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When It Comes to Privacy, We Shouldn’t Have to “EARN-IT”

photograph of laptop with a lock with keys on it

At the moment, the subject on everyone’s minds is COVID-19, and for good reason: the number of infected and dying in the United States and around the world is growing every day.  But as Kenneth Boyd has pointed out, there are a number of subjects that are getting ignored. There is a massive locust swarm devastating crops in East Africa. There is an ongoing oil war driving gas prices down and decimating financial markets. And, in the United States, Congress is considering passing a bill that would have significant negative impacts on privacy and free speech on the internet. The bill in question is the EARN-IT Act, and the reason it is not capturing popular attention is obvious: viruses are scary, fast-moving, and make their ways into people’s homes. This bill is complex and understanding its ramifications for people’s rights to privacy and free speech requires a good deal of legal context.

But first, what is the EARN-IT Act? Legislators are clearly not marketing it as an attack on privacy and free speech since such a bill would be widely unpopular. The EARN-IT Act is really intended as a necessary measure to combat the widespread issue of child pornography, or, as the act would admirably rename it, “child sexual abuse materials” on the internet. This is a big problem. Right now, a ring of child abusers using the encrypted messaging app Telegram are being uncovered in South Korea. Proponents of the bill view the encryption that Telegram and other apps like WhatsApp, and soon Facebook, use as a tool for child abusers to evade government detection and prosecution. They see the owners of these apps as neglecting their responsibility to monitor the content going through their servers by encrypting said content so even they cannot see it. Essentially, these companies seem to know that child abuse is a problem on their platforms and instead of putting in the effort to find and report it, they simply blindfold themselves with encryption for their users.

So how will the EARN-IT Act resolve this seemingly willful ignorance and bring child abusers to justice? Well, here is where the issue gets complex and requires legal context. The act itself creates a government committee which would create a recommendation of “best practices” for companies to follow to minimize the spread of child sexual abuse materials on their websites. This recommendation would also be binding. If companies were to fail to follow the recommendations of the committee, they might lose something called “Section 230 immunity” which ordinarily keeps them from being prosecuted when child sexual abuse materials are found on their websites. Right now, if the government finds these materials on a hard drive belonging to you or me, we would go to jail for at least 5 years. But, if those same materials are found on Facebook or Telegram’s hard drives, the site owners will not go to jail, all due to that Section 230 immunity. Understanding why such a difference makes any sense requires understanding the history behind it and the distinction between speakers (the ones who create and share child sexual abuse materials) and distributors (sites like Facebook or Telegram that child abusers may use to share the evidence of their abuse).

In legislation prior to the internet, the legal burden for illegal speech (which, though it sounds weird when you say it, includes images) fell only on publishers and speakers, not distributors. If a book containing illegal content was sold in a bookstore (a “distributor”), the bookstore would not be responsible; only the author (“speaker”) of the content and the publisher would be. Obviously the author would know he broke the law and presumably his publisher should have had the sense to check what they were publishing. But the store that sold the book could not have this responsibility since they might sell thousands upon thousands of titles and could not spend the time checking each one. If the government put that responsibility on the bookstore, bookstore owners might be afraid to sell more titles than they could reasonably read through and check themselves. Fewer ordinary writers would be able to get their works to their audiences. So, many authors would not bother writing, knowing their books would never be sold. While the government would never directly force them to stop speaking, authors would be indirectly silenced. As Supreme Court Justice William Brennan put it in the Court’s unanimous opinion in Smith v. California, the law cannot “have the collateral effect of inhibiting the freedom of expression, by making the individual the more reluctant to exercise it.”

The question, then, is whether Facebook or Telegram should count as distributors or publishers. In 1996, Congress decided the issue with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. In this section was the following provision: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Let’s break this down. An “interactive computer service” would be any website or app people share content on (like Facebook or Telegram). The “provider” would be the owner, and “user[s],” would be, of course, anyone who used the site. Any other “information content provider” would be another person sharing information on the “interactive computer service.” If someone (the “information content provider”) posts illegal content on Facebook (the “interactive computer service”), that means that neither the owners of Facebook (the “provider”) nor someone who retweets that content (a “user”) is legally responsible for it. They are not legally responsible because they are not “treated as publisher or speaker” of that content. So, when child sexual abuse materials are shared using Facebook or Telegram’s servers, they have immunity.

The problem is that this immunity does not incentivize sites to find and remove these materials. There is no penalty for allowing them to spread, so long as the site owners never see them. And, with encryption, they can’t see them. One binding “recommendation” the committee created by the EARN-IT Act might make is to require sites to create a “backdoor” to their encryption that would allow the government to bypass it. One of the bill’s main sponsors, Senator Lindsey Graham, has said that he intends for it to end encryption like this for all websites. He has said that “We’re not going to go blind and let this abuse go forward in the name of any other freedom,” in reference to Facebook’s plans to institute end-to-end encryption of their messaging app.

Essentially, if two people on Telegram are texting, it is as though they are both going into a locked house to talk where only they have the keys. These keys would be unique to this particular house. A “backdoor” would be an unlocked entrance to every house that anyone who knew about it could get through and listen to the conversations people are having. There are two serious problems with this proposal: first, the government will be able to see, without any warrant and without checking with the site owners, any information from users; second, since there is no way to guarantee that only the government ever finds out about such a backdoor, it would be possible for anyone who finds the backdoor to access all of your personal information online. Privacy on the internet would quickly disappear.

Now it is important to remember that this recommendation to build backdoors in all websites is not a necessary condition of the EARN-IT Act. Perhaps the principle of it being possible for the government to take away our privacy on the internet is objectionable but it is not necessary that anyone actually lose their free speech. Such an abridgment of our right to privacy would occur only if the committee ultimately decided to include backdoors in its recommendations. One of the bill’s other sponsors, Senator Richard Blumenthal, has said this would not be the case. But, there is not anything stopping the committee from making such a recommendation either, which is where the trouble lies. If the committee acts in good faith, doing what is right, respecting our right to privacy, there will be no problem.

But, of course, politicians and governmental committees do not always act in good faith. The PATRIOT Act was enacted in the wake of 9/11 ostensibly to fight terrorism. As we all know, there was a darker side to this act, including the creation of a number of programs that allowed widespread wiretapping of ordinary citizens, among other violations of people’s rights. None of these harms were actual until they were. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is such a common quotation as to become proverbial. All the committee of the EARN-IT Act has to do to end privacy on the internet is to make a simple recommendation and to threaten companies with the loss of Section 230 immunity. And, since without Section 230 immunity site owners could face serious jail time, sites would either have to manually check every post, every text, every image going through their servers (a virtual impossibility with the scale of internet content sharing) or would have to end encryption as instructed.

The internet is a wonderful and horrible thing, much like the human beings who compose it. The ability to communicate with anyone, around the world is an amazing thing. And to be able to do so privately is even more amazing. But, this amazing technology can, like every technology, be used for both good and for evil. Are we willing to sacrifice our ability to communicate privately online to wholly eliminate child sexual abuse on the internet? What value does privacy really have? The proposal and passage of bills like the EARN-IT Act threaten some of our most fundamental rights, both to speech and to privacy. Like the PATRIOT Act before it, it coats this dangerous abridgement of our rights in a veneer of justice, telling us that the cost to our freedom is worth it to right some wrong. As Graham would have it, we cannot “let this abuse go forward in the name of any other freedom.” But we can, and we must. If privacy is to be a true right, then it cannot be “earned.” The EARN-IT Act would have our right to privacy reduced in this way and so cannot be supported unless the powers of the proposed committee are harshly limited. Our rights are unalienable. The right for the government to limit our rights is not. If one of us, the citizens or the government, needs to “earn” their rights, it is them, not us.

The Ethics of Triage

photograph of empty cots in a medical tent

As the global crisis of the Coronavirus pandemic deepens we are facing a barrage of ethical problems related to the provision of health care.

Equitable access to medical treatment is an issue that will manifest on different levels. It will manifest globally: in areas where health systems are deficient or sections of the population have limited access, the effects stand to be much worse if large-scale infection takes hold.

Populations in countries with underlying issues of poverty or other large public health issues already putting stress on health systems will suffer higher mortality rates and may find it more difficult than wealthier nations to source supplies such as protective gear and medicines.

The statistics stand something like this: Of persons infected, about 20 out of 100 will need hospital care. Of those, about 5, or 5 percent of people overall, (roughly a quarter of those who are hospitalized) will need intensive care including the use of a respirator for assisted breathing.  Mortality rates from COVID-19 are differing between places, but on average it is as high as 3-6 per cent.

If the pandemic gets away from us and infections spiral, even developed countries with good health care, services will be stretched, likely way beyond capacity. As intensive care beds are filled, some people will miss out on medical resources. The question of who is going to miss out, or who is going to be prioritized, will leave doctors and medical staff facing very tough decisions about how best to distribute scarce resources.

When hospitalizations increase to the point where demand for intensive care outstrips capacity, the process of triage is used to make decisions about which patients to prioritize. I’ll come back to this concept of triage in a moment, but first, it could not be more urgent for people in places facing down imminent rises in infection rates and community infections to understand that the more preventative measures are heeded the more we reduce the need for doctors to make tough decisions in terms of access to care. Social distancing measures are vital because even those not as vulnerable to the worst outcomes of infection have a role to play in helping to curb its spread. Though around 80 percent of cases are mild, the danger lies in the threat of overwhelmed healthcare systems if really high percentages become infected –and this is why experts are telling us that we need stringent measures to contain the spread.

Triage is the treatment policy adopted in wartime where the numbers of casualties far outstripped medical resources in terms of access to doctors, medicines, and care facilities.

Wounded patients were divided into three categories: the first, those likely to survive without medical assistance; the second, those who may survive with assistance and probably not without; and the third, those who would probably not survive even with medical assistance. Of these categories, only those falling into the second would receive medical treatment.

How does such a principle look in the time of global Coronavirus pandemic? Hospitals may be forced to adopt such a policy with the use of intensive care staff and equipment, and as health systems reach breaking point, choices about who will get access to life-saving treatment will be a real ethical and practical issue.

How will those decisions be made? If someone needs intensive care their chances of survival without assistance are greatly reduced already. Patients deemed to have a higher chance of survival based on other factors, such as general health or age, are likely to be prioritized over those with existing health problems or the elderly.

It is possible that the elderly or terminally ill, for example, might be placed in the equivalent third category, so that the resources spent in trying to save them might be deemed better spent on someone whose chances of survival are good with care but poor without.

A raft of other factors could be in the mix. It is likely age would be a factor, and if numbers of infections rose sharply, there is the possibility of age cut-offs getting lower, so that first under 70 might be prioritized, next under 60, next under 50 and so on. Would profession be a consideration – should healthcare workers, for example, be prioritized? How about parents or people with young children, or other dependents?

These kinds of choices are not unfamiliar in bioethics (they have to be made, for instance, by doctors considering allocation of the fewer organs available for transplant than patients in need of them), but the salient difference here is the sheer numbers of cases where such decisions are faced.

By virtue of doctors and medical staff having to confront these tough triage decisions on a large scale, a kind of consequentialist ethics is forced upon them. Triage is inherently utilitarian, because it allocates resources according not to need but best outcome. A patient in poorer health has fundamentally higher care needs, which translates to demand on medicine, equipment, and staff; but if those resources can be split between two less critical patients with a reasonable chance of saving both, that is the best (probable) outcome. This decision is not based on individual patients’ needs, but on a better outcome overall, according to consequences.

Whatever factors come to play a role in individual decisions made by doctors and healthcare professionals, once the healthcare system has reached this stage there will necessarily have to be a process of ethical weighing-up of costs and benefits, which thrusts a utilitarian framework onto decision-making.

One may, in theory, reject utilitarian reasoning and argue that we have a duty to everyone, and that everyone has a right to equal treatment, access to care, or other necessities such as protective equipment. But rights are powerless when the capacity to uphold or honor them does not exist. In a scenario where infections spiral out of control and health systems collapse, the notion of a universal right to life-saving treatment will be meaningless.

This is an ethical issue in terms of how it affects individual outcomes throughout the pandemic, and it is also an ethical issue by virtue of the awful position it puts doctors, nurses, and medical staff in. Imagine having to choose between two young patients, one with a chronic condition so somewhat less likely to recover. Imagine having to choose between a healthcare worker and a layperson, or between the mother of an infant or an older child. The point is that it can become a situation where doctors are forced to make ‘ethically impossible’ choices.

Peter Singer, a utilitarian philosopher, claims ethics is not an ‘ideal’ system–that it is not something which works only in theory–but, he says, “the whole point of ethical judgements is to guide practice.” In other words, ethics is not about ideals, but practical outcomes.

He is right, in the context of triage in the age of COVID-19, only insofar as these particular practical ethical issues arise as a result of better ethical options, like preparedness and mitigation, having been foregone. In other words, if ethics is not an ideal but a practical reality, utilitarian ethics is a reality here not because it was, as it turns out, right all along, but because other ethical failures have put us in the position of being left with no other choice.

I said at the beginning that the more preventative measures are heeded, the more we reduce the need to make tough decisions in terms of access to care. Triage is not therefore an ethical position, but rather the unhappy position of having to use a kind of moral calculus, which it is better to have avoided in the first place. We therefore need to mobilize our capacity, at the individual level and as a society, using the measures epidemiologists are urging, to mitigate the need for triage. We can think of it as our duty to our families, to our communities, to our nations, and to humanity. Failure at this level would be an ethical failure.

We should, however, take the opportunity to consider what other ethical failures threaten to lead us to disaster in this crisis. Given the general shortage of specialist care facilities, and even of basic protective gear for front-line staff in many parts of the world, the issue of preparedness is also burning.

Why are there not enough critical care facilities in so many countries when a deadly global pandemic has been warned of for many decades? Many nations spend large percentages of their GDP on defense against threats of invasion or international conflict, yet are completely, tragically unprepared for this, predictable, event.

