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The Case for Epistocratic Democracy

photograph of pile of "Vote" buttons

Winston Churchill famously described democracy as “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” But what if societies tried an epistocracy? An epistocracy is a form of government in which the knowledgeable of society rule. In his book, Against Democracy, Jason Brennan, a Georgetown University political philosopher, argues for this form of government. In an interview, he observed,“[Democracy] incentivizes citizens to be ignorant, irrational, tribalistic, and to not use their votes in very serious ways.”

Even Athens, oft-regarded as the prime example of democracy, was an epistocracy. Brennan argues that Athens was epistocratic “because only a very small number of people were actually voting, and they were the most educated members of society — the people who had the most political knowledge and the time to spend working on politics.”

A government run by knowledgeable political technocrats has some appeal. But critics point out obvious problems. It is susceptible to despotism, robs most individuals of their political agency, and requires the development of an objective standard for evaluating useful knowledge. But the underlying problem an epistocracy seeks to solve–the uninformed voter–still requires a solution.

Those who participate in the political process ought to be informed and knowledgeable for numerous reasons, prime among them is voters’ duty to their fellows to meaningfully contribute to our shared political process.

Ignorance is a constraint; willful ignorance is a moral wrong. If we grant the uncontroversial assumption that free choice and autonomy is morally preferable to constrained choice and subjugation, we must also conclude that willful ignorance ought to be avoided. Information is required to make an autonomous decision. Informed choice is a more free choice.

Think, for example, about a patient who is unaware of the details or consequences about a procedure he or she is about to undergo. The patient cannot possibly give consent as he or she has not reached the threshold of information required to make an informed decision. In a similar way, a consumer who has just purchased a car cannot be said to have freely bought the car if the salesman lied about the price. The consumer is inhibited by the deception of the salesman; it is unclear how his or her choice to buy the car was free or voluntary.

Willful ignorance is a self-inhibitor, a self-deception on one’s ability to choose. In a political context, willful ignorance entails failing to inform yourself with a basic level of political knowledge when you have access to that political knowledge. (An individual who does not have the tools or access required to inform themselves cannot be considered willfully ignorant.)

An understanding of the basic structure of your government (e.g. the separation of power and the roles of the different branches) and an awareness of the policy preferences of candidates is sufficient to be informed. This is hardly a requirement of expertise. Indeed, this seems to be a low threshold, especially in the age of immediate access to information, and it often requires no more than browsing reliable online sources or reading reputable news sources about candidates’ proposals.

Despite this ease of access, uninformed citizens are prevalent. For example, only a quarter of Americans can name the three branches of the U.S. government. Knowledge of the function of each branch is necessary for casting an informed vote. You may be aware of the judges a presidential candidate prefers for the Supreme Court but if you do not know that the President merely nominates a judge to be confirmed by the Senate, how meaningful is the vote for the candidate alone? A voter ought to understand that if he or she desires a particular tilt on the Supreme Court, he or she must also vote for Senate candidates who are likely to support the nomination of that Supreme Court Justice.

Those who are uninformed may have freely selected a candidate, party, or policy option in the sense that no external actor was inhibiting their ability to do so, but they may have done blind to what a candidate advocates for, what the policy entails, or how the mechanisms of government work. As Brennan points out, which party an individual votes for is often determined by their religion or the region where they reside rather than an evaluation of the party’s alignment with the individual’s own interests. This basic level of political knowledge is crucial. Understanding what policy advances your preferences or protects your interest is a requirement for voting for the policy that advances your preferences and protects your interests. Otherwise you are making choices while laboring under a delusion.

Another reason to be informed is the duty that you have to your fellow citizens. Individual citizens are partial, indirect authors of the law by which all citizens abide. The creation of these laws are best when the authors know what the proposed laws are and what is required to pass those laws. As Brennan notes in “The Ethics and Rationality of Voting,” “How voters vote has a significant impact on political outcomes, and can help determine matters of peace and war, life and death, prosperity and poverty.” Even if an individual voters in their own self-interest, their vote impacts others in society. While “the expected harm of an incompetent individual voter” is small, it is not preferable that the votes are cast in ignorance.

Civilians in democratic societies ought to be informed. By not being so, we are inhibiting our own ability to choose freely. We should aspire towards an epistocratic democracy–a democracy in which all voters are informed–because we have a shared duty to do so.

Fighting Fire with Smoke: On CPAC’s “Anti-Greta”

photograph of climate protest signs ("Not Cool")

This week it was announced that Naomi Seibt, dubbed the “Anti-Greta Thunberg,” will be speaking at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Seibt, 19, preaches to her ~50,000 YouTube followers the dangers of “climate alarmism,” and reveals the “despicably anti-human ideology” at the foundation of our climate change discourse and fearful prognostications. In contrast, Seibt says “I don’t want you to panic,” and assures her flock that “These days, climate change science isn’t a science at all.”

The Washington Post’s front-page profile of Seibt Monday following the announcement was met with criticism. “Why,” asks one reader, “would The Post print a profile of the efforts of a European teenager to dismiss, distort, distract and show dismay at the climate movement?” The paper’s choice to dedicate so much time and space to Seibt, they argue, threatens to normalize fringe beliefs, further derail the climate conversation, and promote obvious propaganda.

Propaganda? While the German YouTube influencer has claimed to be “without an agenda, without an ideology,” Seibt is currently under the employ of the Heartland Institute, a conservative “think tank” once dedicated to discrediting the science behind secondhand smoke, and now devoted to climate change denial. The Institute remains committed to protecting the interests of big business and seeks to reverse the “negative impacts of overreaching environmental regulations.”

It’s not hard to read the playbook and see the strategy at play. As Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensics Research Lab, explains,

“The tactic is intended to create an equivalency in spokespeople and message. In this case, it is a false equivalency between a message based in climate science that went viral organically and a message based in climate skepticism trying to catch up using paid promotion.”

This is not merely misinformation; it is not the product of unintentional error. This is a disinformation campaign intentionally and strategically designed to muddy the waters.

While these kinds of campaigns have proven incapable of moving the needle on public opinion when it comes to partisan politics–given the strength of our preexisting political beliefs–they can be extremely effective on swaying opinion on medical and scientific questions–given our lack of knowledge and weaker starting points. You won’t sway a Trump supporter to vote for Bernie, but you might be able to convince a parent who vaccinates to consider your anti-vaxx pamphlet. By continuing to promote voices like Seibt who say, “I don’t want to get people to stop believing in man-made climate change,” but also argue, “Are man-made CO2 emissions having that much impact on the climate? I think that’s ridiculous to believe,” entities like the Heartland Institute hope to erode public support and stifle legislative action. Given these modest goals, recruiting true believers would be great, but simply encouraging agnosticism will do just fine.

So with the terms of success so low and the stakes so high, should The Washington Post be condemned for playing into climate change deniers’ hands? Has the news organization acted against public interest by giving climate change denial a platform? Is it accountable for normalizing fringe beliefs?

Some argue that The Washington Post is in the wrong for lending credibility to the notion of “climate skeptics”–“a euphemism coined by climate-change deniers to disguise their rejection of massive volumes of peer-reviewed science as reasonable skepticism.” By adopting the language of Seibt and Heartland, the paper legitimizes an unsound and dishonest position. As such, the piece represents an obvious failure to uphold professional ethics. “At the very least, journalists have a responsibility to avoid amplifying bad faith nonsense spread by corporations looking to pollute the public discourse.”

Others see The Washington Post’s piece as an exploration of Seibt’s claim to expert testimony (a concept Ken Boyd wrote about Wednesday). It evaluates the reasons on offer for considering Seibt a credible and reliable source of information about how to respond to climate change (from her affiliation with Alternative for Germany (AfD) to the story of her recruitment and marketing by Heartland). It’s damning without needing to tell us so, and lets its subject speak for itself.

In the end, our diverging opinions on whether The Washington Post’s coverage represents uncritical acceptance or the relaying of fact free of judgment likely depends on our confidence in the reasoning abilities of The Post’s readership. It’s true that public attention is a finite resource. To pick from a crowded field any particular subject and direct readers to it rather than some other subject is to exercise an enormous amount of discretion. And there are clear cases of media outlets violating this trust. But the elevation of Seibt by CPAC makes The Post’s profile relevant, even if it’s for no other reason than to know thy enemy.

Twitter Bots and Trust

photograph of chat bot figurine in front of computer

Twitter has once again been in the news lately, which you know can’t be a good thing. The platform recently made two sets of headlines: in the first, news broke that a number of Twitter accounts were making identical tweets in support of Mike Bloomberg and his presidential campaign, and in the second, reports came out of a significant number of bots making tweets denying the reality of human-made climate change.

While these incidents are different in a number of ways, they both illustrate one of the biggest problems with Twitter: given that we might not know anything about who is making an actual tweet – whether it is a real person, a paid shill, or a bot – it is difficult to know who or what to trust. This is especially problematic when it comes to the kind of disinformation tweeted out by bots about issues like climate change, where it can not only be difficult to tell whether it comes from a trustworthy source, but also whether the content of the tweet makes any sense.

Here’s the worry: let’s say that I see a tweet declaring that “anthropogenic climate change will result in sea levels rising 26-55 cm. in the 21st century with a 67% confidence interval.” Not being a scientist myself, I don’t have a good sense of whether or not this is true. Furthermore, if I were to look into the matter there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t be able to determine whether the relevant studies that were performed were good ones, whether the prediction models were accurate, etc. In other words, I don’t have much to go on when determining whether I should accept what is tweeted out at me.

This problem is an example of what epistemologists have referred to as the problem of expert testimony: if someone tells me something that I don’t know anything about, then it’s difficult for me, as a layperson, to be critical of what they’re telling me. After all, I’m not an expert, and I probably don’t have the time to go and do the research myself. Instead, I have to accept or reject the information on the basis of whether I think the person providing me with information is someone I should listen to. One of the problems with receiving such information over Twitter, then, is that it’s very easy to prey on that trust.

Consider, for example, a tweet from a climate-change denier bot that stated “Get real, CNN: ‘Climate Change’ dogma is religion, not science.” While this tweet does not provide any particular reason to think that climate science is “dogma” or “religion,” it can create doubt in other information from trustworthy sources. One of the co-authors of the bot study worries that these kinds of messages can also create an illusion of “a diversity of opinion,” with the result that people “will weaken their support for climate science.”

The problem with the pro-Bloomberg tweets is similar: without a way of determining whether a tweet is actually coming from a real person as opposed to a bot or a paid shill, messages that defend Bloomberg may be ones intended to create doubt in tweets that are critical of him. Of course, in Bloomberg’s case it was a relatively simple matter to determine that the messages were not, in fact, genuine expressions of support for the former mayor, as dozens of tweets were identical in content. But a competently run network of bots could potentially have a much greater impact.

What should one do in this situation? As has been written about before here, it is always a good idea to be extra vigilant when it comes to getting one’s information from Twitter. But our epistemologist friends might be able to help us out with some more specific advice. When dealing with information that we can’t evaluate on the basis of content alone – say, because it’s about something that I don’t really know much about – we can look to some other evidence about the providers of that information in order to determine whether we should accept it.

For instance, philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has argued that there are generally three categories of evidence that we can appeal to when trying to decide whether we should accept some information: someone’s expertise (with factors including testifier credentials, and whether they have published and are recognized in their field), their honesty (including evidence about conflicts of interest, dishonesty and academic fraud, and making misleading statement), and the extent to which they display epistemic responsibility (including evidence about the ways in which one has engaged with the scientific community in general and their peers specifically). This kind of evidence isn’t a perfect indication of whether someone is trustworthy, and it might not be the easiest to find. When one is trying to get good information from an environment that is potentially infested with bots and other sources of misleading information, though, gathering as much evidence as one can about one’s source may be the most prudent thing to do.

Bloomberg: Biasing Elections With Billions

photograph of Mike Bloomberg speaking at political rally

There are few things as closely connected as money and politics. In the 2016 election alone, $6.5 billion was spent. Of that, $2.4 billion went toward the presidential race and $4.1 billion went toward Congressional races. In the 2010 election, about half of the money spent on Congressional races was from large donations (more than $200) by individuals and about a quarter came from organizations known as PACs. About ten percent came from candidates self-funding. There is a sort of nobility to a candidate funding his own campaign. Most candidates accept money from organizations, companies, and rather well-off individuals and end up feeling an obligation to act in their interests. But those funding their own campaigns, in contrast, are beholden only to the people who they receive votes from.

