat their opponents so soundly has made some question whether doing so was unsportsmanlike.

People have generally taken issue with the match in one of two ways: first, some have claimed that simply “running up the score” is unsportsmanlike, and that team USA should have held back after it was clear that they were going to win. Second, some have expressed the view that the manner in which team USA celebrated their late goals was unsportsmanlike, insofar as players continued to be enthusiastic about them: one might think that while it is okay to be very excited about scoring the first few goals, once you’ve hit a dozen then maybe you should tone it down a bit.

For example, Fox Sports analyst Rob Stone stated that the game became “humiliating,” that it was little more than “target practice for the United States,” and that while up by so many goals a team should instead “pull it back” and “knock it around” instead of trying to score again. Clare Rustad and Kaylyn Kyle, former members of Canada’s national team, did not appreciate that the US team celebrating their late goals enthusiastically, with Rustad commenting that “I would have hoped they could have won with humility and grace, but celebrating goals eight, nine, 10 like they were doing was really unnecessary,” and Kyle stating that “I’m all about passion, but as a Canadian we would just never ever think of doing something like that.”

Forward Megan Rapinoe received perhaps the lion’s share of the backlash online for being what some judged as overly enthusiastic, scoring 5 goals and celebrating each of them. While it is of course not against the official rules to celebrate scoring a goal, it is commonplace for people to make reference to the “unwritten rules” of sports, one of which is perhaps to try to win as gracefully as possible. Should we think that Rapinoe and team USA violated such an unwritten rule, or that they acted in unsportsmanlike ways?

To address this question is would be good, of course, to have a sense of what “unsportsmanlike behavior” consists of. To help us with this question we can turn to those working on the philosophy of sport. Consider some early thoughts on the nature of sportsmanship from philosopher James Keating:

The primary purpose of sport is not to win the match, to catch the fish or kill the animal, but to derive pleasure from the attempt to do so and to afford pleasure to one’s fellow participants in the process…[G]enerosity and magnanimity are essential ingredients in the conduct and attitude properly described as sportsmanlike. They establish and maintain the unique social bond; they guarantee that the purpose of sport – the immediate pleasure of the participants – will not be sacrificed to other more selfish ends. All the prescriptions which make up the code of sportsmanship are derived from this single, basic, practical maxim: Always conduct yourself in such a manner that you will increase rather than detract from the pleasure to be found in the activity, both your own and that of your fellow participants.

One lesson we can draw from these thoughts is that playing a sport cannot just be a single-minded drive to win by any means necessary. However, while Keating seems right that sports are not solely about winning, they are, at the same time, at least somewhat about winning. Other philosophers have noted that there can be a tension between the goal of winning and Keating’s goal of trying to make sure that everyone is having fun. For example, philosopher Diana Abad argues that there are “four elements of sportsmanship: fairness, equity, good form and the will to win” but recognizes that the last is often in conflict with the first three. As a result, Abad argues that sportsmanship requires that we attempt to balance the components as much as possible.

We might worry that continuing to score goals in an already lopsided affair would run afoul of these requirements of sportsmanship: it seems that one would not be attempting to make sure that one’s opponent is having as fun of an experience as possible after going up by a dozen goals, and by doing so one might think that the balance between the will to win and good form has gone out of whack. There may, however, be more to the story. For example, philosopher Nicholas Dixon recognizes that it might seem that beating an opponent so soundly could seem cruel, but also argues that lopsided victories can be valuable in that they display tremendous athletic ability. Furthermore, argues Dixon, it may seem to be more of a humiliation to one’s opponents to take it easy on them, since doing so would potentially show disrespect towards them as athletes.

We might also think that while it would be unsportsmanlike to score and celebrate goals with the intent to humiliate one’s opponents, so long as a player is themselves having fun playing a game they love then chastising them for doing so would border on pearl-clutching. For example, Luis Paez-Pumar writing at Deadspin reported that Megan Rapinoe did not think that accusations of unsportsmanlike behavior were well founded, with Paez-Pumar summarizing the matter as follows: “So there you have it: Megan Rapinoe is not sorry for playing a sport with joy.”

There are still, of course, limits to sportsmanlike behavior. But in the case of the response to Rapinoe and the US team it seems that we would do well to keep in mind that one can still win, have fun, and not violate the unwritten rules of sportsmanship.

The Decriminalization of Prostitution and the Commodification of Sex

close-up photograph of red signal light

Democratic lawmakers in New York State have moved to decriminalize sex work, making it legal to engage in the consensual sale of sex. Massachusetts, Maine, and other states have similar laws already in force, but the New York bill will release those in prison for acts that are no longer illegal as well.  

Practically speaking, making sex work illegal has not created safe environments for many people living in the US. When an activity is illegal, it pressures the participants into anonymity and makes it harder for them to receive care and support when harm results from participating in the activity. For sex work, this can mean theft, sexual assault, harassment, exploitation, rape, and worse.

For example, rape and gonorrhea dropped significantly in Rhode Island in the decade following decriminalization of indoor prostitution (as a journalist for Vox reported in 2015: “there was a 31 percent decrease in rape offenses and 39 percent fewer cases of female gonorrhea — and no extraordinary drop in other kinds of crime, suggesting the reduction in rape offenses was not representative of a broader crime drop or better policing across the board.”

Opponents of decriminalization generally object on the basis of the moral standing of sex work, claiming sex work can be categorized as exploitation or commodification.

To argue that sex work is exploitative, one has to establish that it takes advantage of a vulnerability that should be protected, or *not* taken advantage of. This argument points to empirical trends of who engages in sex work (typically members of disadvantaged groups) and the rate of unfortunate side effects or corollaries of engaging in sex work (typically the harms listed above). This line of argument suggests that people ought to be protected from engaging in sex work similarly to how we should be protected from other unfortunate work environments – “sweat shops”, etc.

However, advocates for decriminalizing sex work point out that many people choose to engage with the variety of jobs that qualify as sex work. Further, the risk and negative correlations are greatly reduced when the threat of being subject to the criminal justice system is removed through decriminalization, as the Rhode Island example suggests. Further, this argument can be interpreted as stripping sex workers of their agency, characterizing sex workers in a way that undermines their ability to make their own choices about what to do with their bodies.

Some take issue with sex work even while conceiving of sex workers as free and autonomous people in control of their decisions. The concern here is that sex is not the sort of thing that should be a job or for sale. In short, sex work commodifies something of moral value.

Commodification refers to the moral wrong involved with treating something only in the domain of marketplace norms. In other words, the standards for how something should be treated become understood economically, which is inappropriate given the nature of the object. When we engage with products, it is typically appropriate to treat them as commodities: Norms of the marketplace are maximization norms. The economic marketplace is competitive and if you can get a good deal on something that benefits you, that is not only permissible but the system supports it. If I have a book and am willing to sell it for a certain price, but someone offers me much more for it, according to the norms that constitute the economic domain I get to take that better offer and benefit myself. If I choose to let them know they can save some cash and let them have it for the price I originally envision, I’m being a nice person, surely, acting beneficently. But no economic standards demand this as long as parties act freely and consensually.

A prime example of commodification is slavery – where human beings are treated as products on the marketplace. Clearly there are more norms than economic that apply to how we should treat people. Thus, even if there are willing parties on both ends of an economic transaction, it is not right to buy or sell a person.

Recently in bioethics more complicated questions related to commodification have become relevant. When having a child with a surrogate, parents exchange money for the surrogate mothers’ services. The pregnancy is something that a person can provide in exchange for money, and thus using a person’s body in a sense is treated as a commodity in the market. In New Jersey, surrogacy agreements where the surrogate is compensated are illegal, and in 27 countries compensated surrogacy is illegal (the legal standing of “altruistic surrogacy” varies). Similarly, exchanging money for organs, like kidneys, is criticized as objectionable commodification. The values associated with the human body and medicine, say some, extend beyond the free exchange of goods and services in an economic market.   