The situation of front-line medical staff having to make heart-rending decisions about who will receive life saving medical treatment and who will miss out is a morally onerous burden that could, had governments better protected their citizens by being ready for such an event, have been largely prevented.

Swamping, Epistemic Trespassing, and Coronavirus

photograph of newspapers folded on top of laptop keyboard

Every day the media are awash with new information about coronavirus. And with good reason: people are worried and want to know the latest developments, what they should do, and how bad things could get. News is coming in not only locally, but globally: my current news feed, for example, has been providing me with information about the coronavirus in the US, Canada, Italy, South Korea, Australia, Spain, among other places. And not just about the spread of the virus itself, but about the consequences thereof, specifically the many events that have been canceled globally, as well as the financial ramifications. It is on everyone’s mind, and everyone is talking about it.

We are, of course, no exception here. But with one story dominating the headlines, there are two phenomena that we should watch out for: the first is swamping, in which other important news stories are, well, swamped by one story occupying everyone’s attention; and the second is epistemic trespassing, in which people who aren’t experts chime in on issues as if they were. Let’s look at these both in turn.

Consider the first problem: news of the coronavirus is so prevalent that it’s easy to lose track of news of anything else going on. For instance, in the US there are reports that a number of senators are currently trying to get a bill passed that would put limitations on websites and users to encrypt their data, and thus have potentially serious ramifications for data privacy in the US. Reddit users have also compiled a list of news stories that people may have missed because of the deluge of information about coronavirus, some that may have made the physical or virtual front page if there weren’t other matters occupying our attention. Important information can be more easily missed, then, if it is swamped by a singular issue.

This is not to say, of course, that it is a bad thing to get a lot of information about coronavirus. Nor is it to say that it is not an important issue that deserves our attention. We should, however, be vigilant both with regards to other important news stories, as well as the possibility that unscrupulous individuals may be using the pandemic as a distraction.

The second problem is a version of what some philosophers have called “epistemic trespassinga phenomenon in which someone weighs in on an issue outside of their area of expertise. For instance, if I, as a trustworthy and trained philosopher, were to write an op-ed about some matter in astrophysicsa topic I know almost nothing aboutthen I would be epistemically trespassing. It seems that as a general rule that one ought not epistemically trespass: you should know something about a subject before commenting on it, and you should not rely on unrelated expertise to be taken seriously. That is not to say, however, that one should avoid learning about and engaging in discussions concerning topics one is interested in: even though one might not be able to be an expert in everything, one is free to learn about subjects that one is unfamiliar with. The problem, then, is not with going where one doesn’t belong, so to speakwe don’t want to say that chemists can’t learn about or comment on art, or that physicists can’t learn about or comment on philosophy, nor that one cannot be knowledgeable about multiple different kinds of fields. The problem is presenting oneself as an expert in some domain that one is not an expert in.

You have no doubt come across some forms of epistemic trespassing with respect to coronavirus news in the form of friends and relatives suddenly becoming armchair epidemiologists and weighing in on what people should be doing and how concerned people should be. It is easy to find examples of such instances online, even from otherwise reputable sources.

Consider, for example, a recent article on The Verge. This piece by Tomas Pueyo argues persuasively that the United States is currently seeing exponential growth in the number of people contracting the disease, and that hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed. Pueyo’s background is in growth marketing, not in epidemiology. While there may be some similarities between marketing trends and the spread of viruses, there is clearly some amount of epistemic trespassing going on here: it seems like it would be better for someone who specializes in epidemiology to comment on the spread of virus instead of someone who works in marketing.

We have, then, two potential pitfalls when it comes to staying vigilant about knowing what’s going on in the world at this point in time: that a singular focus on coronavirus reporting could swamp other news, news that could also have important ramifications if missed, and with so many people weighing in on the pressing issue of the day that we risk running into epistemic trespassers, namely those people who might speak with the authority of an expert, but really don’t have much of an idea of what they’re talking about. As has been discussed here before, an epidemic can impact not just our physical lives, but our epistemic lives, as well.

To My Fellow Students and Our Institutions:

photograph of young people partying as the sun goes down

Higher education was one of the first institutions to start making changes in light of COVID-19. As a senior at DePauw University, being told that I had to leave campus for the rest of the semester felt abrupt and heartbreaking. There was nothing that I wanted less then to move back home, away from my friends, professors, and coworkers. Yet, it was evident that this pandemic has created obligations in the form of sacrifice from all of us, and this, I could understand. Equally as important, what I have come to realize, is the major disconnect between the goals of higher education and the reality of student conduct.

As college students, we have been bombarded with messages from our institutions, political leaders, health authorities, our parents, social media, and others about the need to engage in social distancing. All of these messages came in light of many college’s spring breaks. As a result, I watched my friends translate messages of “social distancing,” into “social distancing but on a beach” or “at a bar.” A poll done by College Reaction from about 1,000 college students around the country, reported that more than half of college age students still have gone out to bars, parties, restaurants, or social gatherings in the past week. This shows that the many messages we have been told about social distancing and flattening the curve are not resonating in a way that promotes action.

One of the most noteworthy representations of this attitude is from a CBS News video of a spring breaker on national television saying, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” CDC research says that young Americans are not the ones most at risk, but are still very much affected by COVID-19. While their cases are not normally acute, as carriers they can still transmit the virus to at-risk populations. The decision to close schools, for example, may reduce the infection rate by 25% and delay the peak of the infection by an estimated two weeks. This precious time might help ensure that our health care systems are not overburdened. Unfortunately, the true impact of those who dismiss the orders for social distancing will probably never be known. John Branch from the New York Times says, “The most dismissive are mostly young, freed from the structures of school and work, perhaps new to the concept of social responsibility.”

This is where our generation needs to improve: social responsibility. “Personal responsibility and social responsibility,” says an article by the Association for American Colleges and Universities (AACU) “involve the moral obligation to both self and the community, and both forms of responsibility rely upon such virtues as honesty, self-discipline, respect, loyalty, and compassion.” This responsibility can take many forms. It is within ourselves to start social distancing. Go home from the beach, don’t go out to bars, and stay home for the time being. It means holding your friends accountable for their actions. This means not accusing our friends of failure, but having productive conversations about the impact of our actions and giving credible resources for references. Social media, like Snapchat, has recognized their unique opportunity to influence the millennial and Gen Z generations who are not taking the situation seriously. They have added reliable resources about COVID-19 within their “Here for You” tool and have launched a filter with advice on how to stay safe. All of these actions are reactionary, but nonetheless important to making a difference. However, what we also need to start considering are the ways in which we can be proactive for times of crisis in the future, starting within our very institutions.

There is irony in the fact that a population obtaining higher education degrees are the ones at fault. Reported by the AACU, “A recent study looking at 331 mission statements from top-ranked colleges and universities suggests that one-third of the campuses currently address values, character, ethical challenges, and/or social justice in their mission statements.” Our colleges and universities have so much influence on how the youth respond, not only for COVID-19 but for future dilemmas that arise at any level – worldwide or within an individual community. But, Richard Hersh and Carol Geray Schiner write, “Educating for academic skills alone is not sufficient to prepare graduates with moral and civic commitment.” The very skills that a dilemma like this calls for are the ones gained from ethics education.

Ethics education within the college setting will help prepare current students and graduates with the skills to move forward in times like today. It’s a way to teach people how to handle questions that don’t have easy answers, and it provides the tools to communicate the motivations and reasons behind our actions. It helps students engage in difficult conversations and have productive dialogue. These skills are lifelong, not only helping people live consistently by their values, but creating better leaders. 90% of students say that they are concerned about transmitting the virus to the elderly and immunocompromised population, and yet less than half of surveyed college students report staying in. If institutions implement, increase, and improve the ethics education provided to their students, it will be a proactive way to prepare for future crises like COVID-19.

The current global health emergency is eye-opening in regards to the disconnect between how people think and react. The downtime that many of us are experiencing should not be read as an opportunity to gather with friends. Instead, the current crisis requires that we realize our social and moral responsibilities and the need to act on them. To this end, I hope our institutions will take this time to improve the way we socially educate and equip us with the tools to respond to challenges like what we are faced with today and what we may be faced with in the future.

 

The Politicization of Disease

photograph of seesaw with 1 paper cutout man balanced against 20

Obviously, keeping coronavirus and politics separate is impossible. There is no doubt that the disease will have (and already has had) a profound impact on this year’s political election. But even outside of this very practical sense, COVID-19 presents a political problem: How can we most usefully marshal our resources to combat a pandemic and best manage the expected (and unexpected) fallout?

The virus’s rapid spread has emptied everything from sports arenas packed with fans looking to see the King to the studio audiences of Late Night royalty. It’s laid waste to grocery stores and made princes of price gougers. It’s changed the shape of education, and altered the nature of employment. That our discussion of coronavirus get political is inevitable. Every day policy decisions are made regarding everything from curfews to quarantines. Even the WHO’s decision regarding if and when to call this recent outbreak a “pandemic” was a matter of political calculation.

But the current crisis has also provided ample opportunity for partisan exaggeration, posturing, and grandstanding. As we speak, Republicans and Democrats are locked in combat over the details of a $2 trillion relief bill with both sides accusing the other of prioritizing politics over public well-being. That criticism–prioritizing politics over the public good–is perhaps the best explanation of our disdain for politicization: when the possibility of political victory eclipses the pursuit of all other values. And the current crisis has already been seized on as an opportunity to gain significant ground in the war of ideology.

Earlier this month, in his Oval Office address, the president labelled our adversary a “foreign virus” which needed to be “defeated.” The intentional and repeated institutional use of phrases like “Chinese Virus” since has been explained as a strategy made of two parts immigration policy, one part trade war leverage, one part world relations retaliation, and perhaps one part misdirection. But regardless of the rationalization, these actions are gravely irresponsible and morally reprehensible, especially in a time when gun sales are skyrocketing and Asian Americans are purchasing firearms in response to increasing threats of violence made against them. Whatever political points there are to win here can’t be weighed against the very real and very present threat to human life.

Likewise, while Trump has laid claim to the “wartime president” mantle, he’s been loath to invoke the Defense Production Act relying instead on his famed deal-making skills. In the midst of critical shortages in medical supplies, Trump is betting on market forces to correct course. When challenged Sunday on why he was waiting for corporations to identify and satisfy current needs, the president was adamant that “we’re a country not based on nationalizing our business.” The president’s economic adviser, Peter Navarro, echoed this sentiment stating that, “We’re getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down.” When pressed further, Trump dared the press corps to “Call a person over in Venezuela; ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out. Not too well. The concept of nationalizing our business is not a good concept.”

Nevermind the false comparison between the Defense Production Act and nationalization, the president’s refusal to direct manufacturers is privileging economic rhetoric at the expense of public health. The current emergency situation calls for pooling national supplies, adjusting for mass production of basic goods like gloves, masks, gowns, respirators, and prioritizing distribution according to gravest needs. Without a coordinated approach by the federal government to make deliberate decisions about supplies and allocations, individual states have been left to fend for themselves. As Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker described it, “It’s a wild, wild West out there.”

Given these developments, the president’s announcement Monday that he was already rethinking the social and economic lockdown was not particularly shocking. As Adam Gaffney wrote on The Guardian last week, “Trump has made it clear he sees this pandemic chiefly as a threat to the market and wealthy people’s personal interests (and relatedly, his own political future) – not to the people whose lives it will threaten or claim.” The economic collapse we have yet to fully experience represents a very real threat to Trump’s private business interests and political fortunes. Concern for public health is, at best, a distant third. Dan Diamond of Politico has even claimed that Trump

“did not push to do aggressive additional testing in recent weeks, […] partly because more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and the president had made clear: the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.”

Unfortunately, the prioritization of private goods over public health has not stopped there. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Monday arguing that we should all get back to work in the midst of this pandemic in order to mitigate the coming financial crisis. Senior citizens, Patrick argued, bear an obligation to their grandchildren to risk death in order to preserve Gen Z’s financial solvency. “Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.”

Thankfully, the Lieutenant Governor’s suggestion of trading one’s life for another’s financial gain has been met with much scorn and derision. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo maintained that “You cannot put a value on human life,” and Bill Gates weighed in stating that we can’t just carry on and simply “ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner.” Apart from arguments regarding the pricelessness of human life, it’s also important to note that framing the issue as one of personal choice fails to acknowledge the way in which those willing to take these risks undermines others’ ability to choose. One person’s behavior can put others at risk who have taken steps to insulate themselves; the value of personal choice cuts both ways.

While the reception of Patrick’s remarks have largely been heartening, his rallying cry isn’t without its supporters. Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, for example, opened the university’s doors yesterday to welcome back students, and is expecting faculty to report to campus. Last week, The Atlantic offered a new take on an old saying: “Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, in a national emergency, there’s no truly laissez-faire government.” But the US seems forever poised to test the truth of that inference.

“Chinese Virus”? On the Ethics of Coronavirus Nicknames

image of World Health Organization emblem

The recent Coronavirus outbreak has undoubtedly affected the physical and economic well-being of many Americans and people across the world. With total Coronavirus cases over 300,000 and counting, economies have plunged and hospitals are overloaded with patients. However, amid this crisis, a new controversy has emerged concerning the various Coronavirus nicknames.

Recently, President Trump referred to the Coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus.” Other nicknames for the virus have emerged such as “Wuhan Virus” and “Kung Flu.” These nicknames have drawn criticism from the left, mainstream media, and Asian Americans while the right has called these nicknames appropriate and has criticized the political correctness of the left. To determine the morality of Coronavirus nicknames, it is first necessary to see the current context of Asian discrimination.