Nonetheless, few candidates are able to fund their own campaigns. While a reasonably well-off individual might be able to completely self-fund a campaign for Congressional office in a small district, virtually no one can afford to run for President without accepting money from other people and groups. In 2016, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spent around a billion dollars. Little of that was their own money. This is a little surprising when it comes to Trump, who is himself a billionaire. That even Trump did not finance his own campaign shows the difficulty of doing so. However, in the 2020 election, one candidate is trying to do just that.

Michael Bloomberg has spent $450 million of his own money trying to win the Democratic Primary, so far. That is more than all the other candidates combined. And yet, few have lauded Bloomberg for the nobility of being unbeholden to special interests, financing his own campaign for the Democratic nomination. Bloomberg’s top campaign adviser, Howard Wolfson, has promoted this very idea, saying that Bloomberg “cannot be bought” and that he is “wholly independent of special interests.” Even so, Bloomberg has been criticized for attempting to “buy his way to being president.”

There are a few moral objections that people might raise to the Bloomberg campaign that might outweigh the value of the independence of his self-funding. These can be more clearly explained by consideration of why it might be good for a candidate to fund his own campaign. A candidate who funds his own campaign for noble reasons, who wishes to avoid being bound by special interests, typically accomplishes this feat through great personal sacrifice. Most Americans make much less over the course of many years than the cost of a single election. So for the few who do self-fund, it often represents an enormous financial burden. But, Bloomberg has a net worth of over $60 billion. The money he has spent so far represents only 0.7 percent of his net worth. The median American has a net worth of $97,300. For him, an amount comparable to Bloomberg’s spending on the election would be around $700. Thus, this is no great sacrifice for Bloomberg.

Another objection to Bloomberg’s campaign has to do with the self-funding candidate’s desire to avoid ties to special interests. We typically define a special interest as “a person, group, or organization that tries to influence government decisions to benefit itself.” These may be large lobbying groups for, say, tobacco or oil companies. Or, they may be extraordinarily wealthy individuals who wish to advance the interests of their companies, or to limit their taxes. The problem with Bloomberg may be that he is, himself, a special interest. Or perhaps, as Jim Newell argues, the issue with Bloomberg’s campaign is not its avoidance of special interests, but of “indifference to ‘interests’ altogether.” The practice of politics in a democracy assumes as axiomatic the idea that change cannot be accomplished on one’s own. Only through working together, compromising, and acting in accordance with the harmonized interest of a great deal of citizens can elections be won and change be wrought. Bloomberg’s campaign is an affront to this idea of democratic politics and is thus objectionable on those grounds.

But, what does this matter anyhow? In some sense, it is absurd to say that Bloomberg, or anyone, could “buy” an election. Unless the election process is wholly corrupted, elections are won in democracies by votes. Those votes can be affected by campaigns and advertisements for candidates, but an unlikable candidate whose political positions are antithetical to the majority of voters’ values cannot win at the ballot box, regardless of the amount of money they spend. People are not mindless drones whose votes are determined by dollar amount of campaign spending: Hillary Clinton spent nearly fifty percent more on the 2016 election than Trump and still lost. Furthermore, voters have a number of other ways to learn about candidates besides advertisement. And, in Bloomberg’s case, these have proven harmful.

At the debate just prior to the Nevada Democratic caucuses, all the other candidates thrashed Bloomberg for minutes on end. While there is no objective measure of victory in a debate like this, The Washington Post placed Bloomberg under the “loser” category, particularly for coming off as “technocratic,” a word that signifies that Bloomberg seemed out-of-touch or elitist. If The Washington Post is right, it does not matter how much Bloomberg spends: if the people don’t like him, they won’t vote for him. And, if they do, they should vote for him, regardless of the money he spent, since citizens of a democracy are assumed to vote for the candidates they think are best (though this doesn’t always play out).

Bloomberg has the right to free speech, to advocate for himself, and to encourage others to vote for him. As the Supreme Court has consistently ruled, campaign spending is protected speech up until it is, or implies, corruption. Essentially, the debate comes down to how one believes candidates, and ultimately those in power, should be selected. Citizens of a democracy should obviously vote for who they think is best. But, that judgment of “who is best” is complicated by the various factors that go into it. Ideally, voters would make their decisions with perfect knowledge of the candidates’ positions and characters. In reality, only a small amount of the relevant information makes it to most voters. And, when that is the case, it matters who has the largest loudspeaker to communicate. Money matters because it allows candidates to reach voters more effectively. In some cases, this means money can decide elections, not because citizens are unable to decide for themselves which candidate is best given what they know, but because political advertising can affect what it is they know in the first place. Particularly if the political advertising is deceptive as to the positions and character of a candidate, or as to the positions and characters of their opponents, voters will be making bad decisions. They will make rational decisions, but not well-justified ones. Since lying in political advertisements is legal, this is a grievous concern.

When June rolls around, we will know if Bloomberg’s self-funded campaign was ultimately successful. Voters will decide, even if their decisions are not based on facts. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from February 14-17 shows Bloomberg being most popular among 15 percent of the national population, second only to Bernie Sanders, a man known for decrying the billionaire class, and equal to former Vice President Joe Biden, thought only months ago to be a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. Whether Bloomberg wins or not, it is safe to say his actions will shape the status quo for the future, showing other billionaires that it is possible to participate in elections in a significant way, just by spending huge amounts of money.

Human Rights in the Age of Ecological Breakdown

photograph of dead field of crops

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 and aimed at setting forth a list of fundamental human rights to be universally protected.

We must acknowledge the issues with the very concept of human rights: the philosophical problem of how rights are grounded; the practical problem of how they are enforced; and the definitional problem of whether certain things (like the right to private property) ought to even be rights.

Nevertheless human rights outline and afford protections for people, their life, livelihood and dignity, family, culture and community. As such, they have been, and remain, an important tool in establishing a more just world. At the core of the very idea of human rights is the recognition and acknowledgement of the basic dignity of all human beings.

Even though the international community has made significant gains in the expansion and protection of human rights in many places over many decades, human rights are now under pressure from the developing climate and ecological catastrophe. These rights’ reach and strength may be in danger of regressing as the effects of global heating and other environmental disasters worsen.

In reality, the corrosive effects of climate and ecological breakdown on human rights has already taken hold in some contexts: the root causes of the crisis, like the expansion of oil and mining interests known as extractivism, have already decimated the rights of Indigenous peoples in many parts of the world where traditional lands have been stolen, livelihoods robbed, cultures destroyed, and activists murdered.

As the crisis worsens and greater numbers of people are affected, there are many ways in which human rights could be impacted. We can think of the charter of human rights as a kind of checklist of human goods – of conditions under which human life can flourish. Considering these conditions against the inevitable, worsening effects of the climate and ecological crisis, we can form a picture of how those impacts will affect human wellbeing.

At 1C warming we are already seeing significant environmental impacts: melting ice and rising sea levels, more severe storm activity with once in a century flooding events occurring every couple of years, drought, salinity, desertification and unprecedented wildfires.  As environmental impacts take hold so too will social impacts and the capacity for many basic human rights to be met and secured will be compromised.

At 1.5C to 2C warming there will be major coastal inundation and many low-lying coastal cities will flood. Small islands will be lost. Severe storms will damage infrastructure, and less developed communities will struggle to cope. Rights like those enshrined in Article 25 pertaining to standards of living including access to food and clean water, to safe housing and medicine will be in question.

According to Article 27 “everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community.” As climate breakdown takes hold and some places become uninhabitable – for example, as small Pacific Islands sink and areas in the Central Australian deserts become too hot for human habitation, as glaciers in Northern Canada melt, indigenous peoples will be forced to abandon their lands, and a loss of tradition and cultural identity will be inevitable.

One of the biggest geopolitical and social issues the world faces due to accelerated global heating will be large numbers of climate refugees – people forced by climate and ecological impacts to abandon their homes. Experts have warned that even in the next decade tens of millions of people could be displaced by climate change.

According to Article 14, everyone has the right “to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” It is not clear that climate refugees will be considered “refugees” in the sense defined by the Human Rights Declaration which defines refugees as persons ‘fleeing persecution.’ Though being forced to flee because one’s home is uninhabitable or has disappeared beneath the tide clearly fits our general understanding of what constitutes a refugee, which rests upon the acknowledgement of persons forced to seek refuge in circumstances in which their home is no longer safe.

However climate refugee’s rights will be in question under a number of other articles outlined in the UN Declaration.

Given the current predilection of many countries, such as Australia and the United States, for draconian treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, rights such as “recognition before the law” (Article 6), the right not to be “subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” (Article 9), and even the right not to be ” subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5) will be under pressure, and are so already.

The worsening effects of the climate and ecological catastrophe endanger the rights outlined above, and others. The upshot is that those conditions upon which human dignity is maintained and upon which human life is able to flourish will be degraded; and this degradation will be part of the erosion of society that may, if unabated, lead to the collapse of human civilization.

But human rights can be an ethical double-edged sword. While they do in general, find their basis in human dignity and flourishing, the philosophical question of how specific rights further these aims, and what specific rights should or should not be recognized in order that they be furthered, is not entirely settled.

Given that the climate and ecological catastrophe is upon us, if we as a global community are to have any hope of abating it, mass drastic action is required, some of which may be impeded by the existence of certain inalienable rights.

It could for instance be argued that the right (enshrined in Article 16) to found a family may be problematic, since each child born in a developed nation adds a significant carbon footprint. Or perhaps the right to freedom of movement (Article 13) is problematic if we factor in how much carbon pollution the aviation industry is responsible for. It might therefore be necessary, as part of a global mitigation strategy, to curtail certain rights and, for instance, restrict access to air travel.

Consider the right, (Article 19) to freedom of opinion and expression, which has been exercised, and abused, by the fossil fuel lobby for decades in a concerted, and ultimately successful, attempt to obfuscate the truth about carbon pollution and shut down attempts to prevent global heating. This effort continues unabated, as the Murdoch press are still printing mendacious untruths about the climate crisis.

In conclusion, though we need to be flexible enough in our understanding of human rights to be aware of the ways in which they can, in some situations, affect our capacity to mitigate the catastrophic effects of climate and ecological breakdown, as a legal and practical framework for improving lives and reaching social justice outcomes, human rights have been instrumental, and their role in promoting human wellbeing and protecting human dignity is now more important than ever.

From Boring to Soaring; or, Beauty Is in the Eye of the Executive Order

photograph of classically-designed building

Donald Trump seeks to style himself as the architect-in-chief of the United States. Recently a draft of an executive order, predictably entitled “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” would require any new federal buildings with a budget greater than $50 million to be constructed in a “Classical” architectural style similar to “those of ancient Rome, Greece, and Europe.” The proposed rationale behind the order is that many federal buildings built in the last 60 years do not inspire the American people nor suit the dignity of the US government. In short, he thinks they’re ugly.

President Trump is fixated on the beauty and ugliness of things, using both of these terms broadly as general praise and blame, respectively. He has repeatedly referred to the border wall between the US and Mexico, now being built in fits-and-starts, as beautiful. While he has used it to refer to people as well, among the things that Trump finds beautiful are his fingers, military equipment, his presidential campaign, and airports. Is there any consistent conception of beauty that can make sense of collecting objects as disparate as Classical architecture, a border wall, and Trump’s own digits?

We can quickly dispense with the idea that Trump is not using the word ‘beautiful’ in an aesthetic sense, but instead in a practical sense. “Beautiful,” when used by Trump to describe the border wall does not mean “effective at deterring immigration” or “built to withstand and last.” He has ordered redesigns of the wall, drafted by engineers, in ways that have made it more expensive. Sections of the border wall have fallen over in moderately windy conditions. And people with tools that can be bought at any home improvement store cut through sections of the wall to illegally move goods.

The most obvious guess would be some sort of subjective theory of beauty. A subjective theory is what people have in mind when they say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This means that statements about beauty are true or false dependent upon the standards and tastes of the person making the statement. Hence if Trump says the border wall is beautiful we should understand this statement as “The border wall is beautiful (according to the tastes and standards of Donald Trump).” But this statement could be true at the same time as another, superficially contradictory statement made by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that “The border wall is not beautiful—it is ugly (according to the tastes and standards of Nancy Pelosi).” The apparent contradictoriness of these statements comes from the fact that we don’t usually say the parenthetical part, “according to the standards and tastes of so-and-so” out loud. Because of that we hear “The border wall is beautiful” and “The border wall is not beautiful—its ugly” just as we’d hear “It is 36℉ outside right now” and “It’s not 36℉ outside right now—its 29℉.” The latter pair of statements are contradictory assertions of facts, verifiable by reference to some standard outside of any specific person’s judgment.