To restate, what’s happening with commodification is that you are using norms (namely, marketplace norms) that are inappropriate for the circumstances (typically because they are insufficient, there are more principles or standards that you ought to be governed by than the rather austere marketplace norms). Marketplace norms say that what you ought to do is get as much as you can for yourself. You pursue your own best interests, and as long as the other party consents, you get to exact benefits. Commodification happens when the value of a good or service is reduced to its mere economic worth despite its greater social significance. For example, you shouldn’t approach family interactions using only marketplace norms – there are additional (moral usually) norms you should attend to. There is something of value missing or being disrespected if the only reason families interact is for goods and services exchanged ($20 for showing up to Sunday dinner, if not supported by some kind of relationship, begins to look less like a family relationship for these sorts of reasons).

To take a biomedical example, the doctor-patient relationship comes with extra norms and rules beyond those established by the marketplace. There are often extra protections and responsibilities that come with inhabiting a particular role that means that it would be wrong to treat a patient as merely a person in an economic exchange. There is something going wrong, we think, if a doctor barters with a patient over the cost of revealing lab results, for instance. The nature of the relationship should be based on providing care, which supersedes the doctor’s economic standing as seeking financial benefit.

When critics of bills that decriminalize sex work take moral issue with buying and selling sex, often it is in these terms. Sexual relationships, one could say, should not be solely subject to norms of economics. However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that sexuality is intricately, intimately, and inextricably involved in the economy. Also, workers use their bodies to earn a living in myriad ways that don’t raise a commodification objection – consider manual labor.

Whether opponents consider sex work to be exploitative or commodifying, attending to the wishes of those who actually occupy the professions and respecting their autonomy is an important ethical imperative. In addition to this, the empirical evidence that negative correlations of sex work dramatically reduce when decriminalization occurs have important implications if finding a sensible way forward.

What Technological Dystopias Can Tell Us About Human Values

photograph of a man's reflected image on mirror taken by iphone

On June 5th, Season Five of the popular television show Black Mirror became available for streaming on Netflix. The series isn’t for the faint of heart—most of the storylines are about as existential as television can get. The name “Black Mirror” is a reference to the idea that when one stares into a dark cell phone or computer screen one sees one’s own reflection. Aptly, the series explores the human relationship with technology.

In many episodes, Black Mirror hints that the development of certain kinds of technology could lead to dystopic living conditions. Most dictionaries define a “dystopia” as a world in which life is particularly difficult. For example, dictionary.com defines dystopia as, “a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.” Though these definitions capture some of the essential features of a dystopia, there is an important common element that they miss—dystopias are almost always generated as part of a desperate search to achieve utopia.   

Utopia, a book written by Sir Thomas More in 1516, introduced the term into common parlance. In this work, a world traveler describes his visit to the island of Utopia—a perfect society. One of the most noteworthy characteristics of the Utopians is that they don’t value things that don’t contribute significantly to a meaningful human life. They view obsession with money and the extravagances of material wealth as childish and humiliating:

They find pearls on their coast, and diamonds and carbuncles on their rocks. They seek them not, but if they find them by chance, they polish them and give them to their children for ornaments, who delight in them during their childhood. But when they come to years of discretion, and see that none but children use such baubles, they lay them aside of their own accord; and would be as much ashamed to use them afterward, as grown children among us would be of their toys.

More uses the fictional Utopians to pursue questions such as: What if we didn’t value wealth?​ What if we shared resources so that no one had to worry about their livelihood or the well-being of those they love?​ What if we avoided war at all costs?​  What if we allowed people to believe according to the dictates of their consciences?​

Dystopias are often presented initially as answers to questions of this type. What if society could easily resolve our most substantial struggles as human beings? Traditional dystopias explore the nature of the relationship between individuals and governments. For example, Brave New World describes a society in which, at least on the face of things, all humans are maximally happy. The primary way that the government achieves this result is by ensuring that citizens always get what they want. They do this by engineering them in such a way that they have little to no control over what they want. In 1984, citizens no longer need to worry themselves about what beliefs they ought to have. Language is refined, reduced, and policed by the dominant party, and knowledge is what the government says that it is. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the government sorts out messy decisions concerning love and sex.The conclusion that the reader is left to draw at the end of each of these stories is that a world in which the government solves the most difficult problems wouldn’t be a better world. Part of what makes life meaningful is the struggle to answer these questions for oneself, even when it’s challenging.  

In a technological dystopia, technology plays the role that government once did in similar stories. What if we could use technology to eliminate or reduce life’s most painful struggles? Black Mirror takes up these questions in chilling ways. For example, in the season four episode, Arkangel, a young single mother struggles with the question of exactly how much control she should exert over her daughter’s life. She is offered the opportunity to know exactly how her child is doing at all times, to check her vital statistics, blur out disturbing sensory images, and even to see what her daughter is seeing, all on a tablet. This technology presents an opportunity to achieve what many might think is a utopic ideal. What if we could keep our children perfectly protected from the harshness and danger of the world? The episode suggests something about human nature and human values; character development for both parent and child requires some level of uncertainty and plenty of independence.  

Black Mirror also explores questions about memory. We all have experiences that cause us to wish that our memories were perfect. If only we could remember everything, we would never misplace our car keys, leave something crucial behind, or miss an important appointment. The episodes Crocodile and The Entire History of You explore what the consequences might be if our memories were perfect. The viewer is left with the impression that our fallible memories may be a blessing in disguise. The ability to forget is associated with reduction of anxiety and pain, the potential to forgive, and the power to move on. A world in which human memory is perfect may not be a utopia after all.

There are many episodes of Black Mirror in which a character’s consciousness is uploaded into a digital space. These episodes encourage introspection about questions such as: Are human beings essentially mortal? What kinds of things are persons? Is immortality desirable?

There are only three episodes in the most recent season.  In an interesting twist, one of the episodes is set in 2018—the past. It suggests that our addiction to social media may have already landed us in a dystopia of our own making.

The philosophical questions raised by Black Mirror are, in many ways, more fundamental and existential than those posed by earlier dystopic works. All dystopias get those who engage with them thinking about their values. Technological dystopias reflect back to us who we are at an existential level. With any luck, they also get us thinking about the moral parameters we should set on the development of new technology.

Collective Responsibility and the MMIWG Report

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Note: for immediate emotional assistance relating to Indigenous survivor and family experiences, please call 1-844-413-6649, a 24/7, toll-free national hotline in Canada.

Canada has long had a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.  The number of Indigenous women and girls who were killed between 1980 and 2012 alone is estimated to be close to 4,000. Indigenous women are six times likelier to be murdered than non-Indigenous women, experience intimate partner violence at a rate three times greater than that of non-Indigenous women, and compared with non-Indigenous women, are three times likelier to be killed by a stranger.

 On June 4, Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released its long-awaited analysis. The two-volume report (available in full and as an executive summary) aimed at a cohesive account of the causes and remedies to the violence enacted against First Nations women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual people).  

The report documents the testimony of 2,380 survivors, family members, Knowledge Keepers and experts. The participants shed light on more than facts: sharing the experience, context, and recurring stories of families torn apart by Canada’s recent colonialist history, including the impact of residential schools, the “Sixties Scoop”, and the extractive industries which are particularly fraught with risk for Indigenous women as well as challenges to Indigenous autonomy.  

The inquiry confronted structural issues, defining the Canadian government’s systematic treatment of Indigenous peoples and the resulting deaths of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA persons as genocide. Its analysis takes intergenerational consequences of forced assimilation into account. While the accusation of genocide has caused some controversy in Canadian media (see here, here, and here), others note that Canadians’ reaction to the term is revealing of the colonial structures that are maintained in the present day.

Genocide was defined by the UN in 1948 to encompass more than immediate wholesale slaughter, but also the intent to eliminate the group through “killing members of the group; causing serious mental or bodily harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” The MMIWG inquiry appended a 46-page legal analysis defending their use of the term, both with regard to the mens rea (the intention to destroy) and the actions as listed above in the UN’s definition.