Without a doubt, Coronavirus has furthered racist discrimination toward Asians and Asian Americans. In schools, Asian students face xenophobic comments like “stop eating bats” and the infamous “go back to your country.” Additionally, Asian businesses, particularly restaurants, had seen significant drops in sales even before the quarantine happened. There have also been countless cases where Asians are harassed due to Coronavirus. In the media, Fox News commentator, Jesse Walters, went as far as to say, “I’ll tell you why it started in China. They have these markets where they eat raw bats and snakes. They are a very hungry people.” Not only are these blatantly racist generalizations of Chinese people, it is a myth that diseases come only from so called exotic animals. Diseases come from all animals such as pigs (swine flu), cows (mad cow disease), and chickens (bird flu), and two of those diseases had their first cases in the Western world. But these facts have held little sway as Asian discrimination has been widespread on social media with many comments seizing on Walters’ (and even Senator John Cornyn’s) words that all Asians eat bat soup and snakes.

In this context of widespread Asian racism, many people have started to call nicknames such as “Chinese Virus” and “Wuhan Virus” racist. However, critics say there is an established record of naming diseases based on their original location. Just to name a few, there is Ebola fever (Ebola River), Lyme disease (Lyme, Connecticut), West Nile virus, Lassa fever (Lassa, Uganda), and St. Louis encephalitis. Diseases have also been tied to nationality such as German measles, Japanese encephalitis, and the Spanish flu (though the Spanish flu started in Kansas). Therefore, many conservatives have argued that President Trump’s comments only follow an established pattern of naming diseases.

Even though we’ve had a trend of naming diseases based on their origin, it is important to recognize that popularity does not equate to morality; just because we have named diseases by origin in the past, doesn’t mean that we should continue doing so. In fact, the naming of diseases by origin is actually now frowned upon by the medical community. The World Health Organization has set guidelines in which they state, “Terms that should be avoided in disease names include geographic locations.” This guideline was made in 2015 before the Coronavirus pandemic. Unlike critics’ claims as a common scientific practice, geographic locations are now not used by medical organizations. The morality of the nickname “Chinese Virus” can’t be based on the popularity of past disease naming customs, but must instead be considered according to the negative impact it has for society at large. Calling Coronavirus “Chinese Virus” for the sake of accuracy of original location can’t outweigh the potential further perpetuation of Asian discrimination. Given the fact that Chinese and Asian people are unfairly associated with Coronavirus and other negative stereotypes, associating “Chinese” with the Coronavirus would be a dangerous path to take.

To see this it might be helpful to consider the shift in attitude if a virus were to be named “America Virus” in the midst of a global pandemic where Americans were discriminated against while dying by the thousands. It wouldn’t be well-received by the many Americans who are doing everything they can to save fellow American lives. This is what is happening in China: selfless doctors tirelessly work overtime and overwhelmed nurses rush from bed to bed; all of them giving their heart and soul to save human lives. The doctors and nurses sacrifice their time to save their fellow countrymen, all just for the US to slap their Chinese nationality on the virus they are fighting to save their fellow Chinese people. Using the term “Chinese Virus” not only risks further Asian discrimination, it is disrespectful to the Chinese nurses and doctors risking their lives to save their fellow countrymen.

Further Questions for Universities Closed by COVID-19

photograph of empty lecture hall

In response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, universities across the United States have cancelled or delayed events, shifted to remote instructional methods, shuttered campus buildings, and more. Recently, Andy Cullison outlined several moral reasons to support these sorts of actions, chief among them that the social nature of global institutions like colleges and universities promotes the sort of pathogen transmission which “social distancing” measures are precisely designed to reduce. In the interest of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, universities have upended normal procedures of all sorts, doing what they can as large institutions in service of the public interest to “flatten the curve” of the coming strain on our national healthcare resources.

However, external concerns aside, further questions remain about the nature of a university’s responsibilities to its own students, faculty, employees, and community in the wake of this semester’s upsets. While the decision to effectively (or, in some cases, literally) close campuses looks to have been the right move, I’ll focus here on three additional decisions that colleges and other institutions will consequently need to be making in the coming weeks.

Grades

Although the merits of college grading systems in general often provoke debate, a sudden shift to online instruction poses additional problems for the assessment of student work this semester. For one, although online courses can certainly be valuable learning experiences that contribute strongly to a student’s education, such courses take considerable planning and structure – far more than the hastily stitched-together online experience that students will get for the remainder of Spring 2020. As one popular blog post explained, it is simply wrong-headed to pretend like a typical syllabus for a brick-and-mortar course could simply be transferred online with minimal effort: “Release yourself from high expectations right now,” writes Rebecca Barrett-Fox, a professor of sociology at Arkansas State University giving advice to instructors on how to make the online transition, “because that’s the best way to help your students learn.”

If that’s the case, though, then it also seems impractical to hold students to the same sort of expectations for the work they submit this semester. Students were told in the first week of class (or, at the very least, by the original course syllabus) how their final grade would be determined, but such metrics may indeed require unorthodox rethinking, given the unorthodox disruption of the course’s structure. Even if digital surrogates are available for in-person class techniques, it might well be unfair to simply treat “Making at least two online Discussion Board posts each week” as equivalent to “Regular participation in discussions in class” in the final assessment – particularly since the student did not sign up for a class which would require them to post in online discussion boards. Expectations of flexibility for teachers goes hand-in-hand with expectations of flexibility for students.

And this also extends to assignments that might initially seem to be easier because of such disruptions: reading requirements, term papers, and other ‘deliverables’ that are typically done primarily (or exclusively) at home might appear to be resistant to the exigencies of the global pandemic, but this is not clearly true. Given that many students now have additional pressures at home, such as disrupted work schedules, families – particularly those with children whose schools have closed – with additional needs, and the looming stress of global uncertainty, it will not be surprising if many students find themselves in difficult positions to complete work at home, even if the expected work is typically done at home.

So, given that many universities have made the decision to unexpectedly shift to a radically different structure to safely finish the semester, those universities also need to consider how best to assess student work overall this Spring. Some institutions have announced that this semester will be graded on a standard, widespread pass/fail system for all students, thereby leaving instructors with the flexibility to make generalized assessments about student work, without holding students to the standard expectations of the typical tiered letter system. Other universities have given students the choice to request a pass/fail assessment scheme for this semester; students who do not choose such a dispensation will receive a standard letter grade for their work. At the writing of this article, only a minority of colleges have announced such plans; many still are undoubtedly in talks behind-the-scenes to work out how things like scholarships and other matters of financial aid tied to GPAs would be affected by such a move.

But, no matter the moves that institutions might make overall, individual college instructors would do well to consider precisely what they are asking their students to do to finish out this semester – and grade them graciously, regardless.

Teacher Evaluations

In a similar way, course and teacher evaluations from students are perpetually questioned about their efficacy and the inevitable role of implicit (and explicit) biases on student reports; Kenneth Boyd reported last academic year on some of the ethical questions posed by student evaluations of their instructors, concluding “a system that provides unreliable and biased results ought to be reformed or abandoned.”

This seems particularly true this Spring, when students will be asked to evaluate instructors who were forced to upend their plans two-thirds of the way through the course and hastily “triage” the remainder of their syllabi to finish out the semester. Even if the shift was done in comparably smooth fashion, technological failures will unexpectedly disrupt even those best-laid plans – particularly now, when user loads are taxing online learning management systems beyond their capacity. There are always questions about the usefulness (or lack thereof) of student evaluations; those questions are only compounded in the wake of university responses to the coronavirus.

Given this, the American Federation for Teachers and the American Association of University Professors issued a joint statement calling for, among other things, explicit protections “against the punitive use of negative teaching evaluations during the period of the disruption (e.g., a quick transition to an online format may create a lack of depth; a faculty member may not have been adequately trained to teach online, etc.).” Given that numerous career-determining decisions are impacted by such evaluations (hiring committees, contract renewal, tenure conferral, etc.), the extension of grace towards instructors in this matter is also important.

Fees and Refunds

Finally, questions of financial recompense have already come bubbling to the forefront of this conversation. Consider how this article began – by underscoring the uniquely social character of the university – if this semester has been fundamentally unable to deliver such an experience, then students who paid tuition to receive such an experience may feel entitled to be at least partially refunded.

Consider what a denial of this claim might entail: if a college insists (hypothetically) that a student does not deserve a refund for Spring 2020 because they were able to complete their coursework and receive a grade, then that suggests that it is the grade, not the class experience that is of utmost importance. Not only does this seem wrong, but it seems to contradict the general manner in which colleges tout themselves as institutions of higher education that offer unique learning experiences undeliverable by other methods (or other institutions) – not simply as functional providers of classwork that grant grades and degrees at the end of some-course-or-another.

Furthermore, the closure of campus services – like libraries or recreation centers – might well warrant at least a prorated refund for the fees charged for students to use them. This seems especially true for those students forcibly removed from their living arrangements in on-campus dorms and dining halls. Some colleges have already announced plans to return at least some of these monies to students; others have suggested that such refunds are implausible.

For this second group, colleges – like other operations that charge regular participation fees (such as gyms, museums, or country clubs) – could argue that the unpredictable circumstances about the pandemic (and, in some cases, governmental orders) were not the fault of the institution, so the institution’s closure does not entail an obligation to refund disadvantaged students (or members). Furthermore, given the significance of so-called ‘auxiliary fees’ (like what students pay for room and board) for many college’s overall budgets, it might not be feasible for institutions to issue widespread refunds without risking financial insolvency.

While the case to close campuses was fairly uniform nation-wide, answers to these questions are anything but clear. Although a slow consensus seems to be congealing around the move to more generalized grading systems this semester, concerns over teaching evaluations and the eventual question of financial liability for the semester’s upsets will soon be unavoidable. In the midst of practicing good “social distancing,” it might be prudent to start thinking through an intelligent response to such debates.

A Boulder Rolls Downhill

photograph of silhoutted man leaning against boulder at dawn

On occasion a philosopher will be asked, sometimes seriously but often tongue-in-cheek, “What’s the meaning of life?” Stereotypically this conversation happens at a bar or party—somewhere that involves a mind-altering substance. A few weeks ago I had such a conversation at a bar. The novel coronavirus was not yet being taken seriously across the US (though it should have been). Nonetheless the theme is applicable—what should we do, and how should we feel, when things are bad? Does it matter? It’s easy to get to a negative answer: there is no meaning, and it doesn’t matter what we do. We can pick out at least two philosophical viewpoints from these sentiments.

If we think what we do doesn’t matter we might be affirming fatalism. This the view that future events are fixed and immutable, not susceptible to alteration by even our greatest efforts. This may be because, in some sense, the future has already happened. (Or more accurately, is continuously “happening,” just as the past is.) Several arguments for fatalism hinge on the premise that the future has, in some sense, happened. In order for statements about the future to be true (Aristotle), or for it to be possible that God has perfect knowledge about the future (Nelson Pike), some philosophers have argued that the future must be fixed and immutable.

To envision how fatalism plays out, consider Chinese engineer and author Liu Cixin’s short story “Moonlight.” An unnamed man receives a call from himself, far in the future. The Earth has suffered a climate disaster and the only way to avert it is to change how the world’s power needs are met. The future-caller offers advanced technology, and tells his past self to get it implemented. Immediately after the man resolves to get the technology built, he receives another call from the future. Though the plan worked, a different ecological disaster occurred instead. A new technology is offered, but another call but minutes later reveals that Earth is still doomed. The man and his future self resolve to destroy any plans sent from the future and have no further contact. The world will suffer an ecological catastrophe no matter what, in the world of “Moonlight.” It is fated.

What about nihilism? Nihilism is the view that there is neither negative nor positive moral value to anything we do. That is, there is nothing that we must or mustn’t do, morally speaking. To be clear, this isn’t a form of moral subjectivism claiming that what is good or bad—right or wrong—is different for each person depending on their beliefs and desires. Instead it is the view that nothing is good, bad, right, or wrong. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s character Dmitri Karamozov opines that atheism leads to nihilism when he says in The Brothers Karamozov, “But … how will man be … without God? It means everything is permitted …”

A pandemic disease like coronavirus, with its attendant economic and social disruption, can provide fodder for fatalism and nihilism. When there is so much suffering and when years of work can be undone in a matter of weeks it can appear that everything is meaningless and pointless. In this situation arguments like the famed Problem of Evil ring plausible. This argument asserts that, if God exists it must be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. If God has these qualities then it would know about all evil (omniscience), be able to prevent all evil (omnipotence), and desire to prevent all evil (omnibenevolent). However pandemics, wars, natural disasters, and their like happen consistently. These are evils. Therefore no omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being exists. Therefore no God exists. If Dmitri Karamozov is right, this means that everything is permitted. That is, nihilism is true.

Whether arguments like the Problem of Evil are valid, they have an emotional appeal when things are bad. There is a reason for this in the view of phenomenologists (i.e., philosophers whose method is to focus on the structure of lived experience) like Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. As humans we experience this disruption as anxiety. We are accustomed to a seamless experience of actions, objects, and interactions being jointly conducive to a clear end. In anxiety we feel as if all of these things are separated from each other by an untraversable space. When thinking in this disengaged fashion we can’t see any essential, objective (i.e., perspective independent) connections between anything. There is a reason for this, too, according to Heidegger and Sartre. It’s because there are no essential, objective connections. Life has no meaning of its own.

So are nihilism and fatalism true? No—or, maybe yes, but so what? For Sartre, humans are free and life has meaning because of the lack of any essential or objective connections and purposes. This is the upshot of his famous statement “existence precedes essence.” For Sartre nihilism and fatalism are the conditions of human freedom and meaningful life. Humanity’s quest for some prepackaged meaning and value is an effort to shirk the enormous responsibility of what he calls “radical freedom.”