So are Trump’s statements just the mark of an idiosyncratic taste? That could explain comments about his own fingers and the border wall. However his executive order concerning Federal architecture appeals to the sentiments of US citizens at-large, or to some effect that architecture has on them. It also echoes some of the words from the current guidelines for Federal architecture written in 1962 by Assistant Secretary of the Labor Department, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which stated that Federal buildings should “reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American National Government.” These considerations still point to a relative conception of beauty. But rather than facts about beauty differing according to the myriad and sundry standards of individual people, appeals to the character and tastes of a nation and its people reflect a kind of cultural relativism. Now statements about the beauty of the border wall, for example, would be interpreted as meaning “The border wall is beautiful (according to the standards and tastes of US culture).” It’s not clear whether there is anything meaningful that can be said about the collective aesthetic standards of US culture, but a majority of people in the US oppose the construction of a border wall between the US and Mexico. Moreover, the Classical style, as acknowledged by the text of the executive order, refers distinctly to the standards of cultures distant in both time and distance from the US—Greece, Rome, and Europe from hundreds or thousands of years ago. Even conceding the fact that the architectural style of the early days in the US bore the imprimatur of Classicism, various modernist and postmodernist styles have flourished over the past 100 or more years.

We are left to consider that an objective concept of beauty lurks behind Trump’s statements. After all, the predominant conception of beauty in throughout the periods of culture and time referred to in Trump’s executive order was an objective one. That is it argued that beauty was not dependent on any particular person or group’s standards of tastes, but rather dependent upon features of objects themselves. The columns of Ancient Greece, and the figures of Renaissance paintings, were constructed with an eye to symmetry. A beautiful thing was symmetrical, because that signaled a match with some ideal and complete form or mathematical principle. However the border wall itself is not built of classical materials or in a classical style.

The Trumpian conception of beauty is not a consistent one—at least not as a purely aesthetic one. If the executive order about Federal architecture, and the general sense of beauty Trump is appealing to, refer to the standards and tastes of US citizens, it’s only a small subsection thereof. This move can be interpreted as another salvo in the so-called “culture war,” with Trump pandering to the conservative, alt-right, and/or White Nationalist groups of the United States. In the end it seems “beauty” is just a merely rhetorical shortcut for Trump: a potpourri of pandering, opportunism, and unreflective sentiment. As many critics have already noted, no conception of beauty should be legislated or commanded from top-down—much less one with so little substance.

The (un)Fairness of Cis-Only Sports

photograph of staggered starting blocks for track competition

On February 12th, three families sued to make women’s sport in Connecticut exclude trans athletes from participating. But this is just one event in a trend of anti-LGBTQ legislation and litigation in 2020, including bills in South Dakota, Florida, and Colorado that would make it a felony for medical professionals to provide healthcare to trans minors, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ statement in 2018 advocating for a “gender-affirming approach” to care for minors.

These teens in Connecticut are not alone in pursuing action for trans exclusion in sport: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Washington all have Republican-sponsored bills under consideration “prohibiting transgender student athletes from participating in gender-segregated sports in a way that’s consistent with their gender identity.”

Attorney Christiana Holcomb (using transphobic language that erases the fact that trans girls *are* girls) made the claim: “Forcing girls to be spectators in their own sports is completely at odds with Title IX, a federal law designed to create equal opportunities for women in education and athletics.” Note that if the plaintiffs have their way, girls who aren’t cis aren’t simply being forced “to be spectators in their own sports,” but rather are being excluded completely from competition.

Identifying gender with an underlying biological feature is actually pretty difficult from a biological perspective. In 2018, the Trump administration attempted to define gender biologically and received a great deal of criticism from medical and gender specialists alike. “The idea that a person’s sex is determined by their anatomy at birth is not true, and we’ve known that it’s not true for decades,” said executive director of the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, Dr. Joshua D. Safer. Chromosomes, hormones, or external anatomical features like genitals are insufficient indicators to categorize the population into two rigid gender binaries. Further, two percent of the population have differences of sexual development (sometimes self-identifying as “intersex”) – this is roughly the same portion of the population that has red hair.

So why are athletes clinging to identities given to them based on apparent anatomy at birth?

One of the teen athlete plaintiffs, articulated their position: “That biological unfairness doesn’t go away because of what someone believes about gender identity. All girls deserve the chance to compete on a level playing field.” The “biological unfairness” alluded to here is the supposed competitive advantage that trans women have over cis women. The statements made by the teens make many appeals to fairness in sport and making sure everyone gets “their chance.”

“Fairness” may be a common value that we appeal to pretty frequently, but it doesn’t describe a stable state of affairs: it means different things in different contexts. Being fair to employees may mean giving the same salary to those who do the same amount of work, or it could mean giving more money to those who have been employed for longer at the company. Being fair to individuals in a classroom may mean not making discriminations (say, in awarding grades) on the basis of health and likely lifespans, whereas in the context of determining organ transplant recipients, health and likely lifespans may be a morally permissible standard for discrimination.

In competitive sport, “fairness” is a complicated standard. Competitors are understood to be looking for and developing advantages over their opponents. If an athlete perceives a weakness in an opponent, taking advantage of it is often the appropriate response. Outside of competitive sport, taking advantage of a weakness can be a textbook case of exploitation.

Basically, in sport, having a competitive advantage is not the same thing as having an unfair advantage. From there, the fairness issue gets complicated further because there is empirical evidence that trans women do not achieve a “significant” competitive advantage after transitioning. The advantage that is found can be estimated “from 2-3%.”

Competitive sport is competitive in the sense that training and in-sport strategy is largely concerned with garnering advantages for one’s own side and diminishing advantages for one’s opponent. Living and presenting as one’s gender is not the same thing as seeking these advantages any more than having a disposition for a particular height may give an advantage for some sports. However, the claim made by some who are attempting to exclude trans women is that any advantage they may have over cis women in virtue of being trans is an unfair one – is different than the advantage gained by happening to be a particular height. It is important to acknowledge that different sports privilege different physical presentations. In basketball, for instance, being tall represents a considerable advantage – more than 2-3% – while in gymnastics it represents a disadvantage.

The range of differences in gender performance in competitive sport is also significant: in the Iditarod, women frequently win overall, and in many endurance sports the gender gap is quite small, but in competitive weightlifting the gap reaches nearly 37%. These gaps receive a great deal of interpretation; during the 20th century, women’s sport achievement improved at a remarkably fast rate and the previously wider gap decreased. The increased access to resources, training, and competitions fostered women in sport. It is difficult to predict, given advances in sports science, training, and hopefully further progress in gender inclusion, how the performance gap will behave in the future.

A systematic review of the literature pertaining to sport policies in transgender people in 2017 concluded: “there is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition (e.g. cross-sex hormones, gender-confirming surgery) and, therefore, competitive sport policies that place restrictions on transgender people need to be considered and potentially revised.”

If we grant the 3% advantage, and determine this to be an “unfair” advantage, this does not necessarily lead to one clear call to action. For instance, in 2018, ethicists considering the advantage that trans women may hold in competitions concluded not that this should lead to exclusion from sport, but rather a more critical attitude towards male/female categories in sport in the first place. In 2019, ethicists suggested traits that are relevant to particular sports’ skill be the determining factor to segregate classes. For instance, we could consider dividing basketball into height classes, which would allow for shorter, skilled players to compete. This could mirror weight classes in boxing and martial arts competitions, for instance.

While the underlying value that the plaintiffs are appealing to is “fairness,” their aim is to exclude their fellow athletes from competing. A more critical analysis of why the aim of a fair competition and success in sport is required for these athletes to move forward. Perhaps they should consider why the the American Civil Liberties Union is on the other side of their case: though the plaintiffs are appealing to Title IX’s gender protections, the ACLU has said it will represent the transgender teens: “Attorney Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice with the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, said transgender girls also are protected by Title IX.” Women get to play sports.

Meaning in Political Discourse

image of "Marxist" black-and-white label

Political polarization has become an important issue in recent years. On matters of public policy it seems like there is little room for rational conversation when people of different political stripes cannot agree on the same basic facts. Solutions to the problem of polarization are likely to be as complex and as plural as the causes of the problem, but there is one issue that may be an important starting point: meaning. A lack of clarity in the meaning of certain terms in political discussion only weakens our ability to engage in fruitful dialog. It fragments our political culture and encourages us to continue to talk past one another. If refining the meanings of our words helps to improve our political discussions, then the issue takes on a moral importance as well as a logical one.

For the first example, let’s consider what the term “socialist” means. The issue has become important as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has at times used terms like “socialist” or “democratic socialist” to describe his positions. Yet according to some he is not a socialist at all, he is a democratic socialist and not a regular socialist, or perhaps he is not a democratic socialist but a social democrat, or still others insist that he is not a socialist but an all-out Marxist. Why is it so difficult for us to decide what Sanders is? Debates about the finer points separating these different views are not new; political ideologues have argued about these distinctions for years. However, much of these debates has always centered on articulating a position relative to an entire political and metaphysical philosophy.

For example, the historical materialism of Marx and Engels was the philosophical driving force behind Marxism. It held that history and society is largely structured by matter, by the control of material forces, rather than ideas or ideals. Borrowing from Hegelian thought, this historical materialism will result in the end of history; historical change is driven by class conflict and will end with the elimination of class: communism. Such philosophical views not only affected Soviet economic thinking, but their thinking about everything else. For example, Soviet science initially rejected genetics since the notion that an inherited trait made an organism better than others ran counter to the Marxist understanding of history and nature.

But terms like socialist, communist, democratic socialist, social democrat are, in many ways, now divorced from these larger philosophical systems. Instead they have been giving new meanings and associations in contemporary contexts. This is important. For example, some try to distinguish between socialism and communism purely in terms of what governments should enact as policy. Communism means the elimination of all property, socialism allows for the retention of varying forms of private markets we are told. While this may be partially true, it wouldn’t be how a Soviet communist in 1920 would have understood the term. But here in 2006 Sanders defines democratic socialism in terms of making sure that income isn’t a barrier to healthcare, education, and a clean environment. Sanders tends to refer to policies not philosophies when situating himself on the political spectrum.

If these terms no longer refer to specific systems, then the meaning of such terms becomes fuzzy. Sanders doesn’t seem to mind using any of these terms so long as he can redefine them in terms consistent with policies that he supports; the label is of secondary importance. This may be why he continues to use terms like “socialist” and “democratic socialist” interchangeably. Little distinguishes him policy-wise from self-proclaimed capitalist Elizabeth Warren or from FDR, except additional rhetoric. But the looseness of such terms can only serve to create confusion and room for empty political name-calling. It is problematic to take concepts which had their original meaning embedded in a 19th century philosophy and place them in a 21st century context. If something sounds vaguely like what the Soviets would do, then you are labeled a “communist.” Given this tendency toward oversimplification, we must be vigilant about how we use such terms moving forward. The real question we should ask ourselves is whether favoring policies of universal healthcare or education constitute necessary or sufficient conditions for using terms like “communist” or “socialist.”

Another example of unclear meaning creating problems can be found in a term like “social construct.” Originally coming out of sociology, social constructivism examines the ways in which society and social interaction structures our understanding of reality. Like “socialism” it emerged from academia operating under certain methodological and philosophical principles, and like “socialism” the term can be understood in several different, complicated ways. At one end of the spectrum social constructivism might hold that how we understand and use concepts is socially influenced while at another end it may hold that our entire understanding of reality is socially determined; the world is the way society says the world is.

It is often noted that gender and race are social constructs, but how is the term “social construct” being used and why is it controversial? Those who insist that there are only two genders, for instance, will tend to argue that biology tells us that we are born with XX or XY chromosomes and that this is all that matters. Part of this political conflict is a matter of epistemic and metaphysical disagreement. A hard realist about epistemology may hold that there is only one way that the world is, and that science is the path to find objective truths about it; social factors only get in the way. To their way of understanding it, only the two-gender theory “carves nature at its joints” so to speak. Social influences, including all of the values, perspectives, and experiences that come with them, only serve to lead to biased or subjective science. Thus, any discussion of more than two genders can be accused of engaging in mere “political correctness” (another poorly defined term) or ideology.

But one does not need to understand “social construct” in this way. Social influences and interactions, practical concerns, and even values, can affect the way we understand and study a topic without falling into complete epistemic relativism. For example, in her book Studying Human Behavior Helen Longino argues that different scientific approaches to studying human behavior do not all agree about what constitutes an environmental causal factor and what constitutes a biological causal factor. To some extent how we divide the world up into what constitutes a behavior, what is environmental, and what is biological is a social construct, but that does not imply that the end conclusion is simply made up or that accepting the findings of any given approach constitutes only subjective or ideological agreement.