What is the collective responsibility of Canadians for the violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA members?

While speaking in terms of settler ‘privilege’ is an established way of framing the positionality of non-Indigenous peoples in the Americas, Beenash Jafri proposes ‘complicity’ with colonialism as a framework that removes the lens from the complexities of individual privilege and oppression (which can derail into comparing the personal experiences of inhabitants). Instead, the model of ‘complicity’ can help non-Indigenous people and their descendants comprehend the larger structures that were designed to decimate Indigenous sovereignty, cultures, and peoples.   

The notion of ‘complicity’ encourages a forensic approach to this Canadian genocide, which maps easily onto the findings of the MMIWG investigation. Grandmother Leslie (or Giizhigooweyaabikwe) recounts the linguistic apparatuses of colonialism in blaming missing and murdered women for their own disappearance:

“There’s always the polite terminology, which is coded, racially coded, like ‘at-risk,’ or those kinds of things. There’s ways of people washing their hands as if to say, ‘Well… that has really nothing to do with us.’ (…) They’ve contributed to their own disappearances, and/or rapes, and/or murders, by their personal behaviours – by the way that they are dressed, by what they were doing, by being Indigenous, and by being women. Many people don’t see the system as violence. But in fact, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is the result of imposed poverty, legal and individual racism, discrimination and the patriarchy.”

Another such assumption wielded against First Nations communities is the popular statistic, first voiced in 2015 by Harper-appointed Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, that 70% of murdered Indigenous women are killed by Indigenous men, a claim that is not linked to measurable data. Valcourt has elsewhere displayed his penchant for reducing Indigenous issues to intra-family  problems by dismissing the suicides of Indigenous youths as being the concern of their parents, and was tepid concerning a nation-wide inquiry into the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Lack of data does not prevent Valcourt’s claim from being used as a rhetorical derailment against conversations on national responsibility for Indigenous deaths and disappearances. While there are de-colonizing approaches for discussing family violence in the context of intergenerational trauma, this is not the conversation which immediately involves all Canadians, except insofar as reparations for centuries of violence can contribute to support for Indigenous families.

The violated freedoms of Indigenous women which result in inadequate options and the genocidal context of their murders and disappearances do immediately implicate us as a nation. Certain patterns are known in these cases: Men appear to be the primary perpetrators of violence on Indigenous women (to the tune of 92 percent, according to one study). Offenders often prey on Indigenous women because the latter lack safe housing and safe transportation. Killers of Indigenous women are treated less severely than those who kill non-Indigenous women, revealing that Indigenous women are devalued in the justice system. The Chief Commissioner of the MMIWG report, Marion Buller, proposed an automatic charge of first-degree murder when the victim is an Indigenous woman, girl, or LGTBQ member to correct this imbalance. We could look for new legal categories to apply to crimes where the victim is an Indigenous woman, girl, or 2SLGBTQQIA member (adopting a lesson from Columbia, for example, which in 2015 defined “feminicide” as a hate crime carrying its own minimum penalty).

All Canadians can take it upon themselves to be informed, to condemn, and cease to tolerate abuses of and violence against First Nations women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA members. It is also crucial to educate ourselves concerning the historical and contemporary factors leading to this crisis. A combination of legal, cultural, and political structures resulted in systematic genocide of Canada’s first peoples – a legacy reflected in the histories of survivors.

Indigenous women have been marginalized since the earliest days of Canada’s colonization. While First Nations cultures traditionally held women in high regard, this norm was threatening to the patriarchal social organization of European colonists.  The consequences of the 1876 Indian Act, which stripped Indigenous women of their status if they married outside their tribe, continue to the present day.

Forced assimilation and genocide in Canada is often trained on Indigenous women’s bodies. Coercive sterilization is one instance. Disasters like long-standing water emergencies within Indigenous communities often burden women most heavily.

Reading the MMIWG report, one gets a glimpse of the power and agency of Indigenous women, their families, and their communities. As a nation, we need to listen to and support Indigenous women when they lead.

What would stopping this genocide look like in practice?  The report issued 231 specific recommendations addressed to the government, Canadians at large, healthcare professionals, police, lawyers, educators, media influencers, and extractive industries. It must be a collective effort, not a one-stop measure. There have been 98 calls-to-action on Indigenous well-being in the past that have not yet wrought widespread change. At the same time, the MMIWG report, a key part of the successful 2015 Liberal election campaign, marks the first nation-scale inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It represents an imperative to change.

The report should awaken us to the need for systemic shifts – to increase the presence of First Nations’ women in legislation, in budgeting, in the regulation of services. We also need radical rethinking of our institutions. Canadian political and legal institutions are shaped by colonialism and patriarchy and marginalize First Nations’ peoples by design. We need to address the interlocking functions of patriarchy, colonialism, and racism. Finally, we need to be informed of and support the inherent prior rights of Indigenous peoples and to value the lives and leadership of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA members.

The Boston Straight Pride Parade: Meaning, Weight, and Context

photograph of pink female and blue male caricatures

The group, Super Happy Fun America, has announced that they will hold a Straight Pride Parade in Boston in August. After circulating images of Brad Pitt as supposedly “the face of this important civil rights movement,” they were forced to find a new spokesperson. Pitt demanded they remove his name and image from their organization and event, making it clear that he did not endorse their position on the trials and tribulations of the heteronormative community or the importance of a movement for “straight pride.” Few public figures have mentioned anything about the endeavor with anything but derision (of course, there is always Tomi Lahren).

Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right provocateur who also is gay, has accepted the position as mascot and grand marshal for the parade. Yiannopoulos has dismissed feminism as a large cat-fight, railed against the Black Lives Matter movement as the “last acceptable hate group,” and got fired from Breitbart for defending pro-pedophilia comments. It isn’t surprising that he’s up for the controversy inherent in putting on a parade to revel in being a member of an advantaged group in response to celebrations of marginalized groups in the face of adversity. He says, “I might technically be a sequined and perfectly coiffed friend of Dorothy’s, but I’ve spent my entire career advocating for the rights of America’s most brutally repressed identity—straight people—so I know a thing or two about discrimination. This parade is a gift to anyone, male or female, black or white—gay and transgender allies, too!—who will stand with us and celebrate the wonder and the majesty of God’s own heterosexuality.”

The lofty and hyperbolic language actually captures the sentiment of the Super Happy Fun America’s intended message: God’s own heterosexuality is wondrous and worth celebrating, by everyone presumably. As ever, though, it is important to consider just what is being communicated by such large and public acts. What does it mean to say that it’s important to celebrate the wonder of heterosexuality, especially to the point of taking time, money, and permits into the expressive power of this celebrated wonder?

With any communication, we covey much more than spoken words. When someone sneezes for the third time and you say, “The Kleenex’s are on the end table,” the context fills out meaning beyond the factual description of how objects are laid out in the room. The utterance carries with it some urging force, you’re trying to get the sneezer to make use of this information, either to grab one of those particular Kleenexes or to take care of their nose situation in some way. A lot of our speech works because of this contextual force. Our expectations and practical understanding of the social world informs what we intend to mean by our statements and what we can successfully interpret. Consider how different the meaning that the text responses “k”, “OK”, and especially “k.” carry (that period can mean a LOT). A direct translation may result in the same language, but the conveyed information is more rich.

Beyond sentences, how we conduct conversations and what we take the time to highlight and converse about at all carries meaning and weight. When news shows spend forty minutes discussing a sex scandal and three minutes on a military conflict, there is some implication about which story or issue is more important to covey via their medium. When stressed-out friends have a talk about their days and the first articulates a tragedy occurring, the second conveys a lot if they respond with their frustration over a triviality. The message here, without more context, is that the triviality is on par with the tragedy. For example, if someone got fired from their very necessary job (health insurance, rent, etc.), and their friend responded in similar tones about the wait at their lunchtime gyro shop, the situation seems off just because of the contextual meaning conveyed in the conversation. The frustration of waiting a bit longer for food is being put on the same terms as losing the job.