But what about the futility of it all? After all everyone dies, and in life we may work for years to see all those efforts come to nothing. Albert Camus dramatizes this facet of life with his interpretation of the story of Sisyphus. Punished by the gods, Sisyphus is doomed to roll a great boulder up a long hill only for it to roll back down, over and over again. But Camus does not assume that Sisyphus’ toiling brings only despair. While he pushes the boulder up, Sisyphus is too engrossed in his task. This is the seamless experience of practical engagement described by Heidegger and Sartre. Camus asserts that the interesting thing is to think of Sisyphus as he walks back to the bottom of the hill. He imagines that Sisyphus claims ownership of his “fate.” By claiming ownership he creates a meaningful connection between the endless pushing-up and rolling down. He knows it will never end, but he does not despair. Camus imagines Sisyphus is happy.

Many people have been yanked from the feeling of seamless practical engagement by the coronavirus and its knock-on effects. Feelings of anxiety rise as people doubt the inherent worth and meaning of their lives. In the face of this how can people go on, and why should they? Because that’s what life is like, and there’s nothing else to do. Push the boulder back up the hill. It’ll roll down again, but at least we’ll have something to do.

Emergency Rationing in Italy

blurred photograph of crowded hospital waiting room

When facing rationing health care resources, how can we ethically make decisions regarding directing care? In answering, we may attend to a famous thought experiment that brings out the tensions of making choices facing lose-lose options: The Trolley Problem. Originally articulated by Philippa Foot in 1967 in order to draw out tensions in utilitarian moral frameworks, this thought experiment has highlighted distinctions in common moral intuitions in domains from bioethics to military ethics. The classic trolley case was posed in a series of cases that press on whether considering the consequences of a presented choice is the correct deliberative path:

“Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose airplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five.”

This last case has been taken up as The Trolley Problem: a runaway tram must be directed either towards a track with five working men on it or a track with one man on it. Each case is presented in terms where the decision is between an action that results in the deaths of five or the death of one.

Morally relevant features in the deliberation favor different schools of thought in ethics: the consideration in favor of minimizing lives lost highlights the importance of the consequences of the choice, diverting the tram at all may speak to implicating an agent in the deaths (however many result), or, on the other hand, we may think that facing the choice implicates the agent whether she acts or not, or that making a choice between the paths qualifies vicious or problematic because it suggests that lives can be reduced to figures and statistics instead of adopting an appropriate respect for the incommensurate value of human lives.

The confounding tension of these (and likely other) morally relevant features in the trolley problem makes it an ethical puzzle that has stuck with philosophers and non-philosophers for decades. Though it was originally presented to draw out the tensions between favoring the morally relevant consequences of an act and any other features, the difficulty in squaring our explanation for the morally permissible response to cases like the trolley problem has led to various interpretations of moral intuitions and ethical principles in their own right.

For instance, Foot uses the case to discuss the Doctrine of Double Effect, which dates back to Thomas Aquinas in the history of “Western” philosophy. It draws a distinction between what you aim to do and the side effects of your action. If your aim is morally permissible, but it has morally bad effects, the Doctrine of Double Effect delineates when such actions are permissible. If you foresee negative side effects of your choice, but they are not part of your aim, then your choice is morally permissible. If the morally bad effects of your action are part of your aim, or are a necessary part of achieving your aim, then we attribute the effects to your action and it is not morally permissible.

Thus, if you redirect the tram to collide with one person rather than five, this would qualify as a morally permissible action because your aim is not to kill the one person, rather it is to save the five people (or to minimize deaths), and the death of the one person is a foreseen side effect. If the one person did not die, all the better, from the perspective of your aims and choice.

Between consequentialist reasoning (minimize deaths!) and principles like the Doctrine of Double Effect (bad effects are permissible as long as your aim is good and outweighs the bad!), there are multiple ethical frameworks that can make sense of permissible harm, even deaths, that result from one’s actions.

The healthcare choices facing the medical community in Italy are reaching a selection framework similar to the trolley problem. In the case of triage, or prioritizing some patient care over others, the side effects are clearly unfortunate; some people will not be receiving care that they need. Typically, decisions regarding triage prioritize care roughly in terms of first-come, first-served mitigated by severity. But when resources become extreme in terms of scarcity, or conditions become extreme in terms of survival, the stakes change. On battlefields and in the conditions we are seeing in Italy, the situations of need are such that physicians are facing incredibly difficult rationing decisions. By giving resources to one patient, they can anticipate others experiencing significant harm, deteriorating health, or even death.

The reality of the effects of COVID-19 in Italy is that resources have become incredibly scarce remarkably quickly. Resources include staff time and intention, materials like masks and respirators, and space like beds and rooms. There are limited amounts of each, and decisions regarding how to allot them are particularly fraught when lives are at stake.

In an opinion article for the New York Times, medical experts articulated the difficulty facing physicians:

“The goal should be saving as many people as possible, and treating those who are likely to get the greatest benefit from care. This will mean that treatment cannot be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, as it normally is. Traditionally, patients on ventilators are not displaced for other patients, and later arriving patients can be turned away in a shortage.

But in the coronavirus pandemic, business as usual would make patients with a good prognosis if treated suffer for want of treatment, while patients who arrive earlier but have a grave, or even hopeless, prognosis would receive treatment. Under that standard of care, more lives would be lost.”

The advice here adopts a standard of care that aims to maximize lives saved, similar to the majority of respondents to the Trolley Problem. In crises like the one affecting areas currently hit hardest by this pandemic, the calculation that saves the most lives means an alteration in how we ration care, in how we triage.

A major concern is maintaining the health of those professionals who are treating the ill. Thus, the role of the patient will play a large role in allocating health care. The perennial press for the Trolley Problem is what the physicians are currently facing: “What if the one person on the tracks opposite the five is the leader of a country?” “What if the one person is in charge of their family?” “What if the one person is a doctor?”… Unfortunately, this last question is particularly pertinent. As health care professionals treating the ill are currently in high demand, it is crucial to keep them healthy. Keeping one health care worker able to serve the ill population has ripple effects for the health of the community.

Deciding which principles to adopt in order to protect the health of our communities in the face of this pandemic are going to be difficult. The decision to withhold care is heart-wrenching, and should put pressure on our global community to increase the resources available to those in need to reduce the necessary triage and rationing. Indeed, that is almost always a response when the Trolley Problem is posed – surely, there’s a way out of making this decision. We have a moral obligation to help one another, and as Italy is part of the EU, perhaps the EU is specially positioned to provide aid and resources (and is, perhaps, failing in this duty).

Economic Privilege and Prepping in a Pandemic

photograph of well-dressed youth shopping in grocery store with cart

Preppers around the country are feeling somewhat vindicated. Once mocked, they are now turned to as experts. The first and most basic advice given is to have a two week supply of food, water, and other essentials. I went out two weeks ago and did that. A video I watched advised to stick to the things you would normally eat.

One of the humorous things to come out of this pandemic are all of the social media posts highlighting what people won’t buy even when they are out panic buying. Gluten free flours, pasta made from chickpeas, and Dasani water. When I went to the store, I was similarly amused by the things that seem so foreign to people that they simply won’t buy. But then I had a more sobering realization: A lot of the stuff left on the shelf were things that people couldn’t afford to buy. The shelves were empty of cheap necessities. Ramen noodles and big bags of rice were gone. In the produce section potatoes and bananas were gone except for the organic ones which were also the most expensive. The same was true in the dairy aisle. I heard a woman next to me exclaim, “They’re all out of milk.” She and I were standing right in front of gallons of the more expensive organic milk.

There has been much written about the ethics of hoarding in this pandemic, but there is a different consumer ethics issue that this brings to mind. I don’t think anyone would regard it as hoarding to have a cache of basic necessities. But even when building out that short-term stockpile, I think we need to be conscious about sticking to the kinds of things we would purchase under normal circumstances.

It would be tempting for a family of means to go straight for the cheaper staples, but if the cheaper staples aren’t something you would normally buy, I think you have good moral reasons to not go for those to make building your stockpile cheaper. I’ll call this staying in your consumer lane when possible.

Beyond the potentially disastrous consequences of buying outside of your consumer lane, there are several moral principles that would provide a well-off family with reason to not suddenly resort to purchasing the cheapest staples they can buy.

You Caused the Grocery Store to Stock The More Expensive Food
Our groceries stores are a reflection of the preferences of a community. There’s a reason you can always find those organic apples and cartons of milk you love even though they stock way less of them, because you are one of the few people who buy them. Your shopping habits directly impact what food is available to buy when the pandemic strikes. It can be significantly disruptive to the supply chain if groups of consumers suddenly decide to buy outside of their economic lane.

Treating Yourself as a Special Exception
Even Kant would balk at the idea of buying outside your consumer lane in a pandemic. He thought it was wrong to act in ways that treated ourselves as special exceptions to rules that we hope everyone else follows. We see this all the time in ways that outrage us. Littering is like this. We have set up society so that we think it is shameful to litter. When people litter, they know full well that it would be bad if everyone did it. But they feel okay with littering because they hope everyone will stick to the plan of not littering. It would be tempting for someone with means to buy cheaper staples with the hope that most people of means would not. That is a temptation that Kant really wants us to avoid.

Social Agreements
Relatedly, I think we can be morally bound by agreements we expect reasonable people would have agreed to if given the opportunity. Suppose every town in America had been given a chance to come together and reach a mutual understanding concerning what our spending habits should be in the event of a pandemic. I think we would agree that it would be okay to stock up to what the CDC recommends. I also think we would agree that people with the means should not all go for the cheaper staples that they wouldn’t normally buy.

I know that in this crisis everyone’s individual circumstances will be different and well-off families might have reason to play things safe and be more economical in these difficult times. So we should be careful not to judge any particular individual who has decided to leave their consumer lane. But as individuals, I think we should all personally consider whether or not we need to do it. If it’s not imperative, then there are several good reasons to stock the staples with a long shelf life that we’ve always bought.

Panic Buying and the Virtue of Compassion

black and white photograph of old and young hands touching

As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads around the globe, the prospect of more communities, cities, whole regions and countries going into lockdown is becoming a reality.

As I write this, in Australia mass gatherings are banned, travel restrictions are being introduced and a 14-day self-quarantine for anyone entering from overseas is being instituted. Yet even several weeks ago, before the mass cancellation of events and activities, one of a myriad of ‘effects’ of the epidemic in Australia has been a massive toilet paper shortage.

In many places around the country, especially the major cities, large supermarkets and grocery store shelves have been emptied. It is unclear exactly how this started; but once a view, and a concern, had formed in the community that there would be shortages of toilet paper people began to panic-buy and stockpile it. In so doing those people have created shortages which have in turn led to further panic and rushes on stocks as soon as they are replenished. This kind of panic-buying (a problem encountered also in other countries) has also affected many other grocery items and medical supplies, and concerns have been raised about whether some of the most vulnerable members of the community are missing out on essentials as panic buying and stockpiling continues. In response, as of yesterday, Australian supermarkets have now introduced purchase limits on certain items to prevent stockpiling at the expense of others.

It is often said, and often seen, that times of tragedy and trouble, bring us together, and bring out the best in us. We have witnessed many times (for example in the recent bushfire crisis in Australia) people coming together, cooperating, and helping one another in times of disaster sometimes at great personal risk.

These moments are often thought of as a kind of moral test. Though we do encounter the best of ourselves, and the best – most virtuous – moral reflection of human behaviour in such moments, the opposite can also be true.

A video which appeared on social media and then on mainstream news outlets last week of people fighting in a shopping centre over toilet paper illustrates what it can look like when people think of their struggle as competitive rather than cooperative – when people believe they must struggle against, rather than with, others.

In the video, one person has a large shopping cart piled high with packets of toilet paper and can be seen driving her cart away from an isle whose shelves are completely empty. A second person approaches, asks for one packet from the full trolley, and upon being refused, a physical fight ensues, in which two other parties promptly intervene.

The point of the example is not to show these particular people up, but to point out that this moment, and others like it not filmed and disseminated, represents the antithesis to the virtues of generosity and cooperation that are the markers of our ‘better natures’ and traits that we, as a community and a society, rely upon in times of crisis or trouble.

When we say something like “these are testing times” we mean that we may be tested in all sorts of ways – physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, morally. Perhaps there is a sense here also of that test being able to tell us something about what we, as humans, are really like.

Many of the questions we unpack and debate in moral philosophy concern, at bottom, views about what human nature, essentially, is like: whether, for instance, we are more naturally altruistic or self-interested by nature.

It is clear even to a casual observer of the human condition there is a spectrum – of people, of actions, and contexts – between self-interest and altruism. We also know there are psychologically complex reasons for people to behave in certain ways in particular situations. It is a difficult question to answer – how separate should we should think of moral reasons as being from other sorts of reasons? Even so, the moral test presented by times of crisis and trouble is doubly significant as a test of our societal ethical values and those of our personal character.

Aristotle, in his treatise on ethics, made the cultivation of personal virtues central to the question of what constitutes an ethical life. The virtues are traits that belong to and are exercised by individuals. Importantly, they are acquired by practice in a process Aristotle called ‘habituation’ by which one learns to be virtuous by practicing virtue in a similar way to the learning of a musical instrument by playing it. He thought of the ethical life as a craft: learned and perfected through practice, rather than issuing from a set of rules.

Hoarding and scrapping, as captured on the film, is clearly not the kind of virtuous behavior that will help us to get through times of trouble and help us to emerge as a strong community. Behavior that issues from the self-interested, individualistic realms of human nature has its place in dystopian apocalyptic fiction, but such fiction foreshadows for us a possible reality.

As things currently stand, the public has been notified that essential supplies are not going to run out, therefore stockpiling toilet paper, and other grocery items, is irrational. Yet people are driven by panic and mistrust to continue to hoard. The appropriate moral response requires us to strengthen our character and that of our society against such impulsive behavior and to foster trust and listen to reason. We are rational creatures, and we are better when we use our reason – which suggests that our morality is related in important ways to our capacity for reason.