Yet, unfortunately the notion persists that social construction implies subjectivity. For instance, Joshua Keating of Smithsonian Magazine notes that time is a social construct. Social interaction influences our understanding of concepts like minutes and seconds, “being early”, “late”, “fashionably late”, or “workday.” Yet he notes, “Those subjective views help explain why the standardization of time has often been met with reluctance if not outright resistance.” But there is no good reason to accept the conclusion that simply because a concept is (at least partially) a social construct, it is therefore subjective.

As philosopher Ray Lepley notes, our interests and desires do not confer value, they create value in interaction with reality. The way we understand and use the concept of time has (generally) proved itself objectively well at allowing us to navigate our environment in ways that are relevant to our society. For other societies a different understanding of time may prove itself objectively good at allowing them to navigate their environment. When different societies interact, it creates new problems for our established ways of tracking time that need to be worked out.

On the other hand, socially constructed terms can be merely subjective in the sense that they do not allow us to successfully interact with the world. For example, Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist tells us that race is a social construct in the sense that it is a socially-created concept that does not allow us to predict factors like intelligence or explain innate differences between peoples and populations. Empirically, it is an empty concept. So long as we avoid understanding the terms “social construct” and “reality” in mutually exclusive ways, questions like: How many genders there should be? work themselves out empirically over time as various societies, (and sub-societies,) and their environments all continue to interact with each other. Thus, as long as we clarify the meaning of these terms, we can have conversations about these topics and discuss the merits of using concepts without talking past one another or worry that one side is merely trying to instill their ideology over others.

There are countless other extremely loaded terms which can be used to create arguments to attack others while avoiding serious debate and discussion. What do terms like “political correctness”, “liberal,” “democratic,” “conservative”, or “fascist” mean in their 21st century contexts? These questions are not new. Early analytic philosophers concerned about the rise of nationalist and racist beliefs in Europe argued that clarifying meaning could help resolve political questions. It is still worth taking up the task today.

Can Shoplifting Be Activism?

photograph of women shoplifting makeup

Our culture is both fascinated with and repelled by shoplifting. On the one hand, we scoff at the cast of archetypal shoplifters; the materialistic teenage girl, the shifty hoodie-wearing teenager, the bored housewife looking for a thrill. In whatever form they take, shoplifters are considered defectors from the American Dream, which loudly proclaims the value of honest backbreaking labor (though it doesn’t necessarily decry the obsession with material wealth that purportedly rewards such work). At the same time, theft is glamorized on the big screen. Movies like The Bling Ring, Ocean’s 8, and Hustlers plumb the moral implications of theft while wrapping it up in a glamour veneer.

Our cultural fascination has bled into a scientific quest to unmask the motivations of shoplifters. What kind of person would do something as seemingly irrational (in that it goes against the logic of working hard for material wealth) and potentially dangerous as shoplift, we want to know, and why? Women are generally thought to shoplift more than men, because women are thought to shop more in general, but a 2008 study conducted by The American Journal of Psychiatry demonstrated that men actually are more likely to shoplift than women. A recent paper, “The Psychology of Shoplifting: Development of a New Typology for Repeated Shoplifting,” which was published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology in 2019, makes a more rigorous effort at pinning this elusive figure down.

The researchers conducted a survey of around two hundred self-professed kleptomaniacs, which measured their shoplifting behavior (the strategies they use to avoid detection and the objects they gravitate towards), the emotions they experienced before and after shoplifting, their mental health, level of impulsiveness, and history of trauma. From this data, the researchers determined that there are six kinds of shoplifters, each with a specific personality profile and motivation for theft. The most common type, making up around 25% of the participants, is the Lost-Reactive type, who are “characterized by generally law-abiding behavior, stability in mental health, and the preponderance of lifetime loss and trauma.” These types may be shoplifting out of a subconsciously desire to compensate for a past loss or trauma, the researchers suggest. The Impulsive type is generally financially well-off, and tends to steal only when the opportunity presents itself. They were found to feel the least shameful about their actions. The Depressed type shoplifts to alleviate the pain or numbness of mental illness, possessing both the highest amount of shame and the strongest moral compass of the six types. In a sharp contrast to that, the Hobbyist, views theft as not only a fun activity but a component of their identity. According to the study, “These individuals had a high orientation to traditional ethics and yet did not experience distress, guilt, or shame, indicating that they may see themselves as above, outside, or exempt from the law,” and also receive the highest enjoyment from stealing of the six types. The last two types, Addictive-Compulsive (the thrill-seekers) and the Economically Disadvantaged (those who steal to survive, and almost always stole on a more regular basis than any of the other types), tended to feel low shame.

But there is a seventh type of shoplifter, unmentioned in the study and yet present in the spaces between each profile. This type professes a unique motivation for shoplifting; political activism. The activist borrows elements from nearly all the categories, never fitting fully into any single group. They are hobbyists, in that they view stealing as fun and commiserate with other shoplifters in an online community, much in the same way that a hobbyist who builds miniature trains might do. Many claim to enjoy the thrill of the steal, but many more cite economic disadvantage as their key motivation. But the characteristic that most sharply distinguishes them from the other categories is that their shoplifting is rooted in feminist and anti-capitalist theory, which could perhaps point to a strong rather than weak ethical compass.

These political shoplifters are surprisingly visible online. Journalist Tasbeeh Herwees interviewed teenage girls who participated in “Liftblr,” an online community of shoplifters who swap tips and share pictures of their hauls on Tumblr. A study on the Liftblr community conducted by Northumbria University, identified a cluster of three themes that made up the entire body of shoplifting blogs; tips and advice (how to find the blind spots of security cameras, what kind of purses can hide items the most inconspicuously), resistance and activism (which includes social justice, feminist theory, and anticapitalist theory), and storytelling/community building (personal stories about shoplifting that reify a sense of a shared identity between members, as well as jokes about the Liftblr community and general humor related to shoplifting).

Not all members of Liftblr are explicitly political, but the Northumbria study found that social justice was a central focus on the blogs of of the most vocal members of the community. One girl, who went by the handle PrincessKlepto, wrote to Herwees that,

“Being a teen girl is hard—you have to be skinny, attractive, put together, well dressed, etc. Society teaches girls through media and the beauty industry that they need to be perfect. I’m sick of handing my money over to corporations that profit on this bullshit…so if i have to put up with this kind of stuff, i’m [sic] certainly not going to pay for it.”

Like the Lost-Reactive type, these teens cite trauma (the broad trauma of living in a capitalist society, the more specific trauma of being a teenage girl) as a motivation for theft, though the trauma described in the Lost-Reactive profile seems more of an unconscious than conscious motivator. Another lifter, pretty-little-lift, wrote, “I 100% support women stealing beauty products instead of throwing every spare penny she has away chasing after an impossible pipedream sold to her since the moment she was born.” Some users take it farther than just makeup. Tumblr user ptsdhamlet posted in 2016,

“I’m not going to get too deep into the Shoplifting Discourse but I will say that ‘stealing for survival’ encompasses a lot more than just food. You could be stealing makeup (which is already always absurdly expensive) so strangers read you as a woman, or stealing a toy so your kid doesn’t feel like she’s a bad person because Santa didn’t bring her anything, or stealing tampons or toilet paper because everybody deserves basic hygiene, or stealing nice clothes for a job interview, or stealing school supplies so you can study, or stealing any other number of things that are truly necessary but you won’t immediately die if you don’t get them.”

So is it possible for shoplifting to be activism, and if so, how effective a form of protest is it? In her 2012 book The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, Rachel Shteir describes the work of journalist James Trimarco, who researches the subject of shoplifting as activism. His work isn’t focused on determining the moral implications of stealing, but the metric by which we should judge the validity of shoplifting as political activism. He asks, “Does [shoplifting] keep a sense of direct action alive? Does it develop skills that can come in handy in other forms of political work? Does it provide a kind of ‘euphoria of disobedience’ against private property that’s not easily found elsewhere?”

David Graeber, a cultural anthropologist who teaches at the London School of Economics, was also interviewed by Shteir for her book. He told her than when shoplifting,

“One doesn’t destroy (or steal) people’s personal property, in the sense of things they own to use themselves. One doesn’t deprive people of their means of livelihood. Almost all anarchists I know don’t feel it’s morally wrong to steal from a large corporate store, but wouldn’t think of stealing from a mom and pop grocer […] It’s really hard to imagine a scenario where we can overcome capitalism without breaking or taking anything that the law says doesn’t belong to us. So then it comes down to a question of tactics: When is it helpful and when isn’t it? […] Who gets to say? Is there some central authority that can dictate what are appropriate revolutionary tactics?”

Both Triamarco and Graeber bring up interesting points. Shoplifting is arguably the most accessible form of civil disobedience. As superstores proliferate, it becomes easier and easier to swipe items from big businesses. But when we consider whether or not it provides the euphoria of disobedience or develops the tools needed for protest, the issue becomes more complicated. As demonstrated in the 2019 study, shoplifters are still a heterogeneous group, whatever their professed motivations. They may not even consider their actions political at all. Furthermore, not everyone who shoplifts actively develops a revolutionary toolkit or participates in community-building, as the Impulsive type attests to.

There are few forms of protest that are as difficult to interpret as protest, that don’t explicitly make themselves known as civil disobedience. Shoplifting, uniquely, is inherently silent rather than overtly loud and disruptive. Does that mean it only becomes protest when we think of it as protest, and the action itself is inherently neutral? Or do such actions carry political significance regardless of intent? The Economically Disadvantaged shoplifter, for example, might not think about their actions as political, but one could argue that their need to shoplift arises from and is a direct response to political or economic marginalization, so the action is political whether or not they think of it that way or not.

At the same time, some researchers have argued that the act of shoplifting is inherently harmful, regardless of professed motivation. A 2008 study conducted on over 43,000 people demonstrated that those who shoplifted were more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness, and tended to score lower on social, mental, and emotional health surveys. The same study showed that high school students who admitted to shoplifted had lower grades, higher drug and alcohol use, and more feelings of sadness and hopelessness when compared with those who hadn’t shoplifted. However, one could argue that all of this data doesn’t necessarily reveal a cause and effect relationship. In other words, it doesn’t tell us if shoplifting is a cause or symptom of emotional and mental problems, and how factors like economic disadvantage shape these lived experiences. A much smaller 2012 study conducted on over 100 teenagers found that nearly 25% of those diagnosed with kleptomania reported attempting suicide at least once. 93% of those cases reported that the attempt was “directly or indirectly due to their kleptomania symptoms (e.g., shame over the behavior; legal or personal problems resulting from shoplifting).” This study comes much closer to establishing that link, but the sample size is relatively small, and once again, the study doesn’t address the social and economic forces at the root of many shoplifters’ trauma.

Thinkers like Graebar bring up the difficulty in labeling an act like shoplifting, which may spring from any number of motivations, as inherently anticapitalist or revolutionary. It’s worthwhile to reconsider the various forms civil disobedience can take, and what stereotypes about shoplifting impact our cultural response to it.

Ethical Messages at the Academy Awards

During the Academy Awards this year, many artists, as they often do, took the opportunity to advocate for various social, ethical, and political positions. Perhaps the most noteworthy instance occurred during Joaquin Pheonix’s acceptance speech for best actor for his performance in the movie Joker. At its heart, Joker is a movie about marginalized and underserved groups. It uses an only nominally comic book vehicle to drive a narrative about poverty, mental illness, and political and social responsibility. It is not surprising, then, that Pheonix, a famous lifelong vegan, took a brief moment to talk about a marginalized group that has historically received far too little mention from advocates of all types—non-human animals. In his speech, Pheonix said,

“I think that we’ve become very disconnected from the natural world, and many of us, what we’re guilty of is an egocentric world view — the belief that we’re the center of the universe. We go into the natural world, and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal. And I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something, to give something up, but human beings, at our best, are so inventive and creative and ingenious. And I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment.”

It is fairly clear that Pheonix was delivering what was, to his mind, a message of peace, love, and compassion. He was also offering a call to change. It is perhaps this call that left many people very uncomfortable. His speech was both widely applauded and widely criticized, by some for the particular content of his speech, and by others for the general trend of using an award show to spread a political message in the first place. Many people find such behavior distasteful.

Those who are opposed to celebrities using their voices in this way make a number of arguments. First, they argue that popular culture tends to be something that everyone enjoys, regardless of their political affiliation. Award shows like the Academy Awards are occasions where everyone can come together to remember the art that has been made and the stories that have been told that year. When artists choose to make these moments political, they make the events less fun for a range of people: those who find politics unpleasant, those who would rather not encounter political messages in mixed company, and those who disagree with the political message being expressed.

Second, some argue that coverage of the political antics at award shows takes the spotlight away from other, more pressing issues. When popular figures like Jane Fonda or Joaquin Pheonix take the opportunity to make speeches or to take public positions in other ways, the press swarms to provide coverage. This distracts viewers from current events that should, rightly, hold their attention.