Thus, drawing attention to plight is always happening in a context. That heterosexuality might very well be wondrous is just one aspect of the communication of having a straight pride parade. (Waiting in line for lunch *is* frustrating, and the Kleenexes *were* on the table, but there are other more pertinent things going on in both of those exchanges.) What does calling attention to how great it is to be heterosexual and cisgender in this manner convey?

There is no country where heterosexual marriage is illegal. It is almost always assumed that children growing up identify along a gender binary and will seek out monogamous relationships with someone on the other end of the gender binary – anything else is viewed as a minority variation at best to be declared and explained, but likely to be viewed as less-than and worse. Cis- and straight people have medical practitioners who are informed about their circumstances and can receive better care. People who are not LGBTQ+ live longer and are in fewer positions were they are physically in danger.

Last week in London a couple on the underground were beaten for refusing to kiss. This weekend, the Catholic Church released a document in defense of the “naturalness” of the gender binary and undermining the validity of trans and non-binary identities. In the US, Trump is challenging the legitimacy of families involving same-sex families by denying entry to the US of non-biologically related children of gay couples. These are just recent and much publicized events that contribute to a tapestry of disadvantage that meets non-cis-hetero folk in the US and across the globe.

Coming together to celebrate being a member of the advantaged groups, when the disadvantaged are still significantly marginalized, is at best in bad taste. But contextual sensitivity is often required to have uptake on issues of taste. More ethically pertinent, perhaps, is that straight pride ignores that having these defaults of cis-heteronormativity is continuing to disadvantage people. Celebrating what is not only the advantaged identity but the default identity makes it more difficult for advocacy for the groups that are neglected, systematically oppressed, or particularly targeted.

Press Freedom in Australia: Democracy, Transparency, and Trust

photograph of two security cameras on side of building

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This past week on Wednesday morning June 5, the Australian Federal Police raided the headquarters of the ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster and the most trusted media organisation in the country. Files were seized relating to a story from 2017 known as The Afghan Files sourced from leaked documents some of which detailed disturbing allegations of misconduct and criminal activity by Australian Special Forces serving in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2014.

The previous day, Tuesday June 4, the AFP had raided the home of News Corp Journalist Annika Smethurst in connection with a story she published over 12 months ago about the government secretly canvassing a plan to allow the National Signals Directorate to spy on Australians without their knowledge by hacking into critical infrastructure.

These raids have provoked outrage in Australia and beyond. It must be noted that the timing of consecutive raids is extraordinary, given that both reports concerned are well over 12 months old, and are in no way related to one another. The searches have raised concern about press freedom in Australia, with the media union denouncing them as a disturbing attempt to “intimidate” journalism.

Overseas media organisations like the BBC and The New York Times have weighed in on the raids. In a statement on Twitter the BBC said “this police raid against our partners the ABC is an attack on press freedom which we at the BBC find deeply troubling.” And The New York Times reported that Australia May Well be the World’s Most Secretive Democracy. Indeed, the Australian government has become increasingly tenacious in its pursuit of secrecy on a range of fronts, under the ever-broadening umbrella of ‘national security.’

These raids suggest that knowledge, which is merely inconvenient or embarrassing to the Australian government, is being guarded under the cloak of national security. Many observers dispute the characterization of either of these stories as genuine security issues. It is clear, also, that the release of both stories are overwhelmingly in the public interest. As such, it appears the government’s sweeping national security powers are being used to silence and intimidate journalists and their sources.

At the center of the debate is the question of what kind of security matters count as genuine reasons to keep knowledge from the public, and what constitutes an overwhelming public interest. At issue is balancing the principle of the public’s right to know with government’s need for confidentiality to protect other important things like security.

In the era since September 11, in response to the heightened threat of domestic terrorism, Australia has zealously pursued anti-terror, security legislation that has significantly advanced government agency powers. One such law, passed in 2015, requires internet providers and mobile phone networks to store customers’ metadata – the sender, recipient and time of emails and calls. The government argued that the bill was necessary to help Australia’s security services fight domestic terrorism. Those laws were further expanded once again at the end of 2018. There are limited defense provisions for journalists on the basis of public interest, but very weak protections for whistle-blowers who might be sources for investigative journalists.

If ‘national security’ is being used, as many civil liberties advocates worried it would be, to shut down debate and to silence public conversation, this has grave implications for Australia’s democratic integrity. There are deep issues at stake, in terms of the citizens’ ability to trust in the institutions of government, and to be protected against capricious acts by institutions, agencies, and governments. While security and confidentiality are important values, they must not be used by governments to hide things about which we ought to know, and we have to be able to trust that they are not.

It is ostensibly a conflict between the public’s right to know and the government’s right or need to protect confidential information, but that may be a false dichotomy. The interest of the people ought to be the only thing that determines the interest of a properly liberal democratic government –that is its raison d’être and its sole source of legitimacy. That is the ideal of a free democratic society – it is not however true in practice, and the distance between this ideal and reality is the measure of the extent of corruption of the modern democratic state. Corruption thrives on secrets.

Transparency and accountability are two of the most important principles for the functioning of an open, free society. They are both necessary conditions, without which a free, democratic society is not possible. We must be able to trust that, when knowledge which may have profound implications for our society is withheld on security grounds there is a genuine security risk associated with its disclosure. Yet that expectation of trustworthiness appears to have been breached, as the Australian government seeks to enforce its culture of secrecy by employing tactics of intimidation.

Australians have been asked to accept the erosion of many freedoms for the protection of national security. If these raids are not shown to be precipitated by genuine security concerns, the government’s ability to prosecute a case for genuine security needs in the future is compromised.

In a democracy the citizens legitimize the power of the state, and a democratic government has to be accountable to the citizens. A free press is what makes that accountability possible. In general, truth is fundamentally important for the function of an open, healthy democratic society, and we should lean heavily on the side of the public’s right to know and err on the side of transparency.

While some civil liberties advocates have long expressed scepticism about the wisdom of sweeping security laws, especially since Australia, lacking a bill or charter of rights, does not have strong legal protections for freedom of speech protecting the press, more broadly there has been a failure of community and political opposition to critically examine new security laws for how they could be misused; a failure which political commentator Waleed Aly described as a failure of civil reasoning. That failure has occurred in the context of a political culture dominated in Australia by ‘national security’ over other civic freedoms and rights.

The national conversation Australia is now having is about press freedom and its importance for democracy. Those participating need to remain cognizant that at stake is the abstract political and philosophical question of the legitimacy and the limit of state power.

Sephora and Diversity Training

photograph of exterior of Sephora outlet

If you were trying to buy cosmetics from retailer Sephora on the morning of June 5th then you may have found yourself mildly inconvenienced: retail locations across the US were shut down for an hour between 10 and 11 a.m. for employee diversity training, something that had been planned, according to the company, for months beforehand. That the shutdown had been planned for so long came as a surprise, as many had assumed that Sephora had decided to implement diversity training as a response to an incident involving musician SZA earlier in April. At that time, a Sephora employee called security on SZA, apparently to make sure that she wasn’t stealing, an action that seems clear was motivated by racial bias. Sephora apologized for the incident on Twitter, with the diversity training coming soon afterwards, although officially the timing is merely coincidental.

If this all sounds familiar, well that’s probably because you’ve heard it before. About a year ago, Starbucks closed their stores for half a day for mandatory diversity training after a similar incident: an employee in a Philadelphia location called the police because two black men were in their store, sitting and talking to one another. And if incidents of people calling the police on black men and women for completely innocuous activities in general sounds familiar, that’s also because you’ve probably been hearing about them a lot lately: perhaps an incident in which a Yale student called the cops on a fellow student napping in the library rings a bell, or maybe you’re reminded of one of the many, many recent incidents of “___-ing while black” (you can fill in that blank with pretty much any mundane activity).