But there is something else – by which I do not mean something different from reason but something in addition to it – which we need for the moral life. Compassion. We need to cultivate, through a kind of ‘moral imagination’ the ability to see ourselves in the situation of another. We need to not make exceptions of ourselves, but to see in our own plight, that of the other. These capacities are fostered in the practical virtues of generosity and cooperation. Now is a good time to be practicing these virtues. We will need them for what lies ahead.

The Ethics of Panic Hoarding

photograph of empty shelves at a grocery store

Future historians are going to face a difficult time figuring out whether our current times should be called the coronavirus epidemic of 2020 or the great toilet paper shortage of 2020. Amidst the WHO’s declaration that the COVID-19 outbreak now constitutes a pandemic, border closings, and “self-isolation” in order to prevent the spread of the virus, many have decided that the prudent thing to do is to purchase large amounts of toilet paper in addition to hand sanitizer, and non-perishables. In the United States the run on toilet paper has caused shortages. In Canada, despite attempts to prevent similar outcomes, grocery stores were flooded with consumers buying entire shelves. Marc Fortin of the Retail Council of Canada advised customers that “You don’t need a supply of toilet paper or rice for months,” adding, “Let’s not fall into panic mode.” Certainly, some of what we have seen this week is panic, and an important issue we should consider is when panic regarding the outbreak is morally acceptable and when it is not?

First, we must consider what we mean by the term “panic.” Typically, acting in a panic is contrasted with acting reasonably. As I write, the US government recommends cleaning your hands often, using hand sanitizer, avoiding close contact with people that are sick, and distancing yourself from others if the virus is spreading within a given community. They also recommend staying home if you are sick, covering your coughs and sneezes, and disinfecting touched surfaces daily. The Canadian government recommends similar measures; wash your hands frequently, and cover coughs and sneezes. They also suggest changing routines to help prevent infection; shop during off-peak hours, exercise outdoors rather than indoors. We could assume that recommendations of the government, often made on expert advice, are a reasonable standard. However, the government also specifically recommends purchasing essential materials without “panic buying.” This includes having easy-to-prepare foods like dried pasta, canned soups and vegetables, as well as having extra hygiene products. Unfortunately, they do not explain what is meant by “panic.” How does one know if purchasing that 10th bottle of hand sanitizer or that 5th pack of toilet paper constitutes panic buying?

One way to understand panic is that it is a way of acting without reason. For example, if one is driving and faces an oncoming car that has suddenly swerved towards them and they close their eyes and turn the wheel in any direction hoping to avoid an accident, this could be called panic. In his study of practical reasoning, philosopher John Dewey defined reasonableness or rationality as an affair of understanding the relationship between means and the ends they produce. If one pursues goals, for instance, with no connection to the means available and without reference to the obstacles that will prevent one from meeting said goal, they are acting unreasonably. By contrast, we could define panic as an action that does not consider the relationship between means, goals, and obstacles.

Therefore, if one goes into a grocery store upon hearing about the dangers of COVID-19 and because of this they purchase items at random because they feel they need to, this would constitute panic. Certainly, there are at least some people who chose to purchase large amounts of toilet paper or food they would never eat simply because of sheer panic. Some have suggested that this kind of behavior may be caused by anxiety combined with a desire to copy the behavior of others. Such action, while understandable, is not reasonable. While this definition of panic would preclude the idea that such actions are justified, they aren’t necessarily ethically wrong. According to Michael Baker, a professor of public health, hoarding and bulk purchases may be a way of handling anxiety by establishing a feeling of control. While there is nothing ethically wrong with falling into this pattern, panicked shopping can lead to shortages of important items for others. We can end up purchasing things we do not need and, in the process, make things worse off for others in legitimate need.

However, it is not likely that the vast majority of such cases are sheer mindless panic. After all, if one does purchase excessive accounts of food or toilet paper, they could still be considering how these can serve as means to goals like potentially having to quarantine oneself. One may act with a certain degree of reason and still potentially panic. As mentioned, the Canadian government suggested that one may wish to stock up on certain items, not necessarily because they will need to self-isolate but in order to ensure one doesn’t unnecessarily expose oneself if they are sick. However, there is a difference between making sure that one has a few days of food and toiletries and hoarding. One can “do the math” behind such considerations, establishing a relationship between means and ends, but could still go overboard.

While the concept of “moral panic” is generally tied to cases like the Salem Witch Trial or the panic of Satanism in the 1990s, it was originally defined in the 1970s in a broader way to include reactions to peoples, groups, and events. A common feature to these definitions of panic includes the idea of disproportionality; one may act in a panicked way if their actions are disproportionate to what is needed. Of course this is difficult to measure as well. It certainly requires an adequate idea of the problem, and this can be difficult in the case of the epidemic because of the “overabundance of information” available. Regardless, given that toilet paper is not especially more important than other general household items that governments and other institutions are suggesting that people stock up on, it is still unclear why there is a disproportionate demand for it.

There is also the matter of inductive risk. What if the experts are wrong? What if the outbreak gets unexpectedly worse? What if grocery stores close? As some have pointed out, making sure that one has toilet paper if they have to be confined to their house (in other words, planning for the worst) may not be unreasonable. This, in addition to the unclear relevance of information and inconsistent messaging, has led to calls that we should not mock those who engage in hoarding. While mocking may not be the most helpful or considerate reaction, that doesn’t mean that panicked hoarders should be let off the hook either.

Hoarding, whether understandable or not given the anxiety and stress of the situation, still leads to harmful effects. For example, empty food shelves have made it difficult for charities to get food to the disadvantaged. It has also opened room for price gouging, something that again will hurt those worst off. While things could get worse, purchasing enough cans of tomato soup to last for years is not proportionate to the problem, nor is purchasing food that you would never eat anyways. Worse yet, by purchasing things you do not need while making others worse off, and only to help ensure that you feel more secure against unlikely outcomes, is an act of selfishness. Anxiety, stress, and fear do not absolve people from the moral consequences of their panicked behavior. If you are buying for a potentially long stay in your home, ask yourself questions like “Will this item actually help if I get the virus?” “How much will it help?” “How long should I reasonably expect to have to stay at home and given that, how much food and household items will I need?” And “Can I imagine others need these things more than I do?”

The Moral Case for University Closure

photograph of gate to school with "SCHOOL CLOSED" sign

When it became clear that DePauw University was considering cancelling in-class sessions and having students move out of their living units, I began thinking through a number of reasons why this was something that places of higher education should seriously consider. Collectively these reasons make a strong case for thinking that colleges and universities have a moral duty to take measures to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, and furthermore, that places of higher education might have added responsibilities.

The first set of reasons is more of a response to objections that students and parents might have for thinking that cancelling in-person classes is a bad idea. I’ll address those first. Then I will offer four reasons for thinking that colleges have more responsibility for mitigating the spread of coronavirus than other individuals or institutions.

Things Students and Parents Might Be Thinking:

  1. This won’t be bad for young students
    A common attitude that a student or parent might have is that college students either won’t get coronavirus or if they do it won’t be that bad for them. The first attitude is patently false. College students around the country have tested positive for COVID19 and many more will. The second attitude has a ring of truth to it. Most college students will probably not have severe conditions, but some will. Many young Americans have compromised immune systems due to heart conditions, diabetes, respiratory conditions, and cancers. And the death rates are much higher for coronavirus than seasonal flu.  Top US health officials say that this virus is 10 times more lethal than seasonal flu. The confirmed case death rate for the flu is about 0.1% while the confirmed case death rate for the coronavirus is about 3.4%.
  2. We’re all going to get it anyway, so why the drastic measures?
    I’ve heard some people say that it’s inevitable that everyone (or almost everyone)  is going to get the virus, and so it doesn’t make sense to take drastic measures to stop the spread of the virus. However, whether it’s inevitable or not, there is still significant value in slowing the progression of this disease. Imagine if you owned a restaurant and you were guaranteed to have 1,000,000 customers place an order, but you didn’t know when they were coming. You don’t want them to come all at once or within a few days of each other. You wouldn’t have enough servers or tables to handle them all at once. You would likely run out of food and supplies. It would be better to have those customers spread out over 12 months. COVID19 is like that.Some healthcare professionals refer to this as “Flattening the Curve.” As this article explains, we are much better off having people get this at different times. It makes it more likely that there will be beds and healthcare workers for those who need it most. It gives the healthcare service industry time to scale up production of vital resources to mitigate the effects of the disease and save more lives. Optimism is high there will be a vaccine, but it could be at least a year before we have a viable vaccine. Slowing the disease buys us time so that it may in fact not be inevitable that everyone gets this.

Why Universities and Colleges Have Extra Moral Reasons to Slow Progression of COVID19
There are good reasons for everyone to take steps to help slow progression of COVID19, but colleges might have an even stronger moral duty to do this work.

  1. Higher Education Structure Spreads Disease
    Here is a plausible moral principle: If you are causally responsible for a harm (or potential harm) you have an extra moral reason to take steps to prevent that harm. Universities and colleges are in this position with respect to the coronavirus. As this article explains, the things that make colleges wonderful also make them an exceptionally good breeding ground for pathogens. Universities and colleges are very social institutions. We encourage students to live on campus in close quarters. They attend several different classes a week. When you count the number of classes, co-curriculars, athletics, and social groups (such as fraternity and sorority friends), the average college student is in close contact with hundreds of people every day. Add to this that colleges are global institutions that send faculty and students abroad, and it’s clear that every college or university is a potential hotspot for an outbreak in ways that a lot of other organizations and businesses are not. That puts a greater moral burden on higher education institutions to act.
  2. Vulnerable Groups at Universities and Colleges
    The situation could be even worse at a college or university because the average retirement age for professors tends to be higher and universities often have a vibrant and active community of retired emeritus professors in their midst. This means that there is more at stake locally for your typical college or university. On the plausible assumption that employers have a responsibility to care for the well-being of those they employ, colleges have extra reasons to be concerned about slowing the spread of the virus.
  3. Fundamental Mission to Sustain Democracy
    It is sometimes forgotten that one of the fundamental aims of colleges and universities is to strengthen and sustain a legitimate and flourishing democracy. The Jeffersonian idea is that we need all of these colleges and universities to provide citizens with the knowledge, skills, and capacities to be good, democratic citizens. Our fundamental mission is not to educate students; educating students is simply how colleges and universities think they can best fulfill the fundamental mission of preserving our democracy. To that end, anything that is a potential threat to democracy should be of grave concern to any college or university and sometimes colleges and universities should be called upon to temporarily suspend the usual ways in which we preserve our democracy, especially if business as usual poses a different sort of potential threat.  And, yes, pandemics are a significant threat to democracy.
  4. Colleges in Small Communities
    This last moral reason applies to colleges and universities in small, rural communities. Colleges and universities have responsibilities to the communities that they operate within. The degree of responsibility is proportional to how much damage the college is uniquely capable of inflicting on the community. When a college is part of a small community with few other large organizations, they bear a greater share of the moral responsibility to limit the ways in which it might cause harm via disease spread. A place like DePauw is the biggest risk factor for Greencastle having an outbreak, and so places like DePauw have extra reasons to consider closing down.

The decision to close a college is disruptive for so many people, and I get the sense that many students think that these are arbitrary and capricious decisions that couldn’t possibly be motivated by sound moral reasoning. Whatever you decide about the wisdom of closing colleges, I hope you do so with the understanding that there are several significant morally relevant considerations that give college administrators and boards legitimate moral reasons to join the fight to slow the progression of this virus.


UPDATE: (3-15-2020)

The Likelihood of College Students Spreading the Virus Without Symptoms
Since this piece was published, it has come to light that people who have the virus but do not have symptoms are playing an even bigger role in the spread of the virus than we previously thought. It’s also coming to light that people who spread the disease without symptoms tend to be 20 years old and younger. That gives colleges and universities even more reason to consider closing, since college age students are likely to contribute to the spread in ways that make mitigation extremely difficult.

Water Scarcity and Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”

photogrpah of cattle at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains

On March 2nd, the journal Nature Sustainability published the results of a multi-layered study that explored the effects of human behaviors on water flow patterns in the western United States. Overall, in addition to cities diverting river waters for public use and the evaporative effects of global climate change, the study’s authors pointed to one particularly large culprit responsible for water resources shrinking in the west: the cattle industry. As they explained, the data indicates “irrigation of cattle-feed crops to be the greatest consumer of river water in the western United States, implicating beef and dairy consumption as the leading driver of water shortages and fish imperilment in the region.”

To anyone with a passing familiarity with environmentalist conversations, this news might be unsurprising; the resource-intense requirements of industrialized agribusiness have been well-documented, but this study is the first of its kind to demonstrate an empirical connection between specific business practices and specific, localized environmental effects. But the news fits well with well-known facts: agricultural irrigation accounts for as much as 90% of water use in many western states and at least a third of that is devoted to the raising of livestock – the study’s connection between beef/dairy products and increasing water scarcity problems makes sense. Much of the concern for developing ‘sustainable’ agricultural practices is precisely to counter the looming shortages of necessary resources as various interests and industries continue to compete for ever-dwindling supplies of water, land, and the like.

Solving this puzzle about resource-competition is complicated, particularly given the size of the economic supply chains involved in these industries. As environmental engineer Megan Konar explains, it is not enough to simply scold hamburger-eaters in Florida about the ramifications of their dinner on fish habitats in Colorado, “This is a collective action problem; we can’t leave it up to individual consumers to solve it.” Although it is true that widespread personal divestment from meat and dairy production chains might provoke bigger, structural change, such individual commitments are unlikely to be coordinated into sufficiently powerful statements. Instead, say the study’s authors, organized political action is required.

