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Regulating Companies to Free People’s Speech

photograph of ipad with Trump's twitter profile sitting atop various blurred newspaper front pages feating him

US President Donald Trump has signed an executive order instructing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to review legislation that shields social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, from liability for content posted by their users. This move appears to be a retaliatory gesture against Twitter for linking fact-checking sites to President Trump’s tweets opining the vulnerability to fraud of mail-in ballots for upcoming elections. This is the second time President Trump has drafted an executive order to review this kind of legislation. The first time was in August 2019. But this isn’t simply (another) Trump temper tantrum. Rather it is the latest push in a concerted and bipartisan effort to bring so-called “Big Tech” companies to heel. These efforts in general face a long road of legal and philosophical challenges, and Trump’s effort in particular is likely doomed to failure.

The relevant legislation is the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and more specifically the “Good Samaritan” clause of Section 230 therein. This clause states that no “provider or user” of an “interactive computer service” can be sued for civil harm because of “good faith efforts”  to restrict access to “objectionable” material posted by other users of their service. Other portions of Section 230 give providers and users of interactive computer services immunity against being sued for any civil harm caused by content posted by other users. Essentially, companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google are given broad discretion to handle the content posted on their sites as they see fit.

Conservative and Republicans complain that Big Tech companies harbor anti-conservative political bias, which they enforce through their platforms’ outsized influence on the dissemination of news and opinion. Texas’ Senator Ted Cruz has argued that Facebook has censored and suppressed conservative expression on its platform. President Trump’s frequent screeds against CNN, The Washington Post, and Twitter echo the same sentiment. In 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was grilled by Republican lawmakers about alleged anti-conservative bias in his company’s handling of search results. Missouri’s Senator Josh Hawley in 2019 introduced a bill to amend Section 230 to remove its broad protections from liability. Hawley’s bill was specifically geared toward addressing alleged anti-conservative bias and offered reinstatement of Section 230’s protection only to companies who submitted themselves to an audit showing that they pursued “politically neutral” practices.

Liberal and Democratic concerns focus largely on the spread of harmful misinformation and disinformation by foreign actors aimed at influencing US elections. But there are two points of bipartisan agreement. The first concerns the scope and magnitude of Big Tech’s influence on the public exchange of information. Agreement here manifests itself in the what criteria lawmakers have put forward as triggering expanded liability, namely size. Senator Josh Hawley’s 2019 bill targeted companies with, “30 million monthly active users in the US, more than 300 million active monthly users worldwide, or more than $500 million in global annual revenue.” The other is point of agreement concerns posted content related to human trafficking for sex work. Legislation amending the Telecommunications Act of 1996 pursuant to curtailing human trafficking was passed with bipartisan support in 2017.

All of this bears on the right to freedom of speech, interpretation of which is a perpetually contentious issue. Conservatives complaining about censorship and suppression allege that their freedom of speech is being infringed by the actions of Big Tech. However a recent judicial decision made short work of one such complaint. The US Court of Appeals dismissed a suit claiming that Twitter, Facebook, Apple, and Google had conspired to suppress conservative speech. In their ruling the judges noted that the First Amendment only protects free speech from interference by government action. This illustrates an important point about the nature of rights that is often missed.

Rights can be thought of as comprising three elements: a right-holder, an obligation, and an obliged party. With the right to freedom of speech the right-holder is any legal person (which includes corporations), the obligation is to refrain from suppression/censorship, and the obligated party is the US government. Constitutional rights tend to follow this pattern. Other rights oblige parties other than just the government. A family can sue someone for killing their mother, or the state may sue on the murder victim’s behalf, because a right to life is both understood to exist at common law and is also enshrined by legislation in statutes against homicide. Here the right holder is any individual person, the obligation is to refrain from killing the right-holder, and the obligated party is every other individual person. (Incidentally, both of these are examples of negative rights: rights which entitle the bearers to protection from specific harmful treatment. There are also positive rights, which entitle the bears to the provision of specific goods, services, or treatment.)

As a matter of principle there is no general legal basis for complaints against Big Tech for suppressing or censoring expression. They are not government actors and so are not obviously bound by the right to free speech as expressed in the first amendment. The US Court of Appeals decision mentioned above says as much. Further these companies are themselves legal persons with respect to political speech under US law. This was one the bases of the US Supreme Courts’ (in)famous Citizens United decision. Because corporations are people too, their political speech is protected. Twitter flagging President Trump’s posts with fact-checking tags is just them exercising their speech in competition with President Trump’s speech. This is the much vaunted “marketplace of ideas” of which conservatives are usually enamored.

As a matter of law Trump’s draft executive order is largely toothless because the text of Section 230’s Good Samaritan clause allows Big Tech companies to take “good faith” actions to “restrict access to … material” even when “such material is constitutionally protected.” Despite the opinion of legislators, there is not even a whiff of a political neutrality requirement. While such a requirement used to exist, it ceased being enforced in 1987 and was fully obliterated in 2011. The decision to cease enforcing this requirement was made by US President Ronald Reagan’s FCC Commissioner, Mark Fowler, because it was seen as violating first amendment protections.

Infringement by the government on freedom of speech is held in court to strict scrutiny. Part of the strict scrutiny standard is that the infringement promotes a “compelling government interest.” If the government exercises its authority over private individuals or groups under the auspices of protecting freedom of speech, what standards will the government ask be met? The entire point of rights like the freedom of speech is to permit persons acting in a private capacity to determine things for themselves. As many critics and advocacy groups have pointed out, allowing the government to set these standards is harmful to free speech rather than protective of it. Legislators appear to remember this only as it suits their political needs.

Pandemic Beliefs and Lost Causes

photograph of figurine of the patron saint of lost causes

Adam Savage, former co-host of the television show Myth Busters, tweeted out earlier this month with a message about the importance of wearing masks as a measure to held stop the spread of coronavirus. In response, an angry twitter user replied that they would be deleting all of their Myth Busters episodes off of their DVR, presumably because they disagreed with Savage’s message.
Now, twitter drama by itself is hardly newsworthy. And while conventional internet wisdom states that one ought not feed the trolls, Savage nevertheless responded in the following way:

“Delete away! I didn’t make those shows for you. I made them for curious people with functioning minds and empathetic hearts. Oh! And we did a whole episode on how a cold spreads. Guess you’ll never watch it now.”