With these kinds of incidents occurring frequently, we might think that diversity training of the kind implemented by Sephora and Starbucks would be a good thing. Nevertheless, we might still have reason to be concerned about Sephora’s actions in this case.

First, we might naturally be skeptical as to whether Sephora really cares about diversity training, or is simply trying to do damage control. The fact that the mandatory training came soon after a publicly embarrassing incident for the company, combined with the fact that the training was only an hour long, seems to indicate that they are not taking their responsibilities terribly seriously.

We might think, though, that any diversity training is better than none at all, and that Sephora is doing the right thing in attempting to make some things better, even if they could do more. Many news outlets reporting on the incident, however, point to research on the effectiveness of diversity training appearing to be somewhat conflicted: for example, one frequently-cited study reported that while diversity training programs are now extremely common in companies in the US, they do not generally result in greater diversity within the company itself, and warn that mandatory diversity training can induce resentment in employees, which could actually make biases worse. On the other hand another series of studies report that taking certain measures in diversity training such as “perspective-taking” (namely “the process of mentally walking in someone else’s shoes”) and “goal setting” (which involves having employees “set specific, measurable, and challenging (yet attainable) goals related to diversity in the workplace”) can result in concrete improvements, with employees “displaying more support and engaging in less mistreatment towards marginalized minorities.”

There are a couple of lessons we can take away from this, and at least one that we should not. Let’s start with the lesson we should not draw from this, which is that diversity training is, on the whole, a waste of time, or that it does more harm than good because it always breeds resentment from employees. If we are considering what responsibility Sephora has to account for the actions of their employee, then we should not take the mere fact that there is disagreement in scientific studies about the efficacy of diversity training to say that Sephora is not required to take strides to provide its employees with such training. Indeed, it seems that an obvious way to rectify their past mistake and attempt to prevent such mistakes from happening again in the future is to provide employees with the relevant diversity training.

What we should take away is that, like most things, diversity training will only be effective if it is done conscientiously and in a way that is informed by data and evidence. Furthermore, the problems that diversity training is meant to address cannot be solved in as little time as an hour, or half a day: effective diversity training will likely take time and effort, which is not something that can all be accomplished between 10 and 11 a.m. on a Wednesday.

How, then, should we think of the actions of Sephora in this case? Have they done what they ought to have done in response to the SZA incident? While apologizing and implementing diversity training seems like the right way to respond, it is hard to see how one could in good faith really believe that a single hour of diversity training could accomplish the goal of preventing such incidents from occurring in the future. It seems, then, that not only could Sephora have done more, but that they really should have known that what they were doing was not good enough.

Inconsistency in Animal Abuse

photograph of dog's face behind chain-link fence

On March 8, Anita Cullop-Thompson died in Virginia at the age of 67; roughly two weeks later, her dog Emma was euthanized per the direction of Cullop-Thompson’s will. Despite the fact that Emma, a Shih Tzu mix, was healthy and the shelter personnel were confident in their ability to find her another home, Emma’s last owner had indicated her desire to be buried with her pet. Because such animals are considered property, there was nothing clearly illegal about Emma’s killing, but the story (and public outrage regarding it) spread quickly after the news broke online in mid-May – even reaching countries on the other side of the Atlantic (English comedian Ricky Gervais had a particularly indignant summary of the story).

In general, it might be unsurprising to see a majority of people respond negatively to the seemingly unnecessary death of a healthy creature simply because of the particular wishes of a single human being. Animal abusers are routinely subjects for local news stories, such as the Pennsylvania woman who “debarked” her dogs by damaging their vocal cords with a rod shoved through their mouths, the New York man who locked and ignored several dogs in two cars that had been “gutted to the seat springs,” and the Arkansas man jailed after dozens of dogs, snakes, and exotic birds were found stashed inside his house – and that’s just within the week prior to this article’s writing. The Rhode Island state legislature recently approved the creation of a new animal-abuse registry to track and publicize offenders found guilty of animal cruelty and, within days of Emma’s story going viral, Virginia state lawmakers expressed interest in reforming the loopholes in the legal system which allowed for her death.

However, the most curious feature of public outcry against animal cruelty is not its prevalence, but its ignorance of the vast majority of animal-abuse cases available for discussion: namely, the literally billions of animals who are mistreated as a matter of course within the normal functioning of a concentrated animal feeding operation – colloquially dubbed a ‘factory farm.’ For example, the nearly nine billion chickens raised and slaughtered for their meat each year (as well as the millions of other birds raised for consumption) are excluded from all animal protection laws and are regularly crammed into small, stacked cages where each bird has roughly as much space to live as a sheet of letter-sized paper. Female pigs raised simply for breeding purposes are routinely confined to so-called ‘gestation crates’ for the majority of their lives, despite these cages being too small for the sows to actually turn around. If cats or hamsters were found in such conditions, the public would be rightly outraged; when farm animals are mistreated, the story is often quite different (if even told at all).

Decrying the abuse of dogs and not pigs, or of parrots and not chickens, is, at best, inconsistent and, at worst, hypocritical. It might seem wrong that Emma the Shih Tzu was executed because of her owner’s wishes, but this is a normal thing to do with an owner’s property. Any sadness or anger we might feel about Emma’s death is as irrationally emotional, as it would be if we cried over literal spilled milk, because only ‘property-owners’, and not ‘property’ itself, have rights. Emma – as property – can be disposed of legally, just as the millions of chickens, cows, and the like owned by corporate agribusinesses are “disposed of” to make our hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets.

The creatures funneled through CAFOs daily to feed hungry people are manifestly treated simply as the property of the agricultural corporations that profit from their processing; consider how animal rights activists who remove creatures from industrial farms in the interest of saving their lives are routinely charged with grand theft felonies, not animal abuse. Yet if those same activists had a change of heart, bought a cow, and began to torture her by stabbing her with sharp knives, they would indeed be charged differently – certainly in the court of public opinion.

Melanie Joy has dubbed this inconsistent attitude towards animals ‘carnism’, defined in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism as “the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals” and not others. But either domesticated animals are property or they are not – and this distinction requires a choice. If the well-being of a pig can be ignored because the pig is simply property, then pigs (and other animals) cannot be ‘abused’ in any manner that matters – Emma the Shih Tzu’s death, then, was not wrong. But if dog abuse is wrong, then it seems like (upon pain of inconsistency) we must affirm that the mistreatment of all animals is wrong – regardless of how delicious they might taste when grilled.

Moral Standing and Human Monkeys

photograph of macaque's face in profile

Last month researchers significantly complicated how we conceive of the landscape of moral creatures. Scientists in China have created a monkey with a human brain gene, inserting it with a virus into eleven macaque monkeys. “The five survivors went through a series of tests, including MRI brain scans and memory tests. It turned out they didn’t have bigger brains than a control group of macaques, but they did perform better on short-term memory tasks. Their brains also developed over a longer period of time, which is typical of human brains.” The scientists articulated the aim of the study as observing the evolutionary process of the human brain, the research was meant to capture how our brains developed the way they did. The next stages will involve study of the genes associated with language learning.

Typically, ethicists and laymen alike have taken there to be something morally relevant about most humans that means that they ought to be treated in particular ways, and should treat others in particular ways. Humans are moral animals in the sense that they are the ones that can do wrong and be wronged. In other words, when a non-human predator kills and eats its dinner, they are harming but not wronging their prey. When humans kill something, this is a potentially morally-loaded behavior.

The moral standing of humans is a tense enough ethical question, it being notoriously difficult to find an intuitive property that could ground the moral package of rights and duties that we take most humans to have – that transforms humans into persons. Is it advanced cognitive capacities such as reason, or self-awareness, or the ability to direct their behavior self-consciously? Is it the complex ways they feel pain and pleasure? The sort of relationships they have with one another? The potential to develop into a being that has these properties? Their membership in the “advanced” species? Each of these standards misses some intuitions that many would find central to our moral understanding – children may be excluded, animals may be included too strongly, humans experiencing brain death or persistent vegetative states or advanced dementia may not be captured appropriately.