Interestingly, the temporary solution that the Nature Sustainability study’s authors call for might also be familiar to environmentalists: “offering financial incentives for the voluntary, temporary, rotational fallowing of farmland as a means for reducing consumptive water use.” The notion that, rather than farming via methods known to cause environmental degradation, farmers should be paid by the government to not farm (or to farm in more environmentally-conscious ways), is a long-standing element of American agricultural policy, both specifically regarding western water stocks and generally in a variety of other areas. By providing economic incentives via governmental subsidies, policymakers seek to encourage better farming habits overall.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear that such incentives actually work – or, rather, it’s never been clear that their positive effects last once the money runs out.

Writing in 1949, Aldo Leopold reflected on a five-year policy enacted by the Wisconsin legislature over a decade earlier to pay farmers to adopt various practices designed to rehabilitate regional topsoils; as Leopold explains, “…the offer was widely accepted, but the practices were widely forgotten when the five-year contract period was up. The farmers continued only those practices that yielded an immediate and visible economic gain for themselves.” From this and other examples, Leopold developed his now-famous contrast between ethical rules predicated on economic values and those built on what he called “value in the philosophical sense.”

To Leopold, any sort of policy operating from the assumptions of the former could never truly motivate genuine perspectival change because it cannot cultivate the sort of ethical and aesthetic appreciation of the land as a thing to be valued for its own sake. If natural lands aren’t viewed as valuable in-themselves, then Leopold was convinced that economic debates about their use will inevitably allow for all manner of incremental, self-interested arguments about the ‘usefulness’ of a particular resource to trump the overall importance of the system of which that resource is an inextricable part. Against this, Leopold argued for a “land ethic” that would limit how people could act in various ways regarding natural areas and habitats; much like how we cannot ethically murder one innocent human simply to make the lives of several other people better, Leopold insists that we cannot desecrate natural environments simply for the purpose of making the lives of people marginally better in arguably unnecessary ways.

So, although financially incentivizing western water-users to seek out alternative production methods might function as a temporary stop-gap measure for limiting the current ecological impact of the beef and dairy industries, it is impractical to think that such policies would promote the sort of environmentally virtuous outlook – what Leopold called “the ecological conscience” – that could promote genuinely sustainable practices over the long haul. And, ultimately, this is the same conclusion that the Nature Sustainability study draws: long-term “water security and river health in the western US will depend on the willingness of urban and rural water users to collaborate in design of demand-management strategies, the ability of political leaders to secure funding to implement those strategies, and the willingness of beef and dairy consumers to reduce their consumption or select products that do not depend on irrigated cattle-feed crops health.” That is to say, economic incentives on industries won’t have lasting effects: we all must do our part, individually (via our consumption choices) and collectively (through policy making and other socially-regulative measures), to promote ideal sorts of non-destructive environmental outcomes.

In the mid-20th century, Leopold prophetically warned that “By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements. We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steamshovel, and we are proud of our yardage. We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use.” Here at the start of the 21st century’s third decade, Leopold’s call for a “Land Ethic” is as pertinent as ever.

Are We Overreacting? Coronavirus in Context

Perhaps the fear about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) stems from uncertainty about the future. Or perhaps it stems from confusion about the virus itself. In late January, the number of coronavirus cases was just shy of 600; seven weeks later that number had ballooned to 110,000. Figures such as those can cause panic. But numbers without context or explanation can be meaningless. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman observes, “Human beings cannot comprehend very large or very small numbers.”

Relative to the world’s population, the number of cases is small. Proportionally, if every seat in Gillette Stadium was occupied for a Patriots game, only one of the spectators would have coronavirus. And that spectator would have a 3.4% chance of dying as a result.

But even that percentage, provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), requires context. Depending on the location, the mortality rate varies substantially. Jamie Ducharme and Elijah Wolfson of Time observe that countries with a greater number of tests administered have lower mortality rates. For example, the U.S. has a mortality rate of 5% but has only administered seven tests per million residents, while South Korea has administered 1,100 tests per million residents and registers a mortality rate of 0.6%. Additionally, compared to other once-novel coronaviruses, COVID-19 is more akin to flu.

“Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) killed about 10% of the people who got it, while Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) was even deadlier,” Ducharme and Wolfson write. “At least so far, COVID-19 does seem to be more lethal than the seasonal flu, but it’s closer to that end of the spectrum.”

Often excluded from the live updates of the number of coronavirus cases is the number of those who have recovered. During an address on March 9, the WHO Director-General noted that of the 80,000 individuals in China who have tested positive for COVID-19, 70 percent have made a full recovery. The 110,000 number does not reflect the number of those currently infected with the virus but rather the total known number of those who have been infected.

Our perception of the risk informs our reaction. Incomprehension about numbers paves the way for overreaction. But does that matter? Is it better to be safe than sorry? Or should we balance preventing the spread of the disease with finding normalcy amidst the prevention?

In reaction to fears about the virus, shoppers in the UK are emptying out grocery stores despite government ministers saying there is “no need for anybody to stockpile.” Grocery chains have begun to limit the purchases of certain goods such as anti-bacterial gels, dry pasta, and canned vegetables. In the U.S. and Canada, shoppers are stockpiling toilet paper. In New York, people are stealing medical masks and other equipment from hospitals. Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist who studies how people respond to pandemics, called the reaction “excessive.” “When people are told something dangerous is coming, but all you need to do is wash your hands, the action doesn’t seem proportionate to the threat,” he told CNN.

Morgan Housel of the Collaborative Fund echoes Taylor’s observation in his piece about the panic. “[Wash your hands is] too simple for some people to take seriously,” he writes. “The idea that complex problems can benefit from simple solutions isn’t intuitive.”

Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto, says that he is not scared of COVID-19. “What I am scared about is the loss of reason and wave of fear that has induced the masses of society into a spellbinding spiral of panic, stockpiling obscene quantities of anything that could fill a bomb shelter adequately in a post-apocalyptic world,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

The risk of contracting COVID-19 remains low. The risk of suffering the most grave consequence is even lower. But you may not know that when hit with a steady stream of numbers on the news and an increasing sense of panic amongst your neighbors. Perhaps the best thing to do is keep calm, heed the most up-to-date advice of your government, and wash your hands. If you have questions about the coronavirus, visit the WHO’s Q&A page.

Infodemics and Good Epistemic Hygiene

3d rendering of bacteria under a microscope

There has been a tremendous amount of news lately about the outbreak and spread of COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus. And while having access to up-to-date information about a global health crisis can certainly be a good thing, there have been worries that the amount of information out there has become something of a problem itself. So much so that the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that they are concerned that the epidemic has led to an “infodemic”: the worry is that with so much information it will be difficult both for people to process all of it, and to determine what they should trust and which they should ignore.

With so much information swirling about there is already a Wikipedia page dedicated to all the various rumors and conspiracy theories surrounding the virus. For instance, some of the more popular conspiracy theories state that the virus is a human-made biological weapon (it isn’t), and that there are vaccines already available but are just being kept from the public (there aren’t). It shouldn’t be surprising that social media is the most fertile breeding ground for misinformation, with large Facebook groups spreading not only falsehoods but supposed miracle cures, some of which are extremely dangerous.

In response to these problems, sites like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been urged to take steps to try to help cull the infodemic by employing fact-checking services, providing free advertising for the WHO, and by trying to make sure that when looking for information about coronavirus online that reputable sources are those that dominate the results.

While all of this is of course a good thing, what should the individual person do when faced with such an infodemic? It is, of course, always a good idea to be vigilant when acquiring information online, especially when that information is coming from social media. But perhaps just as we should engage in more conscientious physical hygiene, we should also engage in a more substantial epistemic hygiene, as well. After all, the spreading of rumors and misinformation can itself lead to harms, so it seems that we should make extra sure that we aren’t forming and spreading beliefs in a way that can potentially be damaging to others.

What might good epistemic hygiene look like in the face of an infodemic? Perhaps we can draw some parallels from the suggested practices for good physical hygiene from the WHO. Some of the main suggestions from the WHO include:

  • Washing hands frequently
  • Maintaining social distance
  • Practicing good respiratory hygiene (like covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze)
  • Staying informed

These are all good ways to minimize chances of contracting or spreading diseases. What parallels could we draw from this when it comes to the infodemic? While the physical act of hand-washing is unlikely to stop the spread of misinformation, perhaps a parallel when it comes to forming beliefs would be to make extra careful which sources we’re getting our information from, and to critically reflect upon our beliefs if we do get information from a less than trustworthy source. Just as taking a little extra time to make sure your hands are clean can help control the spread of disease, so could taking some extra time to critically reflect help control the spread of misinformation.

Maintaining a kind of social distance might be a good idea, as well: as we saw above, the majority of misinformation about the epidemic comes from social media. If we are prone to looking up the latest gossip and rumors, it might be best to just stay out of those Facebook groups altogether. Similarly, just as it’s a good idea to try to protect others by coughing or sneezing into your arm, so too is it a good idea to keep misinformed ideas to yourself. If you feel like you want to spread gossip or information you’ve acquired from some other less-than-reputable source, instead of spreading it around further by posting or commenting on social media, the best thing would be to try to stop the spread as much as possible.

Finally, the WHO does suggest that it is a good idea to stay informed. Again, we have seen that there are better and worse ways of doing this. Staying informed does not mean acquiring information from just anywhere, nor does it mean getting as much information as is humanly possible. In the light of an infodemic one needs to be that much more vigilant and responsible when it comes to the potential spread of misinformation.

Lessons from ‘Queen and Slim’

close-up photograph of police car on street at night

[Beware of spoilers. Though if you didn’t see the film at this point, I don’t know what to tell you.]

Police brutality against black people is nothing new. Since slave ships docked in the U.S after the Middle Passage, law-enforcing entities have been antagonizing them. The only difference between then and today is that more and more of what is happening now is being documented. Back in 2015, it was reported that unarmed black people were killed 5x that of their white counterparts. Out of the 1,134 black males that were murdered by police that year, some of the standouts include Laquan Mcdonald, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and a constitution-length list of names that suffered similar fates. 

Most recently, former police officer Amber Guyger entered the apartment of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old accountant, and murdered him claiming she mistook his apartment for her own. In turn, Melina Matsoukas’s film Queen and Slim seems to speak on all of the recent injustices against black people as it follows the story of two fugitives after they murder a police officer. However, despite the positionality of Matsoukas and her take on Queen and Slim being an activist film against police brutality, the film’s narrative takes a unique and ethical approach that considers all sides of the issue of police brutality and provides an honest take on blackness in the midst of it. 

Just as police brutality is nothing new, Queen and Slim is not the first film to comment on the issue. It seems like Spike Lee was ahead of his time with his 1989 classic Do The Right Thing, where the character Radio Raheem was murdered by NYPD, leaving a bitter ending for the film’s conclusion, and an equally bitter sense of resentment towards law enforcement. There’s a similar sentiment in Queen and Slim, but Matsoukas manipulates perspective and audience emotion through the different moral situations that Queen and Slim face. During the routine traffic stop that acts as a catalyst for the rest of the film, the officer that stopped Queen and Slim was inexplicably hostile and was looking for reasons to get violent with the protagonists. After drawing a gun on Slim and shooting Queen, there’s a brief sense of relief after the police officer is killed, as if the scene provided justice for the lives of those lost in the real world. That is until the implications of murdering a police officer come into full effect and Queen and Slim suddenly become fugitives.

Despite the brief moment of triumph, Matsoukas makes it clear to address the fact that the issue of police brutality is not one sided. In the latter half of the film, a teenage black boy murders a cop at a protest in solidarity of Queen and Slim’s run from the police. Not only was the officer that the boy killed African American himself, but the boy murdered the cop for no reason. The scene seems reminiscent of a real world instance, where police officers were murdered following the fatal shootings of black men. 

Perhaps Matsoukas was trying to convey the fact that anger in response to police brutality can exacerbate the issue rather than push for reform. On one hand, there’s the Black Lives Matter Movement, which has been advocating for justice for black people since George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s murderer, was acquitted. But like the boy who killed a cop in Queen and Slim, and the man who killed cops in real life, there are those whose anger is misplaced and works against the cause for getting justice in the face of police brutality.

At the end of the film, right before Queen and Slim make their final escape, a black man who Queen and Slim thought were helping them, sold them out to the cops for a bounty placed on their heads. For the entire film, black people that were strangers to Queen and Slim helped them as they ran from the police, as they all believed in what the two protagonists did. How ironic, that it wasn’t a white person that ultimately led to Queen and Slim’s downfall, but someone that looked like them. But maybe to Matsoukas, this turn of events was necessary. When we think about police brutality, we think of a unified black community–one where people uplift one another in the face of tragedy. And to some extent, this image is true. But then, there are still those who, like the man who sold out Queen and Slim, simply don’t care. They have their own agendas, their own list of things they care about. 

In turn, maybe that’s why Queen and Slim should be considered as an honest take on police brutality and a glimpse of the black experience. The heroes of the story weren’t really heroes. They weren’t martyrs either. At the end of the day, Queen and Slim were two black people trying to survive in a world that thrived on the disenfranchisement of their bodies and sought revenge for their struggle to survive. Their actions ignited a fragmented consciousness that ultimately lead to their downfall. Perhaps Matsoukas was suggesting (or rather blatantly saying) that all black people have the potential to be Queen and Slims, and in the United States, blackness is the antithesis to justice.

The Case of Gabriel Fernandez: Social Work and Public Responsibility

View from street of a large concrete building with thousands of windows. The building is the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts building.

Content warning from the editor: This article contains descriptions of child abuse that might be upsetting to readers.

Recently, Netflix released a documentary series called The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, which has become one of the most watched series on the platform. The documentary explores the death of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was, over the course of a number of months, tortured and beaten to death by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauru Aguirre. Gabriel died in 2013.

Before Gabriel died, there was significant evidence, observed by many people in his life that severe abuse was occurring. Bruises at various stages of the healing process were visible all over his body. Witnesses observed what appeared to be burns from cigarettes being put out all over his shaved head. These burns were also at various stages of the healing process, suggesting that the torture had been taking place over a lengthy amount of time. At one point, Gabriel arrived at school with injuries all over his face. He reported to his teacher that his mother had shot him in the face with a BB gun.