Savage’s response is understandable (as well as being somewhat, well, savage). Most of us have likely encountered someone during the pandemic that just refuses to take the recommendations of scientific experts seriously, and no matter what we say it seems that they will not change their minds. Whether the person in the above tweets is one of those people, and is generally lacking in curiosity and/or empathy, probably can’t be determined by a single angry tweet. But there do seem to be people like that out there. We might refer to such people as lost causes: it seems that no matter what we do, we won’t be able to get through to them, and so it’s just not worth trying.
But there’s a problem with this kind of thinking. Consider the kind of audience that Savage says that he intends to reach: those who are curious, willing to be open to evidence and argument (this is how I am interpreting the qualification of having a “functioning mind”) and empathetic. While it is certainly worthwhile to attempt to teach these kinds of individuals about, say, the importance of wearing masks and the ways in which disease can spread, it also seems that this is the same kind of person who will tend to be convinced by recommendations from scientific experts in the first place. A worry is that we end up preaching to the choir. When it comes to trying to inform the public about the best kinds of practices with regards to limiting the spread of coronavirus, we might think that the kinds of individuals that we should be targeting are precisely those that are resistant to accepting the recommendations of the experts.
What, though, if these people really are lost causes? How can we try to change the mind of someone who is beyond reaching? And should we even try?
It does seems that when someone is truly a lost cause, when nothing at all can be done to help them, that our obligations towards that person end. Consider an example. You and I are walking along a river, and I fall in. Not being a strong swimmer, I nevertheless manage to grab onto a rock, which allows me to resist the pull of the current. In this situation, it seems that you are obligated to try to help me, in one way or anothermaybe you need to jump in after me, or find a branch or a rope for me to hold on to, etc. Now consider a scenario in which I have fallen in the river, but have been rapidly pulled downstream and am about to fall over a very high waterfall. You may still have some obligations towards me maybe you need to look for my body, or inform my family of my demisebut you don’t have the obligation to jump in after me. I am a lost cause: there’s nothing that can be done for me, and as such you’re not obligated to try.
While this is an extreme case, I think that we tend to conceive of other people as lost causes when it comes to their beliefs, as well. These are the kinds of people that we think just will not respond to any kind of reason or evidence, no matter what we say or do. If there’s nothing that will make a difference, if they are going to hold on to false or poorly-reasoned beliefs no matter what, then it seems that there is no point in trying to change their minds.
The worry, of course, is that those whom we might deem to be a lost cause when it comes to one’s beliefs about the pandemic are precisely those whose actions are potentially causing the most problems. For instance, many of those who are protesting lockdown orders and social distancing guidelines reject information from scientific experts about the dangers of the coronavirus, and often include many who reject other consensus scientific views, such as the safety of vaccines. What’s more, there is reason to think that these protesters may be spreading the virus, and that such protests could lead to an additional surge in cases in the US. While reading such stories, it may be tempting to deem such protesters to be beyond the reach of reason when it comes to their beliefs about the pandemic. Treating them as lost causes, though, does not help solve any problems, it merely ignores them.
We might also wonder whether anyone ever is truly a lost cause when it comes to irrational beliefs. While it may certainly be frustrating to try to engage with those who are obstinate in the face of plentiful scientific evidence, we should not take this necessarily as a sign that they cannot eventually be convinced to pay attention to said evidence. What we might take to be lost causes may just instead be very difficult ones.
Let’s return to our twitter drama. The response that one’s intended audience is only the subgroup of people who are open-minded and critical risks treating others as lost causes. And the right response to a lost cause may very well be to dismiss or ignore them, in extreme circumstances. But when there are potentially significant consequences in doing so, it is worthwhile to consider who may or may not be a lost cause, and what the best way to respond to them might be.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race; or, How Not To Confuse Efficiency with Expediting

photograph of blurred pedestrians crossing intersection

Efficiency is the credo of a capitalist society. To the average person, “efficient” has a connotation of speed: if something is not getting done imminently, they reason time must be getting wasted. As the capitalist credo, efficiency often seems elevated to the status of a moral value. That is, a thing done efficiently (again, reading as “quickly”) is a positive moral accomplishment.

This confusion—and it is a confusion—is on full display during the COVID-19 pandemic. The race to find successful treatments, and hopefully a vaccine, for COVID-19 have institutions rushing the usual procedures for research and development. Animal tests would usually precede human testing. However pharmaceutical research companies like Moderna have taken the step of running such trials simultaneously. While people living under the pall of this novel coronavirus want a vaccine quickly, many medical expertsincluding newly-minted celebrity Dr. Anthony Fauciurge researchers and policymakers to take the cautious route. These pleas, however, have largely fallen on deaf ears with the advent of initiatives like US President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed.

Nor is the desire for efficiency limited to the development of a vaccine. There is a general desire for the legal and political handling of the COVID-19 pandemic to be efficient. Those who are more cautious and who believe the general public health consensus about COVID-19 want efficiency in the articulation and administration of laws and executive orders. NY Governor Andrew Cuomo enjoys impressive job approval ratings, as do most other states’ governors. Some of the governors with the lowest approval ratings are in states who have moved to reopen more of their states’ non-essential business and to do so more quickly (e.g., Georgia’s Brian Kemp). This is likely because, on the whole, Americans are in favor of many lockdown and social distancing measures, worrying that ending these measures prematurely will negatively impact public health. While apparently more newsworthy, the vocal segment Americans who want the lockdown to end (and believe it never should have started in the first place) is a minority.

Enthusiasm for “efficient” executive authority is not universal and has met substantial legal challenges. The legislature of Wisconsin recently successfully sued to overturn that state’s Department of Health Services stay-at-home orders. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin ruled that the orders were unconstitutional and unenforceable. The court’s decision, which relied largely on a close distinction between a rule and an order as defined by the Wisconsin Constitution, was panned by Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers as creating a state of “total chaos.” Reactions of other Democratic officials throughout the state echoed Evers’ concerns that an efficient response to the COVID-19 emergency would be hamstrung by the courts’ decision.

This illustrates the crux of the matter. Supporters of broad executive authority in the face of COVID-19 take an efficient response to be one which is centralized and univocal. The executive, along with their advisors and adjutants, should be able to do what is necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19. The Wisconsin Supreme Court objected that, even in the face of a crisis, statutory limits on executive power must be observed. This objection is of a kind with those made by Dr. Fauci, among others, concerning expedited vaccine development. Just as the statutory limits of executive power cannot be ignored, neither can the ethical safeguards on clinical research.

What this shows is that what counts as efficient is relative to the goal in question. If all that we want is the development of a vaccine that confers immunity to this novel coronavirus, then some of the standard procedures are inefficient. That is, they require the consumption of resources not necessary to produce the desired effect. However, if what we want is a vaccine that confers immunity and also has a low occurrence of significantly harmful side effects, then it is inefficient to rush the job. Likewise if we simply want to stop the spread of coronavirus, we could empower a single person to create laws by proclamation and enforce those laws by force. That is in effect what declarations of emergency by a governor or president allow, within narrowly-defined limits.

Efficiency then cannot be morally good no matter where it shows up. In the terminology of Immanuel Kant, efficiency is not “good without qualification.” In order for something to be good without qualification, Kant argues, that thing must be good in all conditions and circumstances. He says, for example, that pleasure doesn’t pass this test. After all, a sadist takes pleasure from torturing unwilling victims. Using a similar example, it is easy to see that efficiency fails Kant’s test. A sadist who invents a rack across which he can break multiple victims at once, with the crank of a single handle, is surely being quite efficient. He is also doing something quite repugnant. Just as the ends don’t justify the means, the means do not automatically confer any positive moral value to the ends. In fact, efficiency seems to act simply like a multiplier: if an accomplishment is already good on its own merits, doing it efficiently is even better; but if an accomplishment is bad on its own merits, doing it efficiently is even worse.

We want society to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic as healthy and whole as possible. However the best ways to do that are likely not fast. Our medical, scientific, and political responses to this crisis cannot be swallowed up by their own sense of urgency. An efficient process is only as good as what it achieves. By casting away failsafes, we set ourselves up to aim unknowingly in the wrong direction.

The Quandary of Contact-Tracing Tech

image of iphone indicating nearby infections

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

All over the country, states are re-opening their economies. This is happening in defiance of recommendations from experts in infectious disease, which suggest that states only re-open after they have seen a fourteen-day decline in cases, have capacities to contact trace, have sufficient personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, and have sufficient testing capabilities to identify hotspots and deal with problems when they arise.

Experts do not insist that things need to be shut down until the virus disappears. Instead, we need to change our practices; we need to open only when it is safe to do so and we need to employ common sense practices like social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-washing and sanitizing when we take that step. The ability to identify people who either have or might have coronavirus and to contact those with whom they might have come into contact could play a significant role in this process. Instead of isolating everyone, we could isolate those we have good reason to believe may have become infected.

Different countries have approached this challenge differently. Many have made use of technology to track outbreaks of the virus. Without a doubt, these approaches involve balancing the value of public safety against concerns about personal privacy and undue governmental intrusion into the lives of private citizens.

Many in the West were surprised to hear that Shanghai Disney was scheduled to re-open, which it did on May 11th. Visitors to the park won’t have the Disney experience that they would have had last summer. First, unsurprisingly, Disney is restricting the number of people it will allow into the park at any one time to 24,000 people a day. This is down from its typical 80,000 daily guests. When guests arrive, they must have their temperatures taken, must use hand sanitizer, and must wear masks. Crucially, they must open an app on their phone at the gate that demonstrates to the attendant that their risk level is green.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, people in China have been required to participate in a system that they call the “Alipay Health Code.” To participate, people download an app on their phones which makes use of geolocation to track the whereabouts of everyone who has it. People are not required to have a COVID-19 test in order to comply with the demands of the app. Instead, the app tracks how close people have come to others who have confirmed cases of the virus. The app assigns a person a QR code depending on their risk level. People with a green designation are low risk and can travel through the country and can go to places like restaurants, shopping malls, and amusement parks with no restrictions. Those with a yellow designation must self-quarantine for nine days. If a person has a red designation, they must enter mandatory government quarantine.

At first glance, this app appears to be a reasonable way of finding balance between preventing the spread of disease on one hand, and opening up the economy and freeing people from isolation on the other. China isn’t simply accepting the inevitable—opening up the economy and disregarding its obligation to vulnerable populations. Instead, it is trying to maximize the well-being of society at large.

Things are more complicated than they might originally appear. First, the process is not transparent to citizens. The standards for reassignment from one color designation to another are not made public. Some people are stuck in mandatory government quarantine without knowing why they are there or how long they might expect to be detained.

There are also concerns about regional discrimination. It appears that a person can be designated a particular threat level simply because they are from or have recently visited a particular region. Citizens have no control over how this process is implemented, and the concern is that decision-making metrics might be discriminatory and might serve to reinforce oppressive social conditions that existed before COVID-19 was an issue. We know that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people living in poverty who are forced to work in unsafe conditions. This kind of tracking may make life for these populations even worse.

There are also significant concerns about the introduction of a heightened degree of governmental surveillance. Before COVID-19 hit, the Chinese government had already slowly begun to implement a social credit system that assigns points to people based on their social behaviors. These points then dictate the quality of services for which the people might be eligible. The Alipay Health Code increases governmental surveillance and encroachment. When people download the Alipay app, the program that is launched includes a command labeled “reportInfoAndLocationToPolice” that sends information about that person to a secure server. It is unclear for what purpose that information will be used in the future. It is also unclear how long it will be mandatory for people in China to have this app on their phones.

But China is not the only country that is using tracking technology to manage the spread of COVID-19. Other countries doing this include South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Austria, Poland, the U.K., and the United States. There are advantages and disadvantages to each system. Each system reflects a different balance of important societal values.

South Korea’s system keeps its residents informed of the movement of people who have tested positive for COVID-19. The government sends out texts informing people of places these individuals have been so that others who have also been to those places know whether they might be at risk. This information also lets people know which places might be hotspots so they know to avoid those places. All of this information is useful to prevent the spread of the virus. That said, there are serious challenges here too. Information about the location of individuals at particular times leads to speculation about their behaviors that might lead to discrimination and harassment. The information is anonymous in principle; COVID-19 patients are assigned numbers that are used in reports. In practice, however, it is often fairly easy to deduce who the people are.

Some countries, like the U.K., Singapore, and the United States have “opt-in” tracking programs. Participation in these programs is voluntary and there tend to be regional differences in what they do and how they operate. Singapore uses a system called “TraceTogether.” Users of the app turn on Bluetooth capabilities for their devices. Each device is associated with an anonymous code. Devices communicate with one another and store each other’s anonymous codes. Then, if a person has interacted with someone who later tests positive, they are informed that they are at risk. They can then take action; they may be tested or may self-quarantine. This system appears to have established a comfortable balance between competing interests.

One problem, however, is that its voluntary nature results in low participation numbers—only 1.5 of Singapore’s 5.7 million people are using the app. What follows from this is that a person has the peace of mind of knowing that if they have been in contact with another app user who contracts COVID-19, they’ll know about it. However, this kind of system doesn’t achieve that much-desired balance between concerns for public safety and concerns for a healthy functioning economy. If a person knows only about some, but not all, of the people they’ve encountered who have tested positive for COVID-19, they’re no safer out in the world as a consumer in a newly-opened economy. This app also does nothing to prevent the spread of the virus by asymptomatic people who may never feel the need to get tested because they feel fine.

There are other, less straightforward ways of collecting and using data about the spread of the virus. Government agencies are attaining geo-tracking information from corporations like Google and Facebook. Most users don’t pay much attention when an app asks if it can track the user’s location. People tend to provide a morally meaningless level of consent—they click “okay” without even glancing at terms and conditions. Corporations use this information for all sorts of purposes. For example, police agencies have accessed this information to help them solve crimes through a process of “digital dragnet.” Because these apps track people’s movements, they can help the government to see who was present at sites later identified as hotspots and can identify where people at those sites at the time in question went next. This can help governments direct their attention to where it might do the most good.

Again, in many ways, this seems like a good thing. We don’t want to waste valuable time searching for information where there isn’t any to be found. It’s best instead to find the clues and follow them. On the other hand, this method of attaining information highlights something troubling about trust and privacy in the United States. A Pew poll from November, 2019 suggests that citizens view themselves as having very little control over who is collecting data about them and very little knowledge about what data is being collected or the purposes for which it is being used. Even so, people tend to pay very little attention to the fact that they are being tracked. They simply accept the notion that, if they want to use an app, they have to accept the terms and conditions.

People concerned about personal liberties are front and center on the public stage right now as their protests make for attention-catching headlines. People are unlikely to want to be forced by the government to use a tracking app. Their fears are not entirely unfounded—China’s program seems to open the door for human rights violations and a troubling amount of governmental surveillance of private citizens. Ironically, though, these people give that same information without any fuss to corporations through the use of apps. This may be even worse. At least in principle, governments exist for the good of the people, while the raison d’être of corporations is to make a profit.

The case of tracking poses a genuine moral dilemma. There are very good public health reasons to use technology to track and control the spread of the virus. There are also very good reasons to be concerned about privacy and human rights violations. Around 3,000 people died in the tragic terrorist attacks that took place on September 11th, 2001. As a result, Congress passed The Patriot Act, which significantly limited privacy rights of the people. Its effect on the way respect for individual privacy changed at airports is also noteworthy. How much privacy should we be willing to give up in exchange for safety? If we were willing to give up privacy for safety in response to 911, how much more willing should we be to do so when the death count is so much higher?

The Small but Unsettling Voice of the Expert Skeptic

photograph of someone casting off face mask

Experts and politicians worldwide have come to grips with the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even Donald Trump, once skeptical that COVID-19 would affect the US in a significant way, now admits that the virus will likely take many more thousands of lives.

Despite this agreement, some are still not convinced. Skeptics claim that deaths that are reported as being caused by COVID-19 are really deaths that would have happened anyway, thereby artificially inflating the death toll. They claim that the CDC is complicit, telling doctors to document a death as “COVID-related” even when they aren’t sure. They highlight failures of world leaders like the Director-General of the World Health Organization and political corruption in China. They claim that talk of hospitals being “war zones” is media hype, and they share videos of “peaceful” local hospitals from places that aren’t hot spots, like Louisville or Tallahassee. They point to elaborate conspiracies about the nefarious origins of the novel coronavirus.

What’s the aim of this strikingly implausible, multi-national conspiracy, according to these “COVID-truthers”? Billions of dollars for pharmaceutical companies and votes for tyrannical politicians who want to look like benevolent saviors.

Expert skeptics like COVID-truthers are concerning because they are more likely to put themselves, their families, and their communities at risk by not physical distancing or wearing masks. They are more likely to violate stay-at-home orders and press politicians to re-open commerce before it is safe. And they pass this faulty reasoning on to their children.

While expert skepticism is not new, it is unsettling because expert skepticism often has a kernel of truth. Experts regularly disagree, especially in high-impact domains like medicine. Some experts give advice outside their fields (what Nathan Ballantyne calls “epistemic trespassing”). Some experts have conflicts of interest that lead to research fraud. And some people—seemingly miraculously—defy expert prediction, for example, by surviving a life-threatening illness.

If all this is right, shouldn’t everyone be skeptical of experts?

In reality, most non-experts do okay deciding who is trustworthy and when. This is because we understand—at least in broad strokes—how expertise works. Experts disagree over some issues, but, in time, their judgments tend to converge. Some people do defy expert expectations, but these usually fall within the scope of uncertainty. For example, about 1 in 100,000 cancers go into spontaneous remission. Further, we can often tell who is in a good position to help us. In the case of lawyers, contractors, and accountants, we can find out their credentials, how long they’ve been practicing, and their specialties. We can even learn about their work from online reviews or friends who have used them.

Of course, in these cases, the stakes are usually low. If it turns out that we trusted the wrong person, we might be able to sue for damages or accept the consequences and try harder next time. But as our need for experts gets more complicated, figuring out who is trustworthy is harder. For instance, questions about COVID-19 are:

  • New (Experts struggle to get good information.)
  • Time-sensitive (We need answers more quickly than we have time to evaluate experts.)
  • Value-charged (Our interests in the information biases who we trust.)
  • Politicized (Information is emotionally charged or distorted, and there are more epistemic trespassers.)

Where does this leave those of us who aren’t infectious disease experts? Should we shrug our shoulders with the COVID-truthers and start looking for ulterior motives?

Not obviously. Here are four strategies to help distill reality from fantasy.

  1. Keep in mind what experts should (and should not) be able to do.

Experts spend years studying a topic, but they cannot see the future. They should be able explain a problem and suggest ways of solving it. But models that predict the future are educated guesses. In the case of infectious diseases, those guesses depend on assumptions about how people act. If people act differently, the guesses will be inaccurate. But that’s how models work.

  1. Look for consensus, but be realistic.

When experts agree on something, that’s usually a sign they’re all thinking about the evidence the same way. But when they face a new problem, their evidence will change continually, and experts will have little time to make sense of it. In the case of COVID-19, there’s wide consensus about the virus that causes it and how it spreads. There is little consensus on why it hurts some people more than others and whether a vaccine is the right solution. But just because there isn’t consensus doesn’t mean there are ulterior motives.

  1. Look for “meta-expert consensus.”

When experts agree, it is sometimes because they need to look like they agree, whether due to worries about public opinion or because they want to convince politicians to act. These are not good reasons to trust experts. But on any complex issue, there’s more than one kind of expert. And not all experts have conflicts of interest. In the case of COVID-19, independent epidemiologists, infectious disease doctors, and public health experts agree that SARS-CoV-2 is a new, dangerous, contagious threat and that social distancing the main weapon against that threat. That kind of “meta-expert consensus” is a good check on expertise and good news for novices when deciding what to believe.

  1. Don’t double-down.

When experts get new evidence, they update their beliefs, even if they were wrong. They don’t force that evidence to fit old beliefs. When prediction models for COVID-related deaths did not bear out, experts updated their predictions. They recognized that predictions can be confounded by many variables, and they used the new evidence to update their models. This is good advice for novices, too.

These strategies are not fool proof. The world is messy, experts are fallible, and we won’t always trust the right people. But while expert skepticism is grounded in real limitations of expertise, we don’t have to join the ranks the COVID-truthers. With hard work and a little caution, we can make responsible choices about who we trust.

The Remote of Morty and the Ring of Gyges

photograph of several rick and morty action figures

The latest episode of sci-fi comedy Rick and Morty presented a variation on an idea previously seen in Groundhog Day among other stories. In it, Rick invents for Morty a remote that allows him to “save” his life at a certain point, try out different experiences and “load” the save to return back to the save point with no consequences. In this piece, I hope to explore what it means for consequences to matter morally and whether we should be thinking in terms of ultimate consequences at all. Before that, however, let us explore further how exactly this remote works.

The remote is meant to mimic the way many video games work, where one is able to save and return to the save point if one fails or dies, i.e. they allow one to “load” saves. In a video game, a “save state,” is a file that contains information about the save point and amounts to a record of the values of different variables changeable by participation in the game. It is conceivable that one could record the “save state” of the actual universe since the state of the universe is determined by the variable excitations of certain “fields,” like the electromagnetic field or the Higgs-induced mass field, as well as by the distribution of those excitations in the fabric of spacetime. While practically impossible, it is imaginable that someone could record the values of all of these and so be able to generate a save state of the universe at a given time. Indeed, if the simulation argument is true, something like this would be the case.

So, suppose you, mortal and small as you are, possessed a remote that allowed you to contact the Simulators and signal to them to load a previous save state (excepting, presumably, the state of your mind, as otherwise you would not remember your experiences between saving and reloading, rendering the remote useless). The moral dimension of this scenario comes with this question: would you continue to act in accordance with virtue if you knew your actions had “no consequences” beyond how they affected your mind? If you would, why? People are already comfortable with what they call “victimless” crimes. Doing wrong before reloading might be the ultimate victimless crime.

The reader of Plato cannot help but be reminded of the story of the Ring of Gyges by this scenario. In The Republic, Plato presents, through the character Glaucon, the story of a man who finds a ring, the so-called “Ring of Gyges” which allows the wearer to become invisible. With the power of the ring, the man, a shepherd, rapes the queen of the land and kills the king, taking his place (in fact this man is supposed to be the ancestor of Gyges, a historical king of Lydia). Glaucon then asks Socrates to imagine two such rings, one placed on a just man, another on an unjust man and to consider whether their actions would differ. Glaucon indicates that not only would they almost certainly act the same, but if the just man refrained from unjust actions he would actually be foolish for doing so while the man who acts unjustly would be happier.

One response to Glaucon’s argument is that the unjust man would not be happy because people generally feel empathetic pain when they hurt others, and feel guilt afterward for acting unjustly. This pain and guilt would mean the just man would end up happier, though he would lack the material comforts the unjust man might obtain. However, this response is not as helpful with the remote scenario, at least at first glance.

Consider the person who gleefully begins to use the remote and does all sorts of horrible things to people, just for fun or out of curiosity. Why would they feel guilt? Upon reloading a save, none of those people they hurt would feel hurt or even remember the experience. In some sense, those minds—the ones that experienced the harm induced by the remote user—do not exist. So the user might feel empathetic pain while they commit atrocities, or before they reload the save, but afterward it is not obvious these feelings would remain.

So suppose the ancestor of Gyges found this remote—instead of the ring—and did as he did, raping the queen, killing the king, and taking over rulership of the land. Our intuition is that those actions are wrong. But, once the shepherd reloads his save and becomes a shepherd once again, do those actions remain wrong? In other words, suppose the shepherd told his friend about what he had done and the friend believed him. Would the friend judge the shepherd as a bad person?

Most of us likely believe that something immoral is taking place, but it will prove particularly difficult to justify this intuition. A natural response to this question, for example, is to say “Of course! Anyone who is capable of something so horrible must be a bad person.” However, as we have learned from the Holocaust, ordinary people can tolerate or aid in horrible actions. Some of those who Americans often consider moral exemplars, the Founding Fathers, owned slaves. While those who perpetrated these harms did actually do something wrong, it seems fair to say that we are not so different from them that we would be incapable of acting likewise, in the right (or rather “wrong”) circumstances. We are all capable of great evil, it seems, but we rarely judge each other merely on the basis of what we think others are capable of. We judge each other for actual harms we perpetrate. On some definition of “actual,” those who are harmed by someone who uses the remote before they reload a save are not really “actual.”

“But,” you may retort, “while you’re right we don’t judge people for merely being capable of horrible actions, we do judge them for ‘following through’ so-to-speak. Isn’t committing the action, even if it gets undone by reloading, still morally blameworthy?” And you might be right. But we also usually require that someone know what they are doing to be horrible. A person with an intellectual disability who assaults someone in anger is not usually thought responsible for their actions in the same way someone capable of understanding the harms of their actions would be. Supposing that the shepherd sees nothing wrong with his actions, given that they have no permanent consequences, he does not seem to be doing wrong knowingly. He might recognize that, in other circumstances, his actions would be wrong. A soldier does not knowingly murder as does the serial killer since the soldier thinks there is a justification for his actions while the serial killer does not. Likewise the shepherd thinks under these circumstances there is no permanent harm wrought, and so he believes that he does no wrong.

The critical flaw with the shepherd seems to be his obsession with consequences as the only morally relevant criteria. More specifically, there is a problem with his only judging actions by their ultimate consequences. Suppose the shepherd did as he did, with the rape and the murder, and never reloaded his save. In this case, the shepherd clearly does wrong and the existence of the remote is irrelevant; it is as though it never existed. But in any of the cases where he does reload the save, any actions he takes to hurt other people (if they are indeed wrong) will be wrong in spite of the fact that his victims will not remember experiencing this parallel reality harm. These actions will be wrong even if the people he wrongs never even exist after he reloads the save—say, if those people were born, lived, and died all between the time he saved and the time he reloaded.

Ultimately, if our current understanding of physics is correct, the stars will all be swallowed by black holes, those black holes will eventually evaporate, and the whole universe will be a homogeneous soup of photons. No matter what course of action we take, this will be the result. It is a natural consequence of the second law of thermodynamics: entropy must always increase. Not only are our lives temporary due to death, but the consequences of our lives, of all the lives of all people who will ever live are temporary, ending in this same final result. In a sense, we are in a similar position to all those who make up the shepherd’s alternate reality; we will all eventually be erased.

And, yet, we cannot help but believe our actions are meaningful and it matters that people act in accordance with virtue—even in these outlandish remote-user scenarios. That we are temporary does not mean that harms perpetrated against us are insignificant. But, if this is true, then the suffering of the child who grew up without her father, who really herself “never existed,” at least in terms of having any impact on our final reality, really matters too. The alternative is the denial that any of our actions have moral significance given that the fate of the universe is the same regardless.

This remote is fantastical, but, like the Ring of Gyges, it provokes responses that make clear some really foundational moral principles. The story of the Ring of Gyges solidifies our belief that one ought to do right not because the law forces you to do so, but because you simply ought to do right. Various explanations for this conviction have been given. One common explanation is that doing wrong harms the doer. In a similar vein, German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that harming animals was not wrong but still said that people should not do it since, by becoming comfortable harming animals, people might become more comfortable hurting humans. But, if you’re skeptical of these sorts of arguments (perhaps because they seem too doer-centric) and still think harming people while using the remote is wrong, then we are left to conclude that what is right or wrong is not so in virtue of ultimate consequences, but because doing right or wrong benefits or harms conscious people, whether they exist for a day or a lifetime, whether the actions they take impact humanity for millennia or not at all.

COVID-19 to Climate Change: Who Can Act?

photograph of national flags flying at UN

Many parts of the world have been isolating for months. These measures have caused a drastic reduction in the processes that represent individual’s impacts on the environment, including gasoline consumption related to commutes and transportation to visit loved ones and eating out. Airlines and cruise ships have not been able to make port calls in the US and have largely cancelled vacations for months. The unprecedented human isolation has led to a number of reports about how cities are “returning to nature,” running the gamut of dubious to reliable (no, dolphins weren’t returning to the canals of Venice, but some penguins and goats hopefully had a fun time exploring their local cities free of humans noisily lugging ourselves about).

However, a number of expert trackers report that all of these different and dramatic behaviors on our part have made only a slight impact on the climate efforts that nations have been pushing for in the recent decades. If this were true, we could be dispirited – even with this much change in our behavior, perhaps there is no hope in fixing or altering our climate reality. Luckily, environmental ethics have been framing this question for decades with this very assumption in place.

There are two issues related to individual impact on climate change: empirical issues and normative ones.

The empirical question is whether individuals contribute to the current issues we are seeing affecting the environment? This question gets at the sort of behaviors that are making changes for flora, fauna, and climatic conditions on our planet. For instance, we see plastics in the ocean killing turtles and altering their habitat. We see the Great Pacific Garbage patch, making a huge impact on untold oceanic conditions. We see the deep sea fishing trawlers disturbing seabeds that make up habitats of a great number of creatures and disturb the water conditions that go on to impact many more.

When we look at these issues from the lens of individual behaviors, we think that to help the number of plastics in the ocean killing sea turtles, for instance, we should use sustainable straws; to help the Great Pacific Garbage patch, we should recycle and create less waste. To reduce the impact of deep-sea fishing, we should be mindful of our seafood consumption. The underlying assumption there is that individual behaviors contribute to the current conditions, and therefore altering them can make a difference to them. However, evidence is mounting that individuals will not resolve the climate issues we are facing. Individuals recycling and reducing plastic use will not make a sufficient dent in plastic pollution, for instance. According to Ted A. Warfield in “Eating Dead Animals,” the individual choice to refrain from consuming or purchasing meat will not make a significant difference in the damages of the meat industry.

These adjustments have largely been hypotheticalit’s hard to get masses of people to change their habits. Let’s turn to the current impact of isolationone of the most drastic mass adjustments to individual behaviors in this generation. Consider the amount that carbon emissions have actually dropped since isolation measures began in the US: they are down approximately 6% according to some sources, a feat that regulations and treaties have failed to accomplish. Significantly, this drop in emissions seems to be the result almost solely of individual behavior shifts. However, it is important to note that this drop is STILL lower than the goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement, and according to the UN we need to cut emissions by 7.6% every year to stand a chance of avoiding the catastrophic heating of our planet. As Guardian correspondent George Manbiot says, “The lockdown exposes the limits of individual action. Travelling less helps, but not enough. To make the necessary cuts we need structural change.”

The second, normative, issue related to the individual impact on climate change is the extent to which individuals are responsible or the ones at fault for the current issues we are seeing affecting the environment. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argues that it is not the responsibility of the individual to reduce the impact humans are having on climate change. Because climate change is a global challenge, groups that exist at the global level hold the responsibility for addressing it: governments. The way that governments can address climate change include enforcing regulations on corporations and industries that have high carbon emissions (airline and cruise companies), that create waste that harms biomes (chemical, paper, and paint manufacturing), and whose practices inhibit the healthy functioning of habitats (deep sea fishing, intensive animal farming).

When governments fail to address these global, shared problems, the responsibility for fixing them does not necessarily disseminate to individuals. Problems that exist that require more than individual efforts to solve, like repairing bridges and tunnels, and building roads, create group responsibilities. The fault for not addressing climate change is at the level of governments and members of international communities that are in a position to regulate the operation of corporations and industries that are causing damage to our collective resources.

Thus, the implication of the empirical issue is that the contribution of individual behaviors to mitigate or reverse climate change is minimal. The implication of the normative issue is that it is the responsibility of governments and international organizations to mitigate or reverse climate change. Hopefully, one of the results of this time of international crisis can be the realization that it is not just pandemics that require the development of international will and coordination in times of global need.

George Pell and Moral Abandonment

close-up photograph of catholic priests folded hands

Last week the Australian Attorney General released a previously redacted finding of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which handed down its final report to the Australian Parliament in December 2017.

The commission, announced by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2012 began public hearings in 2013. It was the largest royal commission in Australia’s history and the most thorough public inquiry into the scandal of child sexual abuse the world has witnessed. It handled over 40,000 phone calls, over 25,000 emails, heard 8,000 stories in private sessions, and made over 2,500 referrals to authorities including police.

Of the institutions examined in which child sexual abuse occurred and was hidden in Australia, the Catholic Church was the worst. Yet the Catholic Church had argued forcefully against a royal commission, as scandals about clergy sex abuse broke open around the world. The commission was finally called following an open letter from a detective chief inspector in New South Wales, Peter Fox:

“I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church.”

The impact of this behavior had been devastating. In the state of Victoria, police had already linked over forty suicides to sexual abuse by half a dozen brothers and priests.

Over the course of the commission a pattern emerged of known pedophile priests and brothers being moved from parish to parish, so that not only were they able to evade justice, but also were given many new opportunities to offend. An active cover-up by the Catholic Church was revealed demonstrating that the Church was vastly more concerned with protecting its reputation and its assets than protecting children or responding to victims’ needs.

The redacted section recently released pertain to the commission’s findings on the question of whether the (now) Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic, knowingly moved several notorious and prolific pedophile priests from parish to parish in the 1970’s and 80’s when he was a priest, advisor to the  Bishop and responsible for overseeing schools in the Archdiocese of Ballarat in the state of Victoria.

The reason for the original redaction was that Cardinal George Pell was himself under investigation for serious historical sexual assault allegations by a number of complainants. How that played out is a long story, which came to an end on April 7th when the charges against Pell were quashed on appeal by the Australian High Court, following 18 months served in prison for offenses for which a jury found him guilty and the Victorian High Court’s refusal to overturn an appeal.

Now that that has played out, we can find out the royal commission’s findings on Pell. And they are damning. Pell’s history on this issue is common knowledge within Australia; he is well known for denying, downplaying, and obfuscating victims efforts towards redress for a litany of horrific crimes against children. The commission found it implausible, if not impossible, that George Pell did not know about the offending, was deceived about it, and had little interest in it, all of which he told the commission during questioning.

Pell has at no time displayed one iota of humility. Instead he has tried all along to paint himself as the victim, by playing the role of the undeserving scapegoat for a Church under attack—with, it has to be said, a large dose of sanctimony: since his release, Pell has likened his time in prison to the suffering of Christ.

If you don’t believe Pell’s statements to the commission, which most people don’t (apart from a small but vociferous cohort of conservative backers, including a former Prime Minister)—and even, frankly, if you do believe him—the moral failing here is so profound that it is hard to know what moral register to talk about this finding in.

Certainly moving pedophile priests from location to location, enabling offenders to evade justice, and providing new opportunities to offend against hundreds of children is a human rights violation. But to say only this is not to say nearly enough about the particular moral character of the crime. That is, the language of rights is not a moral register capable of plumbing the depths of the moral terribleness of these violations. Imagine someone comforting an abuse victim by saying “I’m so sorry; it’s terrible that your rights have been violated.” Such a response is, in this context, a tone-deaf moral language.

What can it mean to find an ‘appropriate moral register’?

About George Pell some people want to know how this can happen in a Christian institution—particularly there, in the house of a religion in which care for the vulnerable and the moral notion of sin is supposedly so central. Other’s reject the premise of this line of question, pointing to certain hermetic aspects of the institutional Church which may have been contributing factors (in abuse and/or cover-up), to argue that the very point is the need for a secular morality (and law) to which religious ethics is answerable.

These are indeed difficult issues. But to labor the point that the commission’s finding is an egregious moral failure is to say what would go without saying.

And then moral philosophy has to do a further thing beyond trying to decide what is wrong, and why it is wrong; it has to try to comprehend, to grapple with, the depth and character of that wrong. Sometimes that can be done by evoking extra-moral concepts that can function in a moral light or, conversely, can illuminate the moral dimensions of something.

One such concept, used by Iris Murdoch in a kind of extra-moral way, is the concept (not wholly, but partially as a metaphor) of vision. In Murdoch’s philosophy vision is not so much what is seen, but how it is seen. Or, rather, what one sees—how one is able to comport oneself towards others, and be responsive to them “with justice and love.” This is related to her notion of moral attention. Attention is not a matter of what will be illuminated by finding out more accurate information. It involves ‘being present to’ what one sees in a way that implicates oneself in the activity of seeing and thereby implies an activity in oneself—where one is morally ‘at issue’ in the spirit in which one sees others. Attention is therefore a species of responsiveness.

The moral failure of Pell is his incapacity and unwillingness to see—not the abuse, (I believe, with the commission, that he did see that) but the failure to attend to and respond to the children who were, in a very real sense, at his mercy. Pell failed to see and respond to the horrors as horrors, and to see children in the care of the Church as human beings worthy of respect and dignity. (He failed, to put it in explicitly Christian terms, to see them in the light of God.)

In Pell, in others, in the Church, the lack of moral vision led to the neglect of human responsiveness.

I have no new contribution to make to the already vast quantities of ink spilled on why this failure occurred. But the children abandoned to these predators were simply rendered—by Pell and the Church—invisible. That kind of abandonment not only enabled the abuse but compounded its effects. As Jill Stauffer writes: “being abandoned by those who have the power to help produces a loneliness more profound than simple isolation.”

Redress is needed, but what could possibly constitute redress here?  A task of the commission was to “make findings and recommendations to better protect children against sexual abuse and alleviate the impact of abuse on children when it occurs.” The final report of the commission made its recommendations on a firm ‘never again’ policy, formed around putting in place whatever measures were needed to protect children. The primary goal of the recommendations was, and is, to redress systemic failures by making child safety paramount.

Obviously action and practical outcomes are needed urgently, and most-comers agree that changes to the opacity of the Church is needed.

But we won’t really, morally comprehend this failure (Pell’s, the Church’s) without also reflecting on the failure of moral vision, of moral attention—failure to attend and to respond—to the human dignity, or (after Rai Gaita) the individual preciousness of each person.

Conspiracy Theories and Emotions in the Time of Coronavirus

image of screen with social media app icons displayed

While it is not unusual in this day and age to come across a conspiracy theory on social media, the coronavirus pandemic seems to be producing far more than its fair share. Here are some recent examples of such theories that have been circulating:

Each theory is backed by its own kind of specious reasoning. Some, like the conspiracy theory that flu shots will result in positive coronavirus test results, are based on posts made by a discredited doctor; others, like the 5G conspiracy, appears to be a holdover from previous conspiracies about the installation of 3G cell towers, just in an updated form. For others, it is not clear whether the conspiracy theorists are motivated by political concerns (were the Dr. Fauci conspiracy true, for example, it would validate Trump’s recommendations) or something else.

Regardless, the spread of these and other conspiracy theories are not inert. For instance, those who believe in the 5G conspiracy theory have been setting 5G towers on fire in the UK. What’s more, the generation of such theories does not seem to be slowing down: in the time of writing these two paragraphs I have been notified of the existence of three conspiracy theories regarding a potential coronavirus vaccine: that the first volunteer in a UK vaccine trial has died (no, she hasn’t); that a vaccine already exists for dogs but is not being used for humans (no and no); and that a vaccine does in fact already exist, and was in fact developed as part of that UK vaccine trial I just mentioned (again, no).

While some of these theories at least purport to be based on scientific information, many just seem so far outside the realm of plausibility that it is difficult to imagine how anyone could believe them, let alone take them seriously enough to light a cellphone tower on fire. So what’s going on? Why are there so many conspiracy theories, and how is it that they’re actually getting some traction?

There are of course many potential explanations for how it is that such theories start and are spread. However, part of the explanation for why it is that coronavirus conspiracy theories in particular are so numerous could be that many people are feeling really stressed out. Consider some recent research that suggests that one’s willingness to accept fake news stories and conspiracy theories peddled online depends in part on how emotionally charged those stories are; in other words, stories that grab your attention with language that are likely to make you feel angry, sad, surprised, etc., are going to be ones that, on average, are shared among one’s friends and followers. You have probably come across this trick by producers of less-than-reputable web content before: when a headline tells you that “you won’t believe ___!” they are counting on your piqued curiosity driving you to their site. While often this is merely annoying, when it comes to fake news and conspiracy theories it can be much more dangerous.

Why it is that emotionally-charged stories are shared more is up for debate. One such theory, however, posits that being in an emotionally-charged state will make it more likely that you won’t be reasoning to the best of your abilities. For instance, I might tell you a sob-story to pull on your heartstrings in an attempt to get you to believe what I’m saying; or, I might present you with a salacious headline designed to make you angry, etc. Having put you in a certain emotional state might then result in you not critically engaging with the content of my message, which might then make it more likely that you’ll believe and/or share my story (after all, there’s no better way to express your anger than to talk about it on the internet).

Part of what might explain how the recent flurry of coronavirus-related conspiracy theories and fake news stories continue to be spread and believed, then, is that they manipulate people who are already feeling a lot of emotional strain. As many people are worried, stressed, and anxious for a multitude of pandemic-related reasons, it is perhaps not surprising that stories and theories that attempt to make one even more worried, or angry, or whatever else, should interfere with one’s ability to think as clearly as possible.

Given that these continue to be stressful times, we should probably not expect to see these conspiracy theories dwindling in numbers any time soon. At the same time, given the connection between emotional manipulation and the spread of fake news, we perhaps have another avenue by which to address the problem, namely via an increased attention on our own mental well-being. It has become