While much of the focus of discussions of moral standing attempts to figure out what is special about humans, it is difficult to ignore that many of the things that makes humans special are shared to varying degrees with non-human animals. Our tool-use, communication, intelligent and flexible responses to the environment, complex social structure, etc., can all be found across the animal kingdom in various forms. This is suggestive of duties or respect that we may owe to such animals, and animal ethics is a large and growing area of research.

Further, with the advances made in computer science, some philosophers suggest that we need to start thinking about treating artificial intelligence that we create with similar moral respect that we owe to non-human animals. So, while humans may be a model for moral consideration, concern, and responsibility, extending this framework to relevant beings in the world is nothing new.  

However, influencing creatures to give them the properties of humans is a significant step. While there may be ways of ethically treating some non-human animals in captivity (wildlife preserves?), keeping a creature with human capacities captive has long been viewed as morally reprehensible (a view that hopefully criminal justice systems will catch up with). Also, one major justification for experimenting on non-human animals is the benefit for humans – potential disease intervention, etc. This, however, is not the aim of these studies.

While there are those that consider it to be unethical to interfere with the basic capacities of non-human animals, the researchers have a two-pronged defense. First, apes are similar enough to humans that altering their genetic structure wouldn’t be a harm. Second, their test subjects are different enough that their research won’t succeed in making them sufficiently human to worry.  

An interesting result of the potential future of these experiments is that many creatures would have the moral status of “potential person”, which is relevant to some in the US’s abortion debate. If the research on primates continues as the researchers articulate, Tooley’s science fiction thought experiments from the 1970s and 80s about the potential to inject cats with the rationality of mature humans transitions from science fiction to scientific possibility, and attention to the standing of “potential person” will be relevant outside of the abortion debate.

Does Care Require Personhood? The Ethics of Robot Caregiving

Smiling caregiver embracing happy senior woman in nursing home

Emerging technologies have presented people that require daily medical services with a wider range of options. For example, Rudy the healthcare robot can be purchased by a patient for $5,000 or leased for $100 a day. Though these numbers may seem high, the average cost of at-home medical care provided by a human caregiver is $4,099 a month. Rudy offers care at a significantly lower cost. Rudy can perform a wide range of tasks including wound care, ostomy care, and the administration of injections. Often, patients simply need assistance getting out of bed to use the restroom at night, and as round-the-clock medical assistance is particularly expensive, Rudy can be there for the basic nighttime needs of patients at a fraction of the cost.

For people who suffer from depression, anxiety, or related mental health challenges, there is PARO, the robotic therapy seal. In a promotional video for PARO, a research scientist makes the remarkable claim that “PARO has a value system that includes enjoying being stroked and disliking being hit.” The personality of the seal is determined by what its owner likes. When the seal is stroked, the behavior that preceded the stroke will be reinforced, and the seal will engage in that behavior more frequently. As a result, the patient can guarantee that the robotic seal will exhibit behavior that they find soothing or uplifting. The psychological results are similar to the results produced by therapy animals, but without the uncertainty that comes along with the spontaneous behavior of a living creature. The robot is particularly effective in providing psychological relief to patients with dementia.

Relatedly, Same Day Security recently raised 35 million dollars for its Addison project. Addison is a virtual healthcare companion who appears on ten-inch screens strategically placed around one’s home, asking patients regularly about whether they’ve taken their medication, exercised, or consumed healthy meals. Addison can detect motion and can guide patients through exercise routines. Addison can also track vital statistics and keeps records of those statistics to share with the patient’s doctor, should the patient choose to do so.

For a number of reasons, these technologies appear to many to be a step in the right direction. Many sick people who require frequent care don’t have family members that can reliably provide that care, and the cost of personalized care can be quite steep. But it’s more than simply a matter of cost. Medical procedures involve the care of bodies and a person’s body is something over which they frequently want to retain some privacy. These procedures are very personal procedures, and the involvement of another human being can sometimes be quite jarring and even humiliating. Each of these potential solutions – Rudy, PARO, and Addison – is incapable of taking the kinds of attitudes toward human bodies that a patient might fear. If a patient is humiliated in the presence of a robot caregiver, they’ve made a category mistake.

Another benefit of robotic and virtual technology when it comes to healthcare is that robots won’t be affected by the stress inherent to the healthcare system. Even the most professional human healthcare providers can respond poorly to the difficulties posed by ill health. Understandably, patients aren’t always capable of responding to their medical problems with good humor, and this can be difficult to navigate for a human caregiver. Robot caregivers are in a better position when these difficulties arise.

In cases in which a patient cannot afford a professional caregiver, the responsibility often falls to family members. If a patient is elderly, their children frequently step in to provide the care. These adult children often have careers and families of their own, and the new responsibility of providing care for an ailing parent can be a significant stressor. What’s more, this burden tends to fall disproportionately on the shoulders of the patient’s female children. When career and other personal sacrifices need to be made to make time for caregiving, it is more often females who make those sacrifices. Robot caregivers provide a potential solution for everyone, and help to lessen the disproportionate burden placed on women.

These new trends in healthcare technology might be useful for other reasons. Many countries, like China, have rapidly aging populations. By the middle of this century, 450 million people in China will be over the age of 65. There simply aren’t enough caregivers to satisfy the needs of all elderly patients. This trend is exacerbated by people having fewer children in order to reduce carbon emissions. When populations start having fewer children, they also ultimately have fewer young people to provide care as older generations age. Robot caregivers can potentially solve this problem.

Others are not so impressed with this technology. They argue that care relationships are, fundamentally, relationships between persons. While PARO, Addison, and Rudy provide services for patients, they aren’t actually providing care for patients. Care requires attentiveness to needs and a genuine willingness to satisfy those needs for the good of the person in need. We are falling short of our duty to patients if we provide them, merely, with service, when every person is deserving of care.  

It may well be the case that these technologies are less expensive for patients, and that’s important. But the fact that robot care is less expensive might be viewed as an indictment of our health care system rather than an argument in favor of a robotic solution. Perhaps instead we should support elected officials who plan to pass legislation to make health care affordable for everyone. We could lessen the burden on family members by creating a system in which real human professionals were affordably available to anyone in need of their services.

For patients who desire increased privacy, robotic health care could continue to be an option. It shouldn’t be the case, however, that patients are essentially coerced into choosing a less intimate form of care simply because they cannot afford the alternative.

The UK Novocaine Shortage and Animal Welfare

close-up photograph of two chickens poking their heads out of cages.

Currently, the United Kingdom is facing a rather unique problem. Due to a plant failure and seasonal high demand, they are experiencing a shortage of the anesthetic Novocaine. Novocaine is widely known as the main pain management drug for dental practices however, the real effects of the shortage are seen in the veterinary and farming practices. Humans won’t be affected because there are many approved alternative anesthetics as options. Unfortunately for animals, there are fewer approved options for pain relief medication. In fact, The British Veterinary Association (BVA) president, Simon Doherty, says that vets have been able to only purchase a fraction of the required anesthesia needed for their practices.

Novocaine is used in many farming practices in the UK and across the world. There are many major causes of pain for farm animals including: disease, housing and handling, parturition, and routine practices like castration, tail docking, dehorning, ear-tagging, branding, teeth clipping, nose ringing, and beak trimming. According to a summary of pain research in 2018 by Agriculture, researchers looked to see if these procedures caused animals’ pain by looking at the long-term effects in their behaviors. Due to the nature of farming animals, who are prey animals, they have evolved to hide their pain in order to avoid opportunistic predators. The study was motivated by public concern for animal welfare and hope for finding ways to access animal’s pain levels since basic facial expressions are not enough.

The study found that pain has a significant negative effect on farming production and the animals’ quality of life. Lambs who had undergone castration and calves who had their horns cut off are less likely to engage in playful behavior. Animals with injury eat, move, and interact with children less, all indicating lingering pain. With the current shortage, the pain levels are increasing throughout the UK for animals that still have to undergo these painful procedures. The study supports the theory that it would be better in general to farm without inducing pain for the livestock.