On May 24, 2013, Aguirre called 911. He claimed that Gabriel had fallen while playing with his siblings. It was immediately clear to responding officers that the severity of the young boy’s injuries could not be explained by a simple fall. The medical examiner later confirmed that the death was a homicide—the people who were supposed to care for him had beaten Gabriel to death. They were both arrested and tried for capital murder in the death of the eight-year-old boy. The autopsy revealed that Gabriel’s stomach contained no food. There was evidence of malnutrition, including the presence of kitty litter in his stomach. His sister confirmed that her brother had been forced by Fernandez and Aguirre to consume the filthy contents of the litter box. Prosecutors pursued the death penalty against Aguirre and agreed to a plea deal with Fernandez that resulted in a penalty of life in prison without parole, due to her diminished intellectual capacity.

Gabriel’s death is a great tragedy, but sadly it is not unique in its severity. One thing that makes this particular case unusual is that criminal charges were also pursued against the social workers who did not notice the many troubling warning signs in time to save the young boy’s life. The documentary series explores the multiple levels of culpability involved in the case. How is it that some children who are in clear danger slip through the cracks?

Answering this question is not easy. Arguably, the decision to prosecute social workers for their missteps in the case treats the situation as if it is more black-and-white than it actually is. Based on the documentary’s reporting, it seems clear that Gabriel’s extended family was aware from the time of his birth that living with his birth mother would not be a safe environment for Gabriel. For the first three years after the child was born, his great-uncle and his partner raised him. He was removed from that environment for reasons that included both homophobia and a desire on the part of Pearl Fernandez to increase the amount of money that she was receiving from welfare. Because they observed the abuse occurring, it is plausible to draw the conclusion that the family had a moral obligation to protect the child against abuse.

The sheriff’s office was also aware of the possibility of violence inside of Gabriel’s home. They conducted an investigation that ultimately led nowhere, but they did not inform the prosecutor in the case that an investigation had ever occurred. Despite the fact that their actions in this case might also be viewed as criminally negligent, charges were not filed against any members of the sheriff’s department.

One way of interpreting the question of how children slip through the cracks is a retributive approach. This approach is motivated by feelings of anger and outrage and it seeks someone to blame. This certainly seemed to be the response of the local community. The social workers filled that role for those that wanted vengeance. But it may be the case that we can only start to get closer to answers (and, ideally, solutions) when we loosen our grasp on retributivism and instead try to get a firmer hold on the root social causes of these kinds of problems.

Understanding these issues will crucially involve understanding dynamics of both money and power. Various members of the prosecutor’s office may have much to gain from appearing tough on social workers in a case such as this. The same can be said for the judges and politicians that publicly supported this move. The social workers, by contrast, have very little power in these circumstances—they are underpaid and overworked. The median salary for a social worker in the United States is $46, 270. According to Greg Merritt, a former DCFS Supervisor and one of the defendants in this case, the social workers that he was overseeing were dealing with an average of 30 cases at a time, and that number often got as high as 38. This means that, as a supervisor, Merritt was responsible for overseeing as many as 280 cases. The stressful nature of the job combined with the comparably low pay creates a high burnout rate for social workers. Nevertheless, many of the social workers that choose to stay do so because they genuinely care about improving the lives of the struggling members of their communities. Given the pressures that these workers face, it is reasonable to assume that they will sometimes make mistakes.

At its heart, this is a case about social values. If we are going to be so critical of our social workers that we open up the possibility of criminal action when things go wrong, we should take steps that are consistent with putting that kind of value on the work that social workers do. First and foremost, the funding for social programs should increase. If we want to maintain very high expectations for our social workers, we should employ more of them at higher salaries. If communities want to direct their rage at social workers when things go wrong, they should make sure that their initial expectations of those employees are reasonable.

We also need to make sure that we aren’t tying the hands of social workers by failing, as voters, to pay attention. In recent years, for-profit organizations have entered into contracts with governments to assist in providing social services. LA County in particular entered into an arrangement with Maximus, a for-profit organization, that at the end of the day is motivated by profits rather than by the well-being of citizens. These motivations result in cost cutting measures such as denying overtime. Clearly, overtime in many of these cases is not just useful, but crucial. We should be thinking, as communities, about whether these are the kinds of services that should ever be privatized and therefore controlled by free market systems.

We should also understand that these kinds of cases always involve competing, important values. All things being equal, we care about both privacy and parental rights. This can make going into a home and conducting a thorough inquiry while treating the parties involved with the appropriate amount of respect and human dignity challenging. Complicating matters further, the parties involved are often deceitful. Some reports of child abuse are unwarranted, and social workers are neither mind readers nor fortunetellers.

It is also important to recognize that taking a child away from his or her family is extremely traumatic for everyone involved. Social workers tend to pursue this possibility as a last resort. Workers need to also be aware, on a meta-level, of the possibility of bias in their decision-making, as a disproportionate number of children of color are removed from their homes by social services.

All of these considerations need to be balanced against concerns for the well-being of the child. Needless to say, this makes the jobs of social workers very difficult, especially when they are dealing with heavy caseloads.

Finally, there are questions about how technology might potentially help to adjudicate these kinds of cases. Software that employs algorithms to identify predictive risk factors may remove some of the burden of tea leaf reading from the shoulders of social workers. These programs would flag certain cases as deserving of increased attention, preventing the likelihood of outcomes like Gabriel’s. These algorithms are not, of course, immune from their own cluster of moral issues. The data used to construct them comes from social services that tend to focus on poor communities. The models that they create might have problematic racial implications. They might also create blinders to the recognition of problems that aren’t flagged by the algorithm.

Child abuse and neglect are byproducts of society at its worst. These events can motivate us to point fingers and to demand payback. It is important to remember however, that there really is no such thing as payback. Nothing that we can do as a community will bring kids like Gabriel back to life. It is more productive to understand that the perfect storms that lead to tragedies like this are caused by problems that are systemic. They require a renewed commitment to our values, which will also require rethinking systems of power and money.

(In the Fernandez case, on January 8th 2020, a California Court of Appeals threw out the case against the social workers.)

Artist, Art, and Appreciation: Where Is There Space for Morality?

photograph of Polanski at Cannes

Roman Polanski, who confessed to drugging and raping a 13-year-old in 1977 and has had a new rape case brought against him this year, did not attend the Césars on February 28th. Protests denounced the 12 nominations his film, titled “J’accuse” and known in English as “An Officer And A Spy,”, received.

“By supporting the aggressors, by celebrating the aggressors, one does not allow the victims to speak out. Their word is denied,” Celine Piques of women’s activist group Osez le Feminisme said.

The entire academy announced their plans to step down following this year’s ceremony in response to disagreements over how to handle cases like Polanski’s. He has only avoided prosecution for his confessed crimes because he fled the US in the 70s; he is still wanted in the US.

“Distinguishing Polanski is spitting in the face of all victims. It means raping women isn’t that bad,” Actress Adele Haenel told The New York Times earlier this week. When Polanski won for best director, boos and shouts spread across the audience, and Haenel walked out, accompanied by others.

Despite the messages of the protestors, the history of resistance against working with Polanski, and France’s Culture Minister speaking out the day of the Césars to say that awarding Polanski with a Cesar would “send the wrong signals,” Polanski continued to characterize his absence from the awards as an attempt to avoid a “public lynching” by feminists.

Putting Polanski’s victim complex and reprehensible tone-deafness aside, we can attend to a common struggle that humans and cultures experience when it comes to valuing art.

It is a hallmark of societies since the Neolithic period that we produce art. Visual art, physical art, music – we are creative creatures that appreciate beauty. Further, so long as folks have theorized, we have come up with views about why we create art, what it is that makes things beautiful, and whether there is distinctive value in such objects and activities.

Cases like Polanski and “J’accuse,” and a disappointing number of others (R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, the list goes on), brings to the fore the question of how our moral evaluation of the creator of art influences or assessment of the art itself. This isn’t a simple question, however, and some distinctions serve us well in tackling the question.

First, there are different ways that something can be valuable. An action, object, or person, can be valuable because it serves a purpose and thus be instrumentally valuable. Or, such things can be valuable because they have moral worth: they could help someone in need, reduce harm, or contribute to a flourishing life. They could be morally valuable. They could be valuable because they are beautiful, or elevate our aesthetic experiences or understanding; this is roughly what we mean to capture when we say that something has aesthetic value.

At the Césars, the protestors claimed it was morally wrong to publicly appreciate Polanski’s art because of our moral evaluation of him as a person. Let’s consider the possible interactions of moral value and aesthetic value.

Some art is revealing in its engagement with immorality in its very content. For instance, part of what makes the work of art valuable is the immoral nature of the work itself: the anti-heroes or villains that play central or significant roles, or immoral actions that are key to the plots. Through exploring the more terrible parts of our natures and horrible things that humans can do, we may gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and each other. For some, the immoral content of a work (its lack of moral value) will impact the aesthetic value of the artwork. Most, however, can acknowledge the value in, say, the villainous Raskolnikov, or disgusting Humbert Humbert, or bullying and two-faced Snape.

However, perhaps it makes sense to be troubled by art with immoral content. If it has immoral effects like bringing out immoral aspects of the audience, or promoting immoral ends, we may have pause about the attitudes we see as appropriate to have towards the art. This conclusion rests on the empirical claims that appreciating or engaging with art that has suspect moral content does promote such ends, however. And there may be a spectrum of appreciation involved with recognition of aesthetic beauty that makes such empirical research difficult. When we recognize the narratives of Dostoevsky and Nabokov as immoral,should that diminish our appreciation of their beauty or technique? Or does it perhaps have implications for the behaviors we ought to consider morally appropriate to take up in relation to such works of art? In other words, there are, roughly, two stances here: we can take aesthetic value and moral content to be independent, or we can take aesthetic value to depend on the moral value of an artwork.

This brings us to another important part of assessing appropriate ways to engage art: its context. Art has performative force, whether it be visual art, performance art, music, or what have you. The context in which it exists is part of its nature and when we characterize the meaning of a work in order to determine the aesthetic or moral attitudes that are appropriate to have towards it, these features must be taken into consideration as well. A painting that is critical of a political leader has different meaning if presented in the square outside the building housing the governing body (where it may constitute a threat), or in a textbook. A piece of music by a classical composer performed for family and friends may not carry the same social messaging as the same music selected as the highlight of an orchestra’s season, where the historical lack of diversity in such selections can make this choice controversial.

These aspects of a work of art, the content and context, can affect how we value it. Or, we can attend to these aspects to consider what attitudes it is appropriate to have towards the art itself. (Or perhaps these amount to the same thing – what is the difference between “valuing” and having an attitude toward something?)

With these distinctions in mind, let’s return to the Césars. A third and controversial issue is how the features of the creator can affect the value of the art. The debate over the extent to which the author’s intention affects the meaning of a piece will continue to loom over discussions of art, but for cases where engaging with the art amounts to engaging with the creator, and praising or celebrating the art means elevating the creator in the community, profession, or culture, the question is less theoretical.

To, as a community, celebrate art by a powerful and immoral creator is, to many, morally reprehensible. This is distinct, it seems, from the judgment that the art is immoral. Rather, it is closer to a judgment about whether it should have been produced in the way that it was.

The film was the product of more than just Polanski’s efforts. A full cast, production team, and crew of people put forth extensive work in order for this artwork to be released and then nominated at the Césars (though they did not attend). Jean Dujardin, who was nominated for best actor in this film, was among those who worked on “J’accuse” and did not attend the ceremony. However, he posted on Instagram, “By making this film, I believed and I still believe I made more good than harm.”

Dujardin seems to have made the judgment that the aesthetic value of the art outweighs the negatives of working alongside, appearing to be indifferent to the wrongs of, or being part of celebrating the work of, Polanski. These are three ways of assessing the “harm” Dujardin could speak of. The “good” presumably is the work of art, which, according to the Césars, is a good film. But the cost of the good film is having a self-avowed sexual criminal in a position of power and influence in the film community for colleagues to work among. The cost of the film is to have those without the power and choices Dujardin has appear indifferent to such harms in order to succeed professionally, and for the outward effect of this appearance for other victims of gender-based violence to receive this appearance of indifference from the film industry. And the cost of the film is to have other films, not facilitated by people with this history, further marginalized by the communities that celebrate art.

Gay Representation and ‘Onward’

photograph of Disney castle

Disney-Pixar’s latest film Onward has generated a mild flurry of controversy in the week before its release. The film, which is set in a modernized fantasy world, features Pixar’s first openly gay character, a police officer (who also happens to be a cyclops) voiced by actress and writer Lena Waithe. Christian right-wing groups have protested the character’s existence, viewing her inclusion in the narrative as a blatant attempt to peddle the “LGBTQ agenda” to children. But surprisingly the LGBTQ community has evinced mixed feelings about the film as well. Disney’s frank attempt at inclusiveness could be seen as a groundbreaking move away from heteronormativity in mainstream film. Representation is a certainly good thing; the limits of our imagination is at least partly determined by pop culture, and when we see something treated as acceptable within the bounds of fiction, that thing starts to feel more possible in real life. But some have taken issue with the nature of LGBTQ representation in Onward, for two main reasons. First, they argue that it’s problematic to herald Disney as a champion of progressiveness in any context, and second, they take issue with the type of character Disney has chosen to make LGBTQ.