Still others are concerned about virtue signaling. These people are concerned that the political speeches aren’t what they appear on the surface. Artists are concerned with public appearance, and they think they’ll be more broadly adored if they are outspoken advocates of the positions that they are “supposed” to hold. These critics are concerned that these messages are more about aesthetics than ethics.

Another argument that is commonly made is that actors should not be treated as experts when it comes to political matters. When allowed to proceed unchecked, award shows give non-experts a platform to spread their ideology, and viewers might unreflectively accept what is being said as true simply because they admire the messenger.

Advocates of these kinds of messages have responses to each of the above claims. First, they argue that popular culture isn’t neutral, so we shouldn’t expect neutrality out of our award shows. Often, the films that are nominated for the highest honors are the films that grapple with the compelling, and sometimes difficult, social and political issues of the day. These films motivate viewers to reflect, and, potentially to change, their views on important matters. Given that this is the case, it would be very unusual, and not in society’s best interest, to expect the people who made these films to refrain from speaking about politics or ethics when they are honored for this work.

Second, no one ever promised anyone that award shows would be politically neutral, so it is unclear where the expectation that controversial issues would be tabled for the night came from. People, including actors receiving awards, have a right to free speech. It is common for public figures to use their very limited time as a metaphorical megaphone to make ethical or political statements. Since viewers can expect this to reliably be the case, if they find this kind of behavior distasteful, they can always choose to do something else with their time. Information about winners of awards is readily available through a quick Google search in real time or anytime after the event ends.

In response to the argument that the antics of award winners takes up too much of the news cycle, one can point out that this objection only comes up at certain times of year—when stars at award shows use their forums to express what many view as “liberal” messages. During the rest of the year, these same people don’t seem concerned that people can turn on cable TV and click around to land on any of hundreds of channels. On these channels, one might find reality TV gems such as “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” “Toddlers in Tiaras,” or “90 Day Fiancé.” No one seems concerned that this content is blocking out more important messages. Free speech isn’t a zero-sum game. There is room for all sorts of messages to be expressed. There is also room for advocacy for all sorts of issues. In light of this fact, it starts to look like the people who express this concern are more worried about the particular content of the political messages expressed during award shows than they are about the forum.

What’s more, the volume of the messages isn’t even that high. In the immediate aftermath of award shows, it may be the case that viewers encounter replay or discussion of the messages expressed for a couple of days or even a week after they occur. Even then, the messages are only being reported and discussed in certain forums. If these messages aren’t for you, then perhaps those forums aren’t for you either, at least during those particular times.

Finally, there are responses to those that argue either that actors are not experts or that their behavior is nothing more than virtue signaling. The term “virtue signaling” is, in many ways, a problematic new phrase. In some ways, it describes a real phenomenon: the advocacy that many people exhibit in life goes no further than their social media accounts. In these kinds of cases, some people may be saying or doing the “virtuous” thing only to come across a certain way. On the other hand, people are quick to label all passionate ethical behavior on the part of their political opponents as “virtue signaling” as a way of undermining the person’s message.

It is important not to paint all celebrities with one brush. Some artists are experts in the facts related to the ethical issues about which they are passionate. Before critiquing an artist’s knowledge base, one should probably have some idea of what that knowledge base actually is. One might also want to be aware of whether their actions go beyond mere speeches.

If we take them at their word, those that level these complaints about celebrities seem to be concerned that people will succumb to the fallacious appeal to authority fallacy. That is, they claim to be concerned that people will give too much credibility to positions offered by non-authoritative sources. In their concern over fallacious appeal to authority, they should be mindful that they don’t succumb to the ad hominem fallacy. That is, they should be careful that they don’t let contingent, arbitrary facts about who a person happens to be blind them to the merits of that person’s argument.

Pheonix poses the question: what are our obligations to oppressed groups, including those that some might find controversial? This is an important question to ask, and a public event like the Academy Awards provides a powerful platform for asking it.

Is It Ethical to Extinguish a Species?

photograph of mosquito swarm, blurry from motion

Diseases like malaria, dengue fever, Zika fever, and chikungunya virus are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. What is common to all of these illnesses? They are largely spread by mosquitoes who, while not being that harmful in themselves, are considered to be one of the deadliest creatures on the planet because of their ability to transmit disease. For example, one species of mosquito known as Aedes aegypti are mostly responsible for the transmission of dengue fever which kills 10-20,000 people every year. If this species of mosquito is deadly, why don’t we simply eradicate the species? A more important question, however, might be whether it is ethical to do so.

The idea of eradicating several species of mosquito has been proposed multiple times. Bringing about the extinction of Anopheles gambiae, which are prominent in the spread of malaria, could save millions of lives. Biologist Olivia Judson advocates for the use of genetic modification to cause “specicide.” She argues that “It is hard to argue that a targeted, genetic attempt to remove an insect that is clearly harmful to us is worse than the haphazard, expensive, destructive and largely unsuccessful approach we’re using now.” E.O. Wilson, a champion of biodiversity, has also advocated for the extinction of Anopheles gambiae noting, “Anopheles gambiae […] is specialized to live in human settlements and lives on human blood. As a result, it’s a principle conveyer of malaria. That’s one I wouldn’t mind seeing go.”

Many have wondered how the extinction of various species of mosquito might affect ecosystems. While Aedes aegypti is an important source of food for amphibians, bats, birds, fish, insects, and reptiles, it has been suggested that species could adjust to the loss of this food source while other mosquito species could fill the ecological niche. According to entomologist Joe Conlon, “if we eradicated them tomorrow, the ecosystems where they are active will hiccup and then get on with life. Something better or worse would take over.” Because of this, advocates of eliminating certain species of mosquitoes see little downside for the environment if they were driven to extinction. In the meantime, using genetic modification to eliminate the species may be preferred. The use of pesticides can be harmful to human health, and the elimination of mosquito breeding grounds pose greater risks of disrupting ecosystems.

One very prominent attempt to put this thinking into practice takes the form of Oxitec’s OX513A mosquito. Through genetic modification, the males of the species will not be able to produce viable offspring unless they are exposed to the antibiotic tetracycline. In other words, when released into the wild they will still be able to mate with female mosquitoes, but the resultant eggs will not be viable. Field trials of this genetically modified mosquito have been conducted in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, and Malaysia. As a result, the population of mosquitoes in the trial area have fallen by 80-95% and with a reduction of dengue fever cases by 91%. Since the modified mosquitoes are all male they must be replaced over time. However, since males do not bite humans, the immediate risk of a modified mosquito biting humans is minimal.

The prospect of eliminating an entire species carries some significant ethical considerations. One of these concerns is whether these edited genes are controllable. One of the reassurances of using a genetically modified mosquito is that the edited genes should disappear with their death; their offspring will not be viable, so there should be no chance of such organisms spreading. However, according to a study at Yale, mosquitoes captured up to two-and-a-half years after the release of OX513A carried genetic modifications signifying that some of their offspring did manage to survive. In other words, genes from the released OX513A mosquitoes did make it into the general population.

There are other important concerns. First, it is difficult to predict how changes to evolutionary pressures on viruses like dengue fever will affect their virulence. According to David B. Resnick at the National Institute of Health such modifications “might promote malaria resistance but increase yellow fever susceptibility.” In addition, there are concerns that Oxitec has not engaged as much public consultation as they should before releasing their mosquitoes in trial areas. There is also the more general concern about genetic modification. Various groups have opposed genetic modification as “they feel deeply that it is wrong to tamper with the DNA of wild things.”

But there is perhaps a more significant moral issue. Use of genetically modified organisms aside, there is still the question about eliminating a species. The most emphatic proponents of efforts to eradicate these mosquitoes seem to be those who focus on global health ethics. Eliminating certain species that cause great harm to humans will alleviate suffering and potentially save millions of lives, while at the same time their elimination is not likely to seriously harm ecosystems. From a global health perspective, the argument is clear.

Alternatively, from an environmental ethics standpoint there is concern about the unknown environmental effects. Even if the risk is minimal however, there is a more important question to consider: Does a species have inherent value such that it would be morally wrong to eliminate it even if their extinction served our interests? According to philosopher Paul W. Taylor a species is merely a class and only individual organisms within a class have inherent worth. Thus, there is nothing more immoral about eliminating a species like Anopheles gambiae than there is eliminating the individual insects.

Alternatively, JP Sterba emphasizes that species can evolve, become endangered, and go extinct. In effect, a species can be harmed or benefited, and therefore a species has a good of its own. If all species possess this kind of inherent value then eliminating Anopheles gambiae is immoral. This view asks us to look beyond whether we value Anopheles gambiae, or whether Anopheles gambiae is valuable for things we care about (like ecosystems), and consider the question of the value of the species from another vantage.

However, even if we accepted that a species has inherent value, that would not mean that it is more valuable than other considerations. So, perhaps, this very specific case is poignant because as the human species continues to practice ever more control over nature, we need to become better at understanding how and why things should be valued; these answers will be instructive in determining what we should (and should not) do with that control.

Sensorvault and Ring: Private-Sector Data Collection Meets Law Enforcement

closeup photograph of camera lens

Concerns over personal privacy and security are amplifying as more information surfaces about the operations of Google’s Sensorvault, Amazon’s Ring, and FamilyTreeDNA.

Sensorvault, Google’s enormous database, stands out from the group as a major player in the digital profiling arena. Since at least 2009, it has been amassing data and constructing individual profiles for all of us based on vast information about our location history, hobbies, race, gender, income, religion, net worth, purchase history, and more. Google and other private-sector companies argue that the amassment of digital dossiers facilitates immense improvements in their efficiency and profits. However, the collection of such data also raises thorny ethical concerns about consent and privacy.

With regard to consent, the operation of Sensorvault is morally problematic for three main reasons. First, the minimum age required for managing your own Google account in North America is 13, meaning that Google can begin constructing the digital profiles of children, despite the likelihood that they are unable to comprehend the Terms and Service agreement or its implications. Their digital files are thus created prior to the (legal) possibility of providing meaningful consent.

Second, the dominance of Google’s Search Engine, Maps, and other services are making it increasingly less feasible to live a Google-free life. In the absence of a meaningful exit option, the value of supposed consent is significantly diminished. Third, as law professor Daniel Solove puts it, “Life today is fueled by information, and it is virtually impossible to live as an Information Age ghost, leaving no trail or residue.” Even if you avoid using all Google services, your digital profile can and will still be constructed from other data point references about your life, such as income level or spending habits.

The operation of Sensorvault and similar databases also raise moral concerns about individual privacy. Materially speaking, the content in Sensorvault puts individuals at extreme risks of fraud, identity theft, public embarrassment, and reputation damage, given the detailed psychological profiles and life-patterns contained in the database. Google’s insistence that protective safeguards are in place is not particularly persuasive either in light of recent security breaches, such as Social Security numbers and health information of military personnel and their families being stolen from a United States Army Base.

More abstractly, these data collection agencies represent an existential threat to our private selves. Solove argues in his book “The Digital Person” that the digital dossiers amassed by private corporations are eerily reflective of the files that Big Brother has on its citizens in 1984. He also makes a comparison between the secrecy surrounding these profiles and The Trial, in which Kafka warns of the dangers of losing control over personal information and enabling bureaucracies to make decisions about our lives without us being aware.

The stakes are growing increasingly high as Google, Amazon, and FamilyTreeDNA move beyond using data collection for their own purposes and are now collaborating with law enforcement agencies. These private companies attempt to justify their practices on the grounds that they are a boon to policing practices and are effectively helping to solve and deter crime. However, even if you are sympathetic to their justification, there are still significant ethical and legal reasons to be concerned by the growing relationship between data collecting private-sector companies and law enforcement agencies.

In Google’s case, the data in Sensorvault is being shared with the government as part of a new policing mechanism. American law enforcement agencies have recently started issuing “Geofence warrants” which grant them access to the digital trails and location patterns left by individuals’ devices in a specific time and area, or “geofence.” Geofencing warrants differ significantly from traditional warrants because they permit law enforcement to obtain access to Google user’s data without probable cause. According to one Google employee, “the company responds to a single warrant with location information on dozens or hundreds of devices,” thus ensnaring innocent people in a digital dragnet. As such, Geofencing warrants raise significant moral and legal concerns in that they circumvent the 4th Amendment’s protection of privacy and probable cause search requirement.

Amazon’s Ring (a home surveillance system) is also engaged in morally problematic relations with law enforcement. They have partnered with hundreds of departments in the US to provide police with data from their customers’ home security systems. Reports suggest that Ring has shared the locations of their customers’ homes with law enforcement, is working on enabling police to automatically activate Ring cameras in an area where a crime has been committed, and that Amazon is even coaching police on how to gain access to user’s cameras without a warrant.