The BVA has declared that the shortage will have “a very acute impact on animal welfare.” The term “acute” however could be misleading. Pain can be described in two ways, as acute or chronic. Acute pain is caused from injury, infection, or inflammation. It is short-lived and responds to effective pain relief. Chronic pain is long-lasting pain that continues after the healing process. With this shortage of pain relief medicine, the farm animals in the UK will be experiencing an increase of acute pain across the nation. This shortage has raised the question, should we give pain relief to farming animals?

Moral vegetarians would argue that causing animals pain while raising them for food, especially when there are other alternatives, is wrong. It is frequently seen that the conditions that the animals raised in are inhumane and animals suffer physically and psychologically.  For example, pigs distressed will bite their own tails, so farmers often cut them off. Chickens in tight spaces will peck at each other so farmers slice off the edge of the beak. While the European Union mandates that farmers first try to improve an animal’s conditions, this rule is frequently ignored. There may be a moral obligation to discontinue these practices given that farming creates unnecessary suffering. If one accepts this, then, some vegetarians argue, isn’t it an obligation to not consume the food that is unethically raised and produced?

The anesthesia option challenges this picture as Novocaine lessens the harm animals experience in the process. The goal of reducing animal harm is met with near universal acceptance. It applies to any kind of work that involves animals including veterinarians, medical research, zoos, farming, and more. The veterinary code of ethics states that, “A veterinarian shall provide competent veterinary medical clinical care under the terms of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR), with compassion and respect for animal welfare and human health.” Novocaine is a solution to pain management and can diminish the challenges that the profession of farming has for the animal’s well-being.

Another bonus from reducing harm for farm animals with anesthesia is that it can increase farming production and result in higher profits for farmers. Pain weakens the immune response, makes animals sicker, eat less and grow more slowly, and leads animals to reject their offspring. With less pain, the risk of these conflicts is dramatically lowered.

The main pushback towards using Novocaine for farming animals, even in countries where there is a wide range of pain relief options, is that it is expensive. There are more than 50 billion animals raised and slaughtered for agriculture annually. Paying for  all of those animals’ pain relief would be extremely costly and unrealistic. Ultimately these animals are going to be raised to be eventually killed for consumption. In fact, in the US, pain relief isn’t used. It wasn’t until 2017 that the FDA approved the drug banamine transderm to treat the painful disease foot rot and pyrexica (a fever) associated with bovine respiratory disease. One contributing factor to this policy is the limited number of approved anesthetics for animals given the challenging nature of the drug. Variety in animals’ anatomy, life style, and behavior create an extra challenge for scientists to find drugs that will be effective in reducing pain and last long enough to do so.

This is not to say that farmers who do not use anesthetics act unethically. As previously mentioned, it can be difficult to recognize pain in these prey animals. Further, assessments will differ on whether temporary pain has a justifiable benefit for the future well-being of an animal. US policy may be defensible, but it could be worth considering if anesthetics should be a more common practice for all farming practices worldwide.

The Inherent Conflict in Informed Consent

photograph of doctor's shingle with caduceus image

A recent study has drawn attention to the relatively poor medical reasoning capabilities of terminally-ill patients. When confronted with complicating factors, a group of terminal cancer patients demonstrated decreased appreciation and understanding of their prognosis in comparison to their healthy adult counterparts. More concerning, perhaps, is the study’s finding that attending physicians were not consistent in recognizing these deficiencies in competence. Ultimately, the study supports mounting evidence that the bright line we draw to separate individual autonomy from institutional paternalism is too simplistic. Patient competence is overestimated and physicians’ impact is underappreciated. These findings have important implications for our conceptualization of informed consent.

Informed consent is a process, made up of the many communications between a doctor and a patient (or clinical investigator and research participant). Details regarding the purpose, benefits, and risks of, as well as alternatives to, a given treatment are relayed so as to enable potential clients to deliberate and decide whether the medical intervention offered aligns with their interests. As a patient has all the freedom to decide what should or should not happen to her body prior to undergoing a clinical trial or medical procedure, the decision is to be made free from coercion; the doctor acts so as to facilitate patient decision-making. Achieving this requires adequate, accurate information be provided in terms the patient can easily understand.

Legally, informed consent represents a basic threshold of competency that a patient must be assisted in meeting in order to legally acquiesce to a medical procedure. It exists to safeguard bodily integrity — the right of self-determination over our bodies. It grants legal permission and protects healthcare providers from liability.

Morally, informed consent is a compromise between epistemic merits and welfare interests. Informed consent balances doctors’ medical expertise against patients’ unique knowledge of their preferences. While physicians might know best how to treat injury and combat afflictions, they are less equipped to make determinations about the kind of risks a patient is willing to take or the value she might place on different health outcomes. As patients must live with the consequences of whatever decision is made, we tend to privilege patient autonomy. Once properly informed, we believe that the patient is best-positioned to determine the most suitable course of treatment.

The trouble, as studies like this show, is that patients are not the autonomous healthcare consumers we assume them to be. They are often dependent on the doctor’s expertise and medical advice as many suffer from some combination of informational overload and emotional overwhelm. Patients’ weak grasp of their medical prognosis is offset only by the trust they have in their physician and a general deference to authority.

This means that informed consent is, in many cases, simply not possible. Patients who are very young, very ill, mentally impaired, or even merely confused are not capable of demonstrating sufficient competence or granting meaningful permission. Unfortunately, patient literacy is overestimated, communication barriers go undetected, and patient misunderstanding and noncompliance continues. Findings suggest that thorough assessment of patient competence is rare, and patients’ comprehension is questioned only in those cases where a patient’s decision deviates from the physician’s recommendations.

An increased focus on patient education may not be enough to combat these problems. Efforts to present information in a more accessible manner may bring some improvement, but there are many medical situations where the sheer complexity or volume of the information involved outstrips the decision-making capacity of everyday patients. Some types of medical information, like risk assessments, use probability estimates that would require formal training to fully appreciate and thus overburden patients’ capacity to adequately comprehend and reasonably deliberate. In such cases, no amount of dialogue would allow a patient to attain the understanding necessary for informed decision-making.

In the end, the possibility of an equitable doctor/patient consultation is rarely a reality. As Oonagh Corrigan explains,

“There needs to be a realisation that the type of illness a patient is suffering from, her anxiety about the likely trajectory of her illness, her expectations about treatment and, in general, her implicit trust in the doctor and medical science mean that ‘informed choices’ based on an adequate understanding of the information and on careful consideration of the potential benefits and risks, are difficult to achieve in practice.”

We cannot maintain our idealistic divide between autonomous decision‐making on the one hand, and autocratic paternalism on the other. From framing effects to geographic bias, a physician is bound to have a greater hand in decision-making than our common conception of the dynamic allows.

Some may say that this liberty is sufficiently curtailed by the Hippocratic Oath. A doctor’s duty to the health of a patient is thought to limit the possibility of abuse. But the physician’s obligation to do no harm offers little guidance on the ground. The duties of nonmaleficence and beneficence share no necessary tie to the particular social and cultural values of patients. They would, for example, recommend the administering of blood transfusions to patients whose deeply-held religious beliefs disallow it.

Finding a suitable middle ground between individual autonomy and institutional paternalism is particularly tricky. The territory of informed consent is already a political battleground. One need look no further than the dispute concerning mandatory pre-abortion counseling or talk therapy for transgender patients. While we may wish physicians to take a larger role in the care of those who genuinely lack capacity, this would inevitably lead to the silencing of legitimate interests. Any acceptable resolution of this tension is bound to be hard-won.