Any gesture towards inclusivity feels hollow when delivered by a mega-corporation like Disney, which has a checkered history with the LGBTQ community to say the least. In the same week that Onward announced their lesbian character, Disney also announced that they would be removing Love, Simon, a television show based on the movie of the same name centered on the life of a gay teenager, from the Disney + streaming service. Apparently, the show’s frank discussions of the main character’s sexuality pushed it out of the “family friendly” category, despite the fact that other shows still hosted on the service contain decidedly non-family-friendly themes, like explicit violence. Disney is a monstrously large company, and despite its many attempts to shape itself into a homogenous brand, it can still send out contradictory messages, like taking down a show for being “too gay” and proudly announcing the existence of a gay character in the same week. Part of this comes from the company’s desire to appeal to everyone, both the “family values” advocates and a more progressive crowd at the same time. In that sense, Disney’s form of representation will always feel false. It comes across as an attempt to make money and not a deep-seated commitment to equality.

In an article for Slate, Sam Adams further breaks down the problem with Disney’s gay representation, beyond the scope of just Onward. He explains that “From the ‘exclusively gay moment’ in the live-action Beauty and the Beast to a kiss between two minor female characters in last year’s The Rise of Skywalker, each baby step has been preceded by a flotilla of coverage proclaiming the advance—and each has been followed by the inevitable sense of confusion and betrayal when viewers see the movie and realize, “That’s it?” He correctly points out that the way these movies often use their landmark gay moments as a marketing tactic, drawing both positive and negative press (which, in terms of a company’s bottom line, often amount to the same thing). The marketing is often loud and expansive, in proportion to the half-second of actual screentime for the gay characters themselves. According to Adams, “The problem is often less with the movies themselves than with the self-congratulatory buildup to them.” It’s an attempt to capitalize on “woke points,” or credit for inclusiveness without actually being progressive, which ultimately translates into box office sales.

Beyond the film’s marketing, the lesbian character and the way the filmmakers have chosen to portray her is a source of controversy. Adams noted that “Waithe’s character is, like pretty much every character in every Pixar movie, essentially sexless; her girlfriend never appears on screen, so whatever intimacy the two of them might share happens only in the viewer’s imagination.” It’s worth asking whether this approach is better or worse than making the character’s sexuality more apparent, which might fall into the trap of harmful stereotyping. At the same time, treating gay characters in the exact same way as straight characters with the aim of normalizing them can has the effect of erasing difference completely.

Furthermore, the character is a police officer. This may seem like an innocuous choice, and given the light tone of the movie and the little amount of screentime given to the character, it probably is. But at the same time, LGBTQ cops are often difficult to portray in works of fiction. One has to balance both the reality that LGBTQ cops exist (and that they often become police officers with the aim of improving the way law enforcement treats their community) and the history of police brutality against gay people who protest against the state. This troubled relationship between gay people and cops is evident throughout the latter half of the 20th-century. In 1974, for example, the police department of Alamedea County in California began recruiting gay officers, because gay people in San Fransicsco were deeply uncomfortable reporting crimes to straight officers. In January of 2020, the San Francisco pride parade voted to ban various police departments from marching, and issued a statement that “[Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies can participate in Pride] so long as they do not visibly identify as deputies of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office while doing so.” This small example is a microcosm of the relationship between police officers and gay people on a larger scale, which involves both opposition and intersection. In that sense, portraying a gay character as a police officer, especially if that character is the first gay character in your animation company’s history, inevitably comes with baggage.

We might compare this problematic representation with NBC’s hit show Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has been ensnared throughout its run in the same controversy as Onward. One of the main characters of the show is both a black gay man and a high-ranking captain within the NYPD. Funké Joseph, a black fan of the show, has written about the whiplash he experiences every time he sees this character, and how he balances between enjoying the show’s jokes and remembering the brutal reality behind the script. He explains that,

“Real life cops have abused their power countless times against me and people who look like me. It still feels like almost every other day there’s another black police brutality victim being turned into a post-mortem hashtag. That’s why cheering for the utopian version of cops is a moral dilemma for me.”

That same moral dilemma is evident on a much smaller scale in Onward. The film encourages gay viewers, who may have a deeply negative relationship with the police, to cheer for a lesbian cop.

The fact that there is a gay character in Onward at all is a good sign; at the very least it signals that Disney thought it was more profitable to market to a LGBTQ or LGBTQ-friendly audience than the “family values” group. But it remains crucial that we understand Disney’s profit-based motivations for this move, beyond the empty rhetoric and marketing strategies. One solution for the moral problem of representation, perhaps, is to stop giving Disney credit for every new “first gay character,” and begin to ask what kinds of gay representation are considered acceptable for mainstream audiences and why.


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The Coastal GasLink Pipeline

photograph of pipeline through open land with mountains

Tumultuous times in Canada as protests and blockades have brought to light a very complex set of moral issues. At the center of the turmoil is a natural gas pipeline running through the territory of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia. Approval for construction was given by twenty elected band councils (including the Wet’suwet’en) along the proposed route, but it has been denied by some of the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en. Opposition has led to protests and blockades, court injunctions, and then further protests and blockades of rail lines and bridges in eastern Canada in solidarity. This issue now involves factors ranging from environmental effects, the rule of law, the future prospects of reconciliation with First Nations in Canada, economic effects, and the political priorities for Justin Trudeau’s government.

The proposed pipeline project is worth over six billion dollars and could introduce several economic benefits both to Canada and to the region in British Columbia where construction would take place including about 10,000 jobs. Coastal GasLink has signed economic benefits agreements with several First Nation groups. This is part of the reason that several prominent members of the tribe support the construction. It will bring hundreds of well-paying jobs to a region that needs it. On the other hand, the pipeline carries natural gas which means that there are environmental factors to consider as well. If completed, the pipeline will have the capacity to move 2.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day with the potential to eventually expand to 5 billion cubic feet. While supporters of the pipeline will point out the relative environmental benefits of natural gas compared to alternatives like coal, it is still carbon that will be burned. Also, like any pipeline there is the possibility of breakages and leaks which could cause additional harmful environmental effects.

Beyond environmental and economic concerns, the issue is complicated because of disagreements taking place within the First Nations community as a whole. Part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s agenda when it comes to Indigenous issues is to build a nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and First Nations. However, it isn’t clear right now who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en. 20 elected First Nation government bands and some hereditary chiefs support the pipeline, while other hereditary chiefs remain opposed. The issue is made more complicated by the fact that the elected band councils are an imposition created by the federal government under the Indian Act. Because of this, the approval of the band councils is problematic. Critics charge that the councils are a colonialist imposition and question the moral and legal authority of the councils to offer approval. On the other hand, those council members and other Wet’suwet’en people have voiced their support for the pipeline and disapproval of the protests. This has resulted in a situation that is splitting families. As David Chartrand of the Manitoba Metis Federation points out, “The elected chiefs and councils and hereditary chiefs need to sort out amongst themselves who has governance of their territory.”

In addition to the economic, environmental, and political concerns of the pipeline itself, there are additional legal issues involved with the protests. This issue isn’t new as there have been previous blockades established to prevent construction. However, court injunctions have required that these blockades be removed. Those who oppose the blockades argue that the issue is a matter of the rule of law; the courts have ruled these blockades be removed and they have not done so. In addition, the protests and blockades of rails lines in eastern Canada have created further legal problems as protestors try to prevent trains from passing by throwing fire and debris at moving trains. Conservative politicians have compared the situation to a state of anarchy.

However, the issue is complicated by the fact that in many cases these protests and blockages are mostly on land that was never legally ceded to Canada. Canada’s Supreme Court has also ruled that First Nations legal systems continue to be valid. Depending on which legal authority takes precedence, the Wet’suwet’en may be within their rights to try to remove people and equipment from their land. In areas of Ontario (such as Belleville) where rail lines are being blockaded a similar concern exists.

Within the rest of Canada there are the complicated moral and political choices about how to respond. Canadian police have a controversial history when it comes to Aboriginal affairs and in breaking up protests. And this history may be driving the reluctance of the federal government to break up the blockades. The presence of the RCMP has been responsible for preventing negotiations to settle the matter. On the other hand, the blockades of rail lines will prove to be harmful to the Canadian economy. They have resulted in shutdowns of passenger trains as well as freight trains. It is estimated that $425 million in goods is being stranded each day. Farmers could lose payments because they aren’t paid until products are delivered. Hundreds of (and potentially thousands of) employees of the Canadian National Railway have been laid off. The Trudeau government has asked that people be patient, but a recent poll shows that 61% of Canadians oppose the blockades. Conservative politicians have called the government’s response weak, and because the government only holds a minority government, an early election could be forced at any time.

So to recap: the issue currently taking place in Canada involves the potential to bring economic prosperity for some who need it, harm the environment and contribute to global warming, it requires understanding who has the authority to represent the people of a given territory, it is splitting up families and communities, it involves determining how to deal with conflicting legal systems, the livelihood of thousands, trying to chart a new path in Canada-First Nations relations, and requires a delicate balance to reassure a public who is growing less patient by the day that something concrete is taking place to resolve the matter, all while trying to prevent an early election. It is safe to say that this account only scratches the surface of just how complicated this issue is from a moral perspective in terms of what should be done. Perhaps this is why there will be no “quick fix” to this according to the government liaison on the matter. However the issue is resolved it will have far reaching effects for future Canada-First Nations relations.

Operation Chaos; or, How to Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

photograph of voter filling out ballot

War is politics by other means, we are told. It seems true also that politics is war by other means. American politics embraces a sort of total war credo, where any method it takes a party to advance its political agenda is on the table. This is manifested by so-called “Operation Chaos,” the military-inspired name for a strategy by Republican activists to influence the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. However it’s not clear that strategy advances the interests of those voters involved in the way they hope it will.

Operation Chaos aims to influence the Democratic primary by getting Republican voters to cast ballots during the elections in open primary states. Open primary states, like South Carolina, are states in which a voter does not have to be a registered member of the political party whose primary the opt to vote in. So ahead of South Carolina’s Democratic primary on Saturday, February 29, 2020 the organizers of Operation Chaos urged Republican voters—or at least those who want to see Trump re-elected in November, 2020—to vote for the Democratic contender who will have the worst head-to-head chance against Trump in the general election. More specifically they argued that helping Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, win the nomination would ensure a Trump victory. This idea, referred to as “party raiding,” is not new, having long been one of the possible downsides of open primaries pointed out by critics.

This strategy is dubious on several fronts. The first problem is that there is no evidence that party raiding is either common, extensive, or particularly effective. Second, according to a panoply of polls, Bernie Sanders is projected to beat Trump in a head-to-head, general election contest. However these polls don’t provide any certainty about the outcome of a general election contest, and there is no way to know at this point how a Sanders nomination would affect the American electorate. Two competing arguments paint starkly different pictures. Sanders supporters argue that his nomination would motivate young and progressive voters, who might otherwise stay home in November, to turn out and give Democrats the bump the need in contested states, like Pennsylvania. The contrary argument is that Sanders will turn-off, rather than turn-out, moderate voters and Trump-dissatisfied Republicans who might be enticed to vote Democrat in 2020. In any case, any effort to hand the Democratic nomination to Sanders is not the sure bet for Trump that the organizers of Operation Chaos seem to think.

But there is a deeper problem with the party-raid strategy of Operation Chaos. Their plan, because of the risk of undesired results, fails to maximize the interests the voters who cast these attempted disruption ballots. It may even be too generous to portray the plan as operating under risk, and instead more appropriate to see it as a plan operating under genuine uncertainty. American economist Frank Knight distinguished between risk, where we are aware of the relative odds of success for various course of action, and genuine uncertainty. Under genuine uncertainty we either don’t know all of the possible outcomes (if we know any of them), or we don’t know what the odds of success are (even for a known set of outcomes). In the aftermath of the 2016 American presidential election, and other events that have surprised pundit predictors, we are becoming more aware of how often we mistake genuine uncertainty for mere risk.

Suppose, however, we are charitable to Operation Chaos and concede that the relative probabilities of success for different head-to head, general election contests against Trump are known. Does party raiding now stand vindicated as a good plan? No, it doesn’t. The remaining problem has to do with how the different possible outcomes affect the Operation Chaos voters’ interests. If they are right about Sanders’ chances, and they succeed in handing him the nomination, they get the outcome they most want. However if they are wrong about Sanders’ chances, but still succeed in handing him the nomination, they get what they least want. Voters would maximize their chances of getting something they want if they voted strategically in such a way so that no matter who won, Democrat or Republican, they would get (some of) what they want.

This is similar to the decision strategy promoted by John Rawls in his well-known A Theory of Justice. He constructs a thought experiment in which people devise a social system from an “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance.” The gist of the Rawls’ thought experiment is to demonstrate what a fair and just social system would look like. He reasons that people, because they are rationally self-interested, will work to create a system that maximizes their own self-interest. To make sure that they also create a system that is fair to their fellow citizens, Rawls asserts that people should design this system while ignorant of certain facts about themselves (e.g., their skills, racial/ethnic characteristics, gender, etc.). That is, he creates a a situation involving genuine uncertainty rather than mere risk. When subject to such strictures, Rawls argues that people will distribute social goods across all the possible social positions they themselves might inhabit once the system they have designed gets going. This then produces a fair system for all people.

In the case of Republican voters cast ballots in open Democratic primaries, they would better maximize the extent to which the next President promotes their own self-interest. By voting for a Democratic candidate who, if elected, would act to promote policies that Republican voters prefer, party raiders would ensure that some of their preferred policies are promoted in the case of either a Democratic or Republican victory. That is they create a win-win situation for themselves. However if party raiders hand the nomination to a candidate who, upon winning the general election, would promote policies that are counter to the raiders’ preferences they create a situation a win-lose situation for themselves.

To all appearances, Operation Chaos didn’t work in South Carolina. Former Vice President Joe Biden won the state’s primary by a wide margin over Bernie Sanders. If Operation Chaos continues their efforts in subsequent open primary states, like upcoming “Super Tuesday” states Virginia and Texas, they should vote for the Democratic candidate who would best represent their interests—not the one who they think is most likely to lose against Donald Trump in November.