FamilyTreeDNA, one of the country’s largest genetic testing companies, is also putting consumers’ privacy and security at risk by providing its data to the FBI. FamilyTree has offered DNA testing for nearly two decades, but in 2018, it willingly granted law enforcement access to millions of consumer profiles, many of which were collected before users were aware of the company’s collaboration with law enforcement. While police have long been using public genealogy databases to solve crime, FamilyTree’s partnership with the FBI marks one of the first times a private-sector database has willingly shared the sensitive information of its consumers with governmental agencies.

Several strategies might be pursued to mitigate the concerns raised by these companies regarding consent, privacy, and law enforcement collaboration. First, the US ought to consider adopting safeguards similar to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations which, for example, sets the minimum age of consent for Google Users at 16 and stipulates that Terms of Service “should be provided in an intelligible and easily accessible form, using clear and plain language and it should not contain unfair terms.” Second, all digital and DNA data collecting companies should undergo strict security testing to protect against theft, fraud, and the exposure of personal information. Third, given the extremely private and sensitive nature of such data, regulations ought to be enacted to prevent private companies like Family Tree from sharing profiles they amassed before publicly disclosing their partnership with law enforcement. Fourth, the US Congress Committee on Energy and Commerce should continue to monitor and inquire into companies as they did in their 2019 letter to Google. There needs to be greater transparency regarding what data is being stored and for what purposes. Finally, the 4th Amendment must become a part of the mainstream conversation regarding the amassing of digital dossiers, DNA profiles, and the access to such data by law enforcement agencies without probable cause.

Grassroots Environmentalism and California’s CAPP

photograph of air pollution with cars on highway and yellow smoke in city

In 2017, the Californian legislature passed a bill that led to the creation of the Community Air Protection Program (CAPP). By promoting the development of community emissions reduction programs and collecting data about their success, the CAPP aims to provide practical guidelines for improving California’s air quality. Most notably, the program’s focus is specifically committed to equipping local stakeholders with the tools and resources needed to improve their own communities, providing $15 million in grants to build air monitors and promote outreach. Full reports from the first ten focus districts are expected in October of this year, with additional communities being selected for participation in early 2021.

Although it might seem inconsequential when compared to wildfires, hurricanes, or other headline-breaking results of global anthropogenic climate change, air pollution carries with it a host of demonstrable health and environmental problems beyond mere aesthetic unpleasantries. For decades, smog and atmospheric pollution has been linked to decreased capacities for plants to conduct photosynthesis, to the decrease of wild animal populations as they either migrate or die, and the generation of “acid rain” as atmospheric gases interact with the water cycle, thereby eroding the landscape and further increasing stresses on local flora and fauna. In humans, air pollution exacerbates a variety of respiratory diseases, contributing to the deaths of over seven million people; furthermore, recent studies have linked increased atmospheric particulates to increased symptoms of dementia and cognitive decline, to obesogenic outcomes, and to a spate of negative mental health results. Multiple studies have indicated a link between air quality and skillful performance, such as that of chess players, baseball umpires, and students; one recent report suggests that the installation of relatively inexpensive air filters in elementary school classrooms correlates with increased test scores to roughly the same degree as reducing class sizes by thirty percent. High levels of air pollution even seem to have a detrimental effect on computer operations.

Improving air quality, however, is a complicated task, given both the accessibility of the atmosphere and the high number of stakeholders with potential influence. Industrial factories of all sorts generate tons of atmospheric waste each year, mining operations release numerous atmospheric pollutants as byproducts, and landfill emissions are surprisingly large as organic waste decomposes. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the single largest human activity that contributes to atmospheric pollution is the burning of fossil fuels, whether in industrial operations or by private consumers – such as in the frequent use of passenger vehicles. According to a 2014 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, “cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas” – when planes, ships, freight trains, and other forms of transportation are included, that calculation increases to nearly thirty percent of the country’s emissions.

While some have touted various replacements for internal combustion engines to reduce fossil fuel emissions, such solutions are expensive and often not viable options for many; instead, California’s CAPP initiative aims to empower concerned citizens to pursue realistic solutions to improve local air quality. Through town hall meetings, workshops, canvassing, and other active forms of communication, CAPP districts have worked to identify and seek funding to fix specific problems noticed by local citizens, such as the Feather River District’s need for newer school buses with cleaner-running engines, San Bernardino County’s concern to limit truck traffic through residential areas, and the South Coast District’s desire to regulate petroleum refineries more strictly. By maintaining a focus on ground-level concerns, the CAPP program hopes to increase long-term effectiveness of these environmental regulations by fostering participation and support from the communities most affected by poor air quality conditions.

However, given the scope of the air-pollution problem, small-scale action will be insufficient to counter its most pernicious long-term effects; consequently, the Environmental Protection agency has, historically, implemented regulatory measures on a broader scale. Additionally, some states – like California – enact even more strict fuel economy standards to encourage citizens and companies to remain mindful of environmental concerns. However, such regulations inevitably raise the hackles of the industries they are designed to constrain; automakers, in particular, have balked at California’s high expectations for engine efficiency (intended to curb emissions), citing concerns about manufacturing expense and market fairness. The Trump White House has recently made moves to repeal environmental regulations on a large number of industries, including loosening many rules designed to mitigate atmospheric pollution, and the president indicated last autumn that California’s ability to set its own emissions standards will also be revoked in support of the auto industry (state lawmakers have already issued legal challenges against this move).

So, while conflicts over large-scale regulatory measures continue on the federal and state levels, pilot initiatives like the Community Air Protection Program offer a promising opportunity to promote small steps towards improving the air quality for local communities, empowering neighborhoods to make long-desired positive changes to contribute to the massive project of caring for the environment. As with so many other examples, may this be a grassroots-level movement that grows into something far greater.

Prejudice in the NFL?

painting of lamar jackson in NFL game

The NFL is over for the next six months. The Superbowl has been won, all the player and coach accolades have been handed out, and teams are busy looking to build on the 2020-2021 season in free agency and the upcoming draft. But in today’s contemporary media environment, the NFL can’t be just about football. Over the past few seasons, the NFL has endured a series of serious media crisis–player safety, television ratings, and scandalous players (mostly Antonio Brown). But an issue that continues to linger is about diversity and the impact of racial issues on the game. This is no surprise to anyone, as the diversity issues were the subject of host Steve Harvey’s monologue at this year’s NFL 100 Awards ceremony. Indeed, the small pool of minorities that sit in front offices and on coaching staffs, as well as recent decisions regarding players of color raise the question of who’s to blame for the NFL’s diversity issues as well as who’s responsible for finding solutions for them.

70% of NFL players are black–the lineman, the runningbacks, the defense, the receiving core. But if you look at one position in particular, it’s not reflective of the majority demographic–the quarterback. Per The New York Times, 12 black quarterbacks started for the NFL 2019-2020 season, but it’s one QB short for tying the record of most black quarterback starts in a single season. There’s even been a bit of controversy regarding black quarterbacks in the last few seasons. The most recent being about the NFL 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson. The Ravens quarterback was unanimously voted the league’s most valuable player, but his talents weren’t always recognized. Many sports analysts, league owners, and coaches considered Jackson a running back disguised as a quarterback. Some even suggested that he move to the wide receiver position. On one hand, comments about Jackson’s game could be purely based on what he demonstrated at the combine. But on the other hand, a black man being judged predominantly by white males hints at something deeper. Maybe it wasn’t just Jackson’s performance at the combine, it was that he didn’t fit the traditional image of a NFL quarterback–Joe Montana, Dan Marino, or Tom Brady (who Jackson happened to beat last season). However, in the same token, Superbowl champ Patrick Mahomes and Texans QB Deshaun Watson are also impacting the traditional image of a quarterback through their style of play.

Lamar Jackson isn’t the only black quarterback that has received pushback for what he does on the field. There’s Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers QB who exited the league after kneeling on the sidelines during the national anthem in protest of police brutality of African Americans. Team GM’s, owners, and even the President of the United States condemned Kaepernick for his actions. Now, are the comments from NFL GM’s and owners indicative of prejudice? Like Lamar Jackson, Kaepernick’s critics were mostly white men. The fact that they were against speaking out against police brutality, no matter how controversial the topic might be for the league, is questionable. But at the same time, once Kaepernick left the league and couldn’t sign with a team, the main reason he couldn’t get a job was because he was considered a PR nightmare. Regardless if teams agreed with Kaep’s kneeling or not, no team wanted the news stories that would come from signing him. If so, then the issue of prejudice would be about the fans’ bias if they condemned Kaepernick for kneeling. To complicate matters even further, Dak Prescott, QB of the Dallas Cowboys, said that Kaepernick’s protests had no place in the league despite being a black man himself. Either way, some sentiment surrounding Jackson and Kaepernick might go beyond what they do on the field.

Jackson and Kaep are only the most recent cases though. Since black men were allowed to play quarterback in the league, they were often considered not smart enough to run offenses or read defenses. Marlin Briscoe, the first ever black quarterback to start in the league, threw 14 touchdowns during his rookie season with the Denver Broncos. John Elway, a legend Broncos QB, only threw half as many touchdowns as Briscoe during his rookie season. Despite the performance, Briscoe never played quarterback again. Warren Moon, the only black quarterback in the NFL Hall of Fame made MVP for the 1977 Rose Bowl and still wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine. He didn’t play in the NFL for six seasons after he left college. Like Jackson, Moon was also told to switch to running back or wide receiver.

The same negative sentiment didn’t only apply to players either. Although 70% of the players in the NFL are black, only 9% of the managers in league’s front offices are and 0% are CEO’s or team presidents. There is only one black general manager and out of the 32 NFL teams, 3 of the league’s head coaches are black. Back in 2003, the league introduced the Rooney Rule, a policy aimed at addressing the lack of diversity at the head coaching level. Per the Rooney Rule, teams are required to interview at least one minority for head-coaching positions and front office jobs. But per a study by the Global Sport and Education Lab at Arizona State University, the Rooney Rule didn’t improve minorities’ chances of being hired. According to The Atlantic, in the past three years 19 head coaching positions were made available and only 2 black coaches filled the openings. Some black coaches are rarely given a chance to make an impact on a team either. Former Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell was fired after back to back 9-7 records for the 2017 and 2018 season. Bob Quinn, the Lions’ GM, said that Caldwell wasn’t meeting expectations. But Quinn then went on to hire former New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who went 9-22 in his first two seasons as head coach. Last season, the Lions record was 3-12-1.

It could be argued that rather than prejudice, the NFL’s diversity issues are purely “best man for the job” decisions. Teams look for the best quarterbacks that fit their offense and can lead a team. Team owners and GMs bring in coaches that can draw up plays accustomed to their team’s culture. But simultaneously, race is the driving force behind many if not all of the United States’ issues. Politics, advertising, music, fashion, literature, and every other medium that can be thought of is influenced by race is some form or fashion. Is it so farfetched to think that sports isn’t any different? Perhaps some personnel decisions are purely based on skill and compatibility. But at the same time, the league has been around for decades, and maybe some of the racist sentiment of the past century has seeped into the present.

Owning a Monopoly on Knowledge Production

photograph of Monopoly game board

With Elizabeth Warren’s call to break up companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, there has been increasing attention to the role that large corporations play on the internet. The matter of limited competition within different markets has become an important area of focus, however much of the debate tends to focus on the economic and legal factors involved (such as whether there should be greater antitrust enforcement). However, the philosophical and moral issues have not received as much attention. If a select few corporations are responsible for the kinds of information we get to see, they are capable of exerting a significant influence on our epistemic standards, practices, and conclusions. This also makes the issue a moral one.

Last year Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes surprised many with his call for Facebook to be broken up. Referencing America’s history of breaking up monopolies such as Standard Oil and AT&T, Hughes charged that Facebook dominates social networking and faces no market-based accountability. Earlier, Elizabeth Warren had also called for large companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon to be broken apart, claiming that they have bulldozed competition and are using private information for profit. Much of the focus on the issue has been on the mergers of companies like Facebook and Instagram or Google and Nest. The argument holds that these mergers are anti-competitive and are creating economics problems. According to lawyer and professor Tim Wu, “If you took a hard look at the acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram, the argument that the effect of those acquisitions have been anticompetitive would be easy to prove for a number of reasons.” For one, he cites the significant effect that such mergers have had on innovation.

Still, others have argued that breaking up such companies would be a bad idea. They will note that a concept like social networking is not clearly defined, and thus it is difficult to say that a company like Facebook constitutes a monopoly in its market. Also, unlike Standard Oil, companies like Facebook or Instagram are not essential services for the economy which undermines potential legal justifications for breaking these companies up. Most of these corporations also offer their services for free which means that the typical concerns about monopolies and anticompetitive practices regarding prices and rising costs of services do not apply. Those who argue this tend to suggest that the problem lies with the capitalist system or that there is a lack of proper regulation of these industries.

Most of the proponents and opponents focus on the legal and economic factors involved. However, there are epistemic factors at stake as well. Social epistemologists study matters relating to questions like “how do groups come to know things?” or “how can communities of inquirers affect what individuals come to accept as knowledge?” In recent years, philosophers like Kevin Zollman have provided accounts of how individual knowers are affected by communication within their network of fellow knowers. Some of these studies have demonstrated that different communication structures within an epistemic network in terms of the beliefs, evidence, and testimonies that are shared can affect what conclusions an epistemic community will settle on. The way that evidence, beliefs, and testimony of other knowers within the network is shared will affect what other people in the network believe is rational.

Once we factor the ways that a handful of corporations are able to influence the communication of information in epistemic communities on the internet, a real concern emerges. Google and Facebook are responsible for roughly 70% of referral traffic on the internet. For different categories of articles the number changes. Facebook is responsible for referring 87% of “lifestyle” content. Google is responsible for 84% of referrals of job postings. Facebook and Google together are responsible for 79% of referral traffic regarding the world economy. Internet searching is a common way of getting knowledge and information and Google controls almost 90% of this field.

What this means is that a few companies are responsible for the communication of the incredibly large amounts of information, beliefs, and testimony that is shared by knowers all over the world. If we think about a global epistemic community or even smaller sub-communities learning and eventually knowing things through referral of services like Google or Facebook, this means that few large corporations are capable of affecting what we are capable of knowing and will call knowledge. As Hughes noted in his criticism of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg can alone decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feed, what messages get delivered, and what constitutes violent and incendiary speech. What this means is that if a person comes to adopt many or most of their beliefs because of what they are exposed to on Facebook, then Zuckerberg alone can significantly determine what that person can know.

A specific example of this kind of dominance is YouTube. When it comes to the online video hosting platform marketplace, YouTube holds a significantly larger share than competitors like Vimeo or Dailymotion. Content creators know this all too well YouTube’s policies on content and monetization have led many on the platform to lament the lack of competition. YouTube creators are often confused by why certain videos get demonetized, what is and is not acceptable content, and what standards should be followed. In recent weeks demonetization of history focused channels has been particularly interesting. For example, a channel devoted to the history of the First World War had over 200 videos demonetized. Many of these channels have had to begin censoring themselves based on what they think is not allowed. So, history channels have started censoring words that would be totally acceptable on network television.

The problem isn’t merely one of monetization either. If a video is demonetized, it will no longer be promoted and recommended by YouTube’s algorithm. Thus, if you wish to learn something about history on YouTube, Google is going to play a large role in terms of who gets to learn what. This can affect the ways that people evaluate information on these (sometimes controversial) topics and thus what epistemic communities will call knowledge. Some of these content creators have begun looking for alternatives to YouTube because of these issues, however it remains to be seen whether they will offer a real source of competition. In the meantime, however, much of the information that gets referred to us comes from a select few companies. These voices have significant influence (intentionally or not) over what we as an epistemic community come to know or believe.

This makes the issue of competition an epistemic issue, but it also inherently is a moral one. This is because as a global society we are capable of regulating in one way or another the ways in which corporations are capable of impacting our lives. This raises an important moral question: is it morally acceptable for a select few companies to determine what constitutes knowledge? Having information being referred by corporations provides the opportunity for some to benefit over others, and we as a global society will have to determine whether we are okay with the significant influence they wield.

Unpacking Our Guilty Pleasures

photograph of cain statue

February has already proven to be a month of guilty pleasures for me: not only is it the month of the Super Bowl, but a new Fast and Furious movie – inexplicably titled “F9: The Fast Saga” – has been announced. Now, I’d like to be the kind of person who took pleasure exclusively in high brow entertainment and fine art, but I’m just not. And two of the things that I take the most guilt in enjoying are the NFL and stupid action movies.

But what makes a pleasure a guilty pleasure? And how bad should I feel about enjoying them?

Call something a guilty pleasure if it’s something that brings you happiness in one way or another, but that you feel bad about enjoying. These kinds of pleasures can come in many different forms: people will often say that listening to a musical artist who they find embarrassing, or that reading a trashy novel, or watching a cheesy movie is their guilty pleasure. The guilt here seems to be one pertaining to aesthetic value: we know that there are really great musical artists that we “should” be listening to, classic novels that we haven’t gotten around to reading yet, and films with artistic merit made by real auteurs, but we choose to take pleasure in other things, instead. The guilt involved, then, seems to be one in which we feel bad about not bettering ourselves, aesthetically-speaking, or at least not living up to the standards of taste that we take those around us to have.

If we think about these kinds of guilty pleasures, then although we may indeed feel bad about enjoying them, it really doesn’t seem like we should beat ourselves up about it. If the only thing that you feel bad about is that you’re not enjoying what someone says you ought to be enjoying, and you’re really not causing anyone any harm, then you’re likely morally in the clear. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to broaden your artistic horizons now and then – it’s probably a good thing to not subsist solely on an artistic diet of increasingly fantastical car-chase movies – and there are no doubt reasons in the vicinity that will support diversifying your interests – for example, that the indie film director probably needs your money more than Disney. That being said, there are other kinds of guilty pleasure that we should maybe feel more concerned about.

Consider my other guilty pleasure, watching the NFL. What is the source of my guilt? It is, in part, a guilt that comes along with knowing that I could be spending my time better engaging with something that was more enriching, or just that I could be doing something productive instead of sitting on the couch all afternoon. At the same time, the nature of my guilt is a little more substantial, as I am well aware of all the various moral issues surrounding the NFL, and that I am, at least in some small way, contributing to those problems in consuming the product the NFL provides. Unlike how watching a fictional character getting blown up in an over-the-top action sequence brings me pleasure, watching a real-life human being get hit in the head only to have his obvious concussion symptoms ignored is far more problematic. While I likely to do not have any moral reason to give up on my aesthetic guilty pleasures, there is perhaps more of a reason to give up on, or at least address, my pleasures that cause legitimate moral guilt.

There is a worry, however, in lumping together these kinds of aesthetic and moral guilty pleasures under the umbrella of “guilty pleasures” generally. For instance, guilty pleasures are not only the kinds of things we tend to feel bad about, but are also the kind that we tend to give ourselves leniency towards: I might feel a bit bad about reading a trashy novel when I know I could be reading Dostoyevsky, but I’m probably going to forgive myself pretty quickly, and as a result I probably won’t feel that much pressure to change my behavior. But there is also a temptation to lump in things that we know are bad into the category of guilty pleasures, and thus give ourselves a pass on them. For instance, some might resist the moral reasons towards eating less meat with the reason that eating meat constitutes a guilty pleasure in the same way that the music of Taylor Swift might constitute a guilty pleasure (hypothetically, of course). But this would be a mistake: guilt caused by recognizable moral reasons is not the kind of guilt that we can ignore in the way that we can generally ignore aesthetic guilt.

This is not to say that you’re not allowed to have any fun, or that it is definitively your moral imperative to never watch another NFL game again (although one might make a case for this). Rather, it is to say that not all guilty pleasures are the same, and so examining the root cause of why one feels guilty about a guilty pleasure is worth doing.

The Good Place and the Good Life

Warning: This article contains spoilers.

Students all across the country have recently found new motivation to be interested in philosophy—NBC’s The Good Place, which aired its final episode on January 30, 2020. The series explicitly engages with philosophy through the storyline of one of the central characters—Chidi Adagonye—who was, in life, a philosophy professor. In the afterlife, Chidi teaches ethics to a group of wayward souls who, as the show progresses, become the best of friends. Chidi provides a useful narrative vehicle for direct discussion of philosophy. Even in the absence of Chidi’s philosophical explanations, the show is inherently philosophical. It demonstrates that, rather than being an exclusively scholarly pursuit, living philosophically is part of what it is to be a flourishing person.

On the face of it, the series appears to be about death. It begins with Eleanor Shellstrop’s arrival in what appears to be heaven, where she meets an angelic architect named Michael. As the show progresses, however, it becomes clear that, far from being about death, the series is actually about what it is to live a good life. Throughout, the audience is left wondering “what makes heaven heavenly?” And, by contrast, what would make hell torture? Fundamentally these are questions about what kinds of things are worth avoiding and what kinds of things are really worth pursuing.

By the end of the first season, the cast of characters come to the realization that they were not, as they had been told, in “The Good Place.” Instead, they are in “The Bad Place.” Michael is not an angelic architect after all, but a fire demon conducting an experiment. Instead of setting people on fire or feeding them to swarms of insects, Michael is attempting to torture departed humans using the particulars of individual personalities and exposure to other people.

One of the reasons that this storyline is surprising is that the people involved seem to be pretty good people. They certainly have their faults, but none of them are the kind of person that we might think deserves to be tortured for all eternity. As David Lewis argues in his paper, Divine Evil, infinite punishment may be unjust for any finite crime. Even so, if we picture anyone in hell, it tends to be people like Hitler rather than childlike petty criminals like Jason Mendoza. At this stage, the cast of friends is put in a position to analyze their own behavior. They become reflective agents, considering their virtues and vices. They learn lessons in Aristotelian moderation. Eleanor learns to be less selfish, Chidi less indecisive, and Tahani less concerned with what other people think of her. Interestingly, Jason’s personality is such that he might be largely forgiven for his bad actions in life, so it seems somewhat unfair that he’s in The Bad Place at all.

The group also learns that it is not possible to live a flawless human life. As this storyline unfolds, the series gently ribs Peter Singer and the Effective Altruism movement (which turns out to be for the best—Kristen Bell contributed her voice to the free audiobook of Singer’s The Life You Can Save, which you can find here). A character based roughly on Singer (or at least his philosophy), Doug Forcett, is celebrated in the afterlife because, during a drug-induced hallucination, he guessed exactly what the structure of life after death is like. To do well on the cosmic scorecard, he spends his entire life avoiding doing any harm and actively trying to do the most good he can do. Nevertheless, in our global culture in which every consumer choice we make has implications far beyond what we can see, Forcett’s scorecard is still insufficient to get into The Good Place. The lesson we are left with is that we should do the most good we can do, in full recognition that we’ll never be perfect. We can live meaningful lives by actively doing as much good for others as we reasonably can.

In many ways, the series is about living a meaningful life by living a morally good life. Some people understand life’s meaning by appeal to a grand plan set into motion before any being lived on earth, perhaps by a divine authority like God. One interesting feature about The Good Place is that, despite the fact that it is, on its face, a show about the afterlife, it remains remarkably agnostic about religion. We encounter angels and demons, but not God or the Devil. The Good Place is a show about persons; it is a story about moral beings that make choices, act for reasons, have weaknesses, grow, and change. Like Sartre’s No Exit, the afterlife is about interactions with other persons. The Good Place does not conclude, like Sartre, that “hell is other people.” Instead, the message is quite the opposite: it is our interactions with other people that allow us to grow into the best possible versions of ourselves.

The penultimate episode of the show includes a surprising twist. The group of friends, including Janet and Michael, all make it to The Good Place. Chidi looks forward to meeting the philosophers he is sure he will find there, but he learns that, for various reasons, many of his favorite historical thinkers didn’t make it. He does find Hypatia, an Ancient Greek female philosopher played by Lisa Kudrow. The group of friends learns from Hypatia that heaven is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Infinite pleasure for eternity is boring, and it changes one’s mind to mush. As the new architect of The Good Place, Michael comes up with a solution—when they’re satisfied with the experiences they’ve had, a person can walk through a door and fade into non-existence. The idea that conscious experience can end lends meaning to existence.

This storyline tracks a classic debate in philosophy: what makes death bad for the person who dies? On the other side of the coin, would immortality be desirable? In philosopher Bernard William’s famous paper, The Makropolus Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality, he argues that death is bad for the person that no longer exists because their desires go unsatisfied. The things they wanted in life can no longer be achieved. That said, according to Williams, immortality is not desirable. If we lived forever, we would either change so much that our future identity would be, from our current perspective, unrecognizable to us, or we would become bored.

The final episode of The Good Place takes some lessons from Williams. Most people desire existence to come to an end. The real Good Place is a place where you can try everything and perfect every skill. Unlike in William’s paper, the desire to bring an end to existence is not motivated by boredom—not exactly. Final departure from The Good Place comes with a sense of peaceful satisfaction. Chidi describes a metaphor from Buddhist philosophy—the person is a wave returning to the ocean.

Though generally held in very high esteem, some viewers struggled with what they thought of as a dark ending to an otherwise light-hearted comedy. After all, most of the main characters cease to exist! In many ways, there is no more fitting way for the show to end. The show was never about heaven or hell; it was always about living a good life with the help of good friends. Crucially, it was about living a philosophical life, which is incomplete without coming to terms with death.

“Phantom Champion” Memorabilia and Global Justice

photograph of 49er flagbearers celebrating on field

On February 2nd, the San Francisco 49ers were defeated by the football team from Kansas City (Missouri) in Super Bowl LIV. Almost immediately after the game ended, Kansas City players and coaches were sporting t-shirts, hats, and other celebratory memorabilia trumpeting their team’s victory. Clearly, in order for them to be ready when needed (for both post-game merrymaking and for sale), the souvenirs needed to be created well in advance – long before it was known that Kansas City would end up the victors. Presumably, the losing side of the field held a similar shipment of now-inaccurate collectibles heralding the triumph of the 49ers. What happens to this “phantom champion” memorabilia? And what sorts of ethical questions might it provoke?

The answer to the first question comes in two parts: in many cases, souvenirs made unmarketable by a team’s loss are donated to charities that distribute the clothing to parties in need; in some others, they are simply destroyed.

In both cases, although certainly some fans would jump at the chance to purchase tchotchkes celebrating a history that never happened, sports leagues are interested in preventing such merchandise from entering the secondary market; as a representative for the Major League Baseball Association explained in 2016, their choice to trash memorabilia celebrating Cleveland’s (nonexistent) win over the Cubs was motivated by a concern to “protect the team from inaccurate merchandise being available in the general marketplace.”

More frequently, rather than simply letting such materials go to waste, leagues have coordinated with non-profit groups to distribute the clothing to people in foreign countries or who have been victimized by natural disasters. As Jeff Fields, then-representative of a charity which has worked with the NFL in this way, explained in 2007, “Where these items go, the people don’t have electricity or running water. They wouldn’t know who won the Super Bowl. They wouldn’t even know about football.”

Which, for all of its humanitarian veneer, might suggest something less-than-morally-praiseworthy about how phantom champion materials are handled: either they simply go to waste (thereby contributing further to the problems inherent to “fast fashion”) or they work to perpetuate what Teju Cole has called the “White-Savior Industrial Complex.”

In the case of the first, recent years have seen much attention given to the problem of low-quality, inexpensively-produced clothing and other textiles ending up as landfill waste. Not only does so-called “fast fashion” (named for its ever-increasing speed of turnover to match ever-more-quickly-changing trends) produce upwards of 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, but the fashion industry is the second-largest consumer of water in the world. Many of the products targeted at fast-fashion consumers are made with polyester or other fossil-fuel-derived synthetics and washing these clothes introduces a significant amount of microplastics into the water supply. Overall, somewhere on the order of 85% of all textiles produced globally end up in landfills each year. Insofar as the NFL, MLB, and other professional sports organizations dump their undesired merchandise straight into the trash, they are directly contributing to problems of pollution and climate change.

Regarding the second, in critiquing American sentimentality that “is not about justice…[but]… is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege,” Cole directly channels W.E.B. Du Bois’ criticisms of “whiteness” as that which patronizingly treats the Earth as being under the care of white people. Even – and perhaps particularly – when acting as a “caretaker,” whiteness exudes the “assumption that of all the hues of God, whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan…even the sweeter souls of the dominant world as they discourse with me on weather, weal, and woe are continually playing above their actual words an obligato of tune and tone.” Writing in his essay “The Souls of White Folks,” Du Bois continues, “Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” When American corporations disguise their garbage disposal as “humanitarian aid” and pat themselves on the back for donating unwanted products that, arguably, should never have been produced in the first place, it’s hard to avoid cynicism when assessing their motivations – particularly when they patronizingly excuse the distasteful design of their gifts by belittling the targets of their supposed concern. “They wouldn’t even know about football,” indeed.

Certainly, there is much about the state of modern American football that is well-deserving of criticism; its unnecessary environmental waste is simply one more item on the list. This year, the NFL pushed to approach a zero-waste certification for the host of the 2020 Super Bowl (though it is worth noting that “zero waste to landfill” is not the same as “zero waste”); eliminating the problems posed by phantom champion products (even if that requires foregoing immediate merchandise sales) would be another small step in a positive direction.

The US Senate as Jury

engraving of the Golden Age of the Senate

If you ask members of the US Senate they serve as members of the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” Such a reputation, if well-deserved, would uniquely position them to serve as jurors for the impeachment trial of a President of the United States. Outside of the US Senate there is a different opinion, especially among those who want to see President Donald Trump removed from office. Rather than ideal jurors they see US Senators as partisan hacks whose minds were made up long before hearing even the first word of an opening statement.

But what makes jurors, or a jury, good at deciding cases? Historically one approach to answering this question comes from the work of 18th-century French philosopher Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, the Marquis of Condorcet. His work involved the application of mathematical methods to solving economical, political, and social problems. Condorcet is perhaps most well-known for a theory about group decision making that now bears his name, the Condorcet Jury Theorem. Briefly the theory says that given independent jurors, each with a better than 50% chance to determine the correct answer to a factual question, each juror added to the pool increases the chances that the jury will collectively arrive at the correct answer to a factual question. Here being independent means that each juror comes to a conclusion about the question based on their own reasoning and understanding, rather than deferring to someone else’s decision. Hence, in theory, with enough such jurors it is guaranteed that the correct answer will be reached. With this principle in mind it’s possible for us to get an idea of what might, in theory, make the US Senate a good jury. Then we can see how, in practice, Senators might fail to live up to their vaunted reputation.

The endless refrain of Senate cheerleaders is a familiar civics lesson. Senators act as trustees of their states while House members act as delegates. Whereas delegates, in theory, act directly on the impetus of their constituents’ wishes, trustees act on their own judgment and understanding. Hence, the Senate is an experienced and independent deliberative body by design. Its superior experience is supposed to be a factor of the higher age limit imposed on potential Senators. Whereas a member of the House of Representatives must only be older than 25, a member of the Senate must be older than 30. Further Senators were originally chosen not by popular vote but by the legislatures of the state they represent. These state-level legislators were thought to be better able to select people of skill and influence than regular citizens, who in turn selected the state-level legislators for being more skilled and influential than they the voters are themselves. This more indirect election is also taken to be one of the factors that makes the Senators more independent. Because they are not beholden to the vicissitudes of popular opinion, and instead more attuned to the real needs of the Union, Senators are more fit to act as the upper house of the US Congress. Another factor meant to make them more independent is their term of office, which is six years rather than the two-year terms of members of the House of Representatives.

How does this turn out in practice? First, it is important to note that one of the features supposed to make Senators more like trustees than delegates has been altered since the drafting of the US Constitution. As of the 17th Amendment to the US Constitution passed in 1913, US Senators are elected by popular vote in the states they represent. Senators are thus insulated from popular opinion only by their longer term of office. More relevant to the poor opinion of the Senate’s independence pertains to party polarization. The impeachment of President Donald Trump has, for the most part, neatly split along party lines: Democrats are in favor of removing Trump from office and have to persuade Republicans to their side. The members of the House, bringing articles of impeachment against Trump, built their opening arguments around the assumption of such partisanship. The lead House manager, Rep. Adam Schiff, even suggested that Senate Republicans closed their minds to any arguments for fear of their political future saying that Trump would have their “heads on a pike” if they turned on him.

The other issue is whether Senators are experienced in the right way to give them each a better than 50% chance to get the correct answer to the impeachment questions. There are two sets of questions at issue. First, did President Trump actually do the things of which he is accused: namely, abuse his power by making foreign aid dependent on political favors to him and obstruct Congress by completely refusing to recognize any subpoenas? Second, if President Trump did these things, do they constitute conduct for which he can be removed from office? The first set of questions is a matter of hearing testimony and receiving documents. However, the second question is a matter of Constitutional law. Broken down by profession, around half of the Senate comes from the legal profession and/or a public service and policy background. Hence there is at least some reason to think that the many Senators would be slightly better than chance at determining the correct answer to these questions of Constitutional law.

President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is widely expected to result in his acquittal on both articles of impeachment. The belief that this result will not be based on a sound deliberative process can be seen as a belief that Senators largely fail to be independent decision-makers. Instead of basing their decisions on their own understanding of the facts at issue it is likely they are basing their decisions on the whip of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the political influence of President Trump, and their re-election prospects based on the opinions of their constituents. So much for being the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Institutions’ Right to Block: ICAO vs. Taiwan

photograph of green board game piece isolated from huddled, red board game pieces

In the last few days, the Twitter account of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the civil aviation safety body of the United Nations, has been systematically blocking users—including analysts and academics—who raised questions about ICAO’s practice of excluding Taiwan from international cooperation, especially while the current novel coronavirus crisis is developing. Indeed, this behavior is not new to ICAO: in March 2019, its Twitter account also systematically blocked users who criticized its environmental policies.

ICAO’s Twitter behavior has been condemned by many, including the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. In response to these condemnations and in response to inquiries from media, ICAO’s chief of communications Anthony Philbin has justified the systematic blocking of questioners and critics on the ground that doing so is necessary for “defend[ing] the integrity of the information and discussions our followers should reasonably expect from our feeds.” As a philosopher interested in the intersection of language and power, this ongoing dispute raises an interesting question: when is it morally permissible for governmental or public institutions to block users on social media?

We can start answering the question by examining the work that blocking does. To block a user is to refuse to be an audience for that user’s speech. In this respect, blocking is akin to other moves that might be made on social media, such as muting a user or simply saying “don’t @ me”. However, blocking is also more powerful than these other moves in that it not only refuses the user of an audience for their speech, it also excludes the user from a conversation. While muting someone makes their speech unavailable to you, blocking someone makes your speech unavailable to them—including, for example, their inclusion of your speech in other conversations.

Although it is tempting to condemn ICAO for not valuing free speech, that line of criticism is fundamentally misguided. In general, no one is owed an audience for their speech. In fact, as philosopher Rae Langton has argued, the refusal to accommodate a speaker—“blocking”, in her technical sense—can be a powerful tool in responding to harmful speech. And many individual Twitter users, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, know this to be true from their daily experience. Given the harassment problems that continue to plague the platform, blocking is a perfectly reasonable, and undoubtedly permissible, move that private citizens can make to protect their time, their attention, and their mental health. In SlateMary Elizabeth Williams has responded to free speech considerations, and concluded that it is permissible (for a private citizen) to block any user for any reason.

However, even if we accept that blocking is compatible with free speech and permissible for social media accounts of private citizens, we need not thereby also accept that blocking is just as permissible for social media accounts of governmental or public institutions. Indeed, this is a point on which Donald J. Trump’s lawyers and I agree. In defending Trump’s (legal) right to exclude people from conversations that involve his speech, his lawyers rested their defense on the claim that Trump is tweeting from a personal, and not governmental, capacity. (Appeals court judge Barrington D. Parker was ultimately unpersuaded by this claim, and ruled Trump’s social media blocking of users to be unconstitutional.)

There is an important difference in power between private citizens and governmental and public institutions. More than a difference in power, though, there is also a difference between the way that private citizens and governmental and public institutions are embedded in our social reality, especially with respect to social structures of oppression.

Philosopher Iris Marion Young has argued that different groups can be oppressed in different, but related, ways: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. In this context, it is especially relevant that Taiwan has been historically marginalized in the international community, and a key mechanism of that marginalization is the exclusion of Taiwan from international institutions such as the World Health Organization and, of course, ICAO.

Yes, Twitter is not real life. But it is also not not-real-life either. The interactions on Twitter are not only shaped by our social reality, they also contribute to shaping our social reality. The condemnation of ICAO’s Twitter behavior on free speech grounds crucially ignores the fact that language moves are often more than “just speech”, but actions for modifying the social world. And it is from this perspective that we can most fully appreciate the significance of that subtle difference between blocking and muting. Remember, blocking does not merely refuse a user of an audience for their speech, it excludes them from the conversation altogether. As such, ICAO’s Twitter behavior should not be judged on its own, but contextualized in the ongoing international exclusion of Taiwan from many crucial conversations, such as ones about the current novel coronavirus crisis.

So, in the end, when is it morally permissible for governmental or public institutions to block users on social media? Like most other questions in philosophy, there is no simple answer to this one. However, if my foregoing argument is sound, then the answer will crucially depend on the social context—specifically, whether doing so contributes to ongoing oppressive structures in our social reality.

But there is a clear answer in the particular case that prompted our philosophical investigation. Given its own position of power and the sociohistorical context of Taiwan’s marginalization, it is impermissible for ICAO to exercise the exclusionary power of social media blocking to systematically excise questions and criticisms from relevant conversations.