Individual Obligation in the Face of Global Climate Change

photograph of earth from space with one-half illuminated and the other half in darkness

The planet is currently home to 7.7 billion humans. This number is steadily increasing, along with earth’s temperature. Environmental change is happening because the earth is overheating, scientifically referred to as the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is caused by several gases, emitted in excess because of human activities and industries. The long term consequences of environmental change are predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprised of over 1,300 scientists from multiple countries including the United States. They predict a rise in earth’s temperature ranging from 2.5 to 10 degrees in the next century. Although it may not appear impactful, it has been historically proven that small changes in temperature can cause enormous environmental impacts. NASA cites an example on their website: “. . .at the end of the last ice age. . . the Northeast United States was covered by more than 3,000 feet of ice, average temperatures were only 5 to 9 degrees cooler than today.” Long-term effects of environmental change, as reported by the National Climate Assessment Reports three and four, will extend beyond this century and include rising temperatures, longer frost-free seasons, changing precipitation patterns, more droughts and heat waves, stronger hurricanes, a rise in sea level, and the arctic losing all ice.

Consensus within the scientific community is that environmental damage is caused by human activity. Environmental damage is carried into the future, it is cross-generational, and will impact all those who are not yet born. Thus, the actions of those today affect the lives of those tomorrow. Does this mean current society has an ethical obligation to protect the environment for future generations?

Society acknowledges the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that every individual is born with. But what about those who are not yet born? Are they deserving of the same rights? Some would say no, that there is no ethical or logical reason to extend rights to people who do not exist. Others might disagree, arguing that unborn people are entitled to the same natural rights as the living.

Maybe one barrier to having empathy for future generations is the “short-termism” oriented society we live in. This term refers to the difficulty in thinking seriously about the future and how our actions now will impact it. So much of current culture is focused on the now, that it can be hard to think about the then. Sociologist Elise Boulding described it as “temporal exhaustion,” if we are so tired from the present, how can we think about the future? And “if we are prone to neglecting the wellbeing of our own future selves, it’s even harder to muster empathy for our descendants.”

On the other hand, protecting those who are not yet living could harm those who are alive, the people who may bear the burden could be the currently disadvantaged. How can we worry about the environment when there are people starving to death today?

In reality, the effects of climate change are felt by many today as their homes are damaged or destroyed and their lives are threatened by natural disasters. If these acts were committed by an individual, they would face the punishment of the law. If we do not accept a behavior that directly results in infringing upon one’s natural rights as a society, then why should we allow societal behavior that indirectly results in infringement on these same rights? Death and destruction occur in both instances. The difference, however, is in the distance of the action from the result, and the lack of a single culprit. If an arson burned someone’s house down they would go to prison. In 2018, 85 people died in California’s deadliest forest fire, but who will be held responsible for this? Climate change is the product of the collective actions of society members, but this does not lessen the severity of its effects.

Approximately 108 billion people have lived and died on the Earth over the past 50,000 years, while 6.75 trillion people are projected to live and die on the Earth over the next 50,000 years. We may have an ethical obligation for societal efforts and resources to be focused on combating existing inequalities and improving the plight of the currently disadvantaged. But we may also have an obligation that lies in spending our collective energies on protecting the future generations, so they do not inherit a world and a life of a lesser quality than those that came before them.

Establishing Liability in Artificial Intelligence

Entrepreneur Li Kin-kan is suing over “investment losses triggered by autonomous machines.” Raffaele Costa convinced Li to let K1, a machine learning algorithm, manage $2.5 billion—$250 million of his own cash and the rest leverage from Citigroup Inc. The AI lost a significant amount of money in a decision that the company claims it wouldn’t have made if it was as sophisticated as they had been led to believe. Because of the autonomous decision-making structure of K1, trying to locate appropriate liability is a provocative question: is the money-losing decision the fault of K1, its designers, Li, or, as Li alleges, the salesman who made claims about K1’s potential?  

Developed by Austria-based AI company 42.cx, the supercomputer named K1 would “comb through online sources like real-time news and social media to gauge investor sentiment and make predictions on U.S. stock futures. It would then send instructions to a broker to execute trades, adjusting its strategy over time based on what it had learned.”

Our current laws are designed to assign responsibility on the basis of intention or ability to predict an injury. Algorithms do neither, but are being put to more and more tasks that can produce legal injuries in novel ways. In 2014, the Los Angeles Times published an article that carried the byline: “this post was created by an algorithm written by the author.” The author of the algorithm, Ken Schwencke, allowed the code to produce a story covering and earthquake, not an uncommon event around LA, so tasking an algorithm to produce the news was a time-saving strategy. However, journalism by code can lead to complicated libel suits, as legal theorists discussed when Stephen Colbert used an algorithm to match Fox News personalities with movie reviews from Rotten Tomatoes. Though the claims produced were satire, there could have been a case for libel or defamation, though without a human agent as the direct producer of the claim: “The law would then face a choice between holding someone accountable for a result she did not specifically intend, or permitting without recourse what most any observer would take for defamatory or libelous speech.”

Smart cars are being developed that can cause physical harm and injury based on the decisions of their machine learning algorithms. Further, artificial speech apps are behaving in unanticipated ways: “A Chinese app developer pulled its instant messaging “chatbots”—designed to mimic human conversation—after the bots unexpectedly started criticizing communism. Facebook chatbots began developing a whole new language to communicate with each other—one their creators could not understand.”

Consider: machine-learning algorithms accomplish tasks in ways that cannot be anticipated in advance (indeed, that’s why they are implemented – to do creative, not purely scripted work); and thus they increasingly blur the line between person and instrument, for the designer did not explicitly program how the task will be performed.

When someone directly causes injury, for instance by causing bodily harm with their body, it is easy to isolate them as the cause. If someone stomps on your foot, this could cause a harm. According to the law, then, they can be held liable if they have the appropriate mens rea, or guilty mind. For instance, if they intended to cause that injury, knowingly caused the injury, recklessly caused the injury, or negligently caused the injury.

This structure for liability seems to work just as well if the person in question used a tool or instrument. If someone uses a sledgehammer to break your foot, they still are isolated as the cause (as the person moving the sledgehammer around), and can be held liable depending on what their mental state was regarding the sledgehammer-hitting-your-foot (perhaps it was a non-culpable accident). Even if they use a  complicated Rube Goldberg Machine to break your foot, the same structure seems to work just fine. If someone uses a foot-breaking Rube Goldberg Machine to break your foot, they’ve caused you an injury, and depending on their particular mens rea will be liable for some particular legal violation.

Machine learning algorithms put pressure on this framework, however, because when they are used it is not to produce a specific result in the way the Rube Goldberg foot-breaking machine does. The Rube Goldberg foot-breaking machine, though complex, is transparent and has an outcome that is “designed in”: it will smash feet. With machine learning algorithms, there is a break between the designer or user and the product. The outcome is not specifically intended in the way smashing feet is intended by a user of the Rube Goldberg machine. Indeed, it is not even known by the user of the algorithm.

The behavior or choice in cases of machine learning algorithms originate in the artificial intelligence in a way that foot smashing doesn’t originate in the Rube Goldberg machine. Consider: we wouldn’t hold the Rube Goldberg machine liable for a broken foot, but would rather look to the operator or designer.  However, in cases of machine learning, the user or designer didn’t come up with the output of the algorithm.

When Deepmind won at Go, it was making choices that surprised all of the computer scientists involved. AI make complex decisions and take actions completely unforeseen by their creators, so when their decisions result in injury, where do we look to apportion blame? It is still the case that you cannot sue algorithms or AI (and, further, the remuneration or punishment would be difficult to imagine).  

One model for AI liability interprets machine learning functions in terms of existing product liability frameworks that put burdens of appropriate operation on the producers. The assumptions here are that any harm resulting by products is due to faulty products and the company is liable regardless of mens rea (See, for instance, Escola v Coca-Cola Bottling Co.). In this framework, the companies that produce the algorithms would be liable for harms that result from smart cars or financial decisions.

Were this framework adopted, Li could be suing the AI company that produced or sold K1, 42.cx, but as it stands, the promises involved in the sale conform to our current legal standards. The interpretations at stake are whether K1 could have been predicted to make the decision that resulted in losses given the description in the terms of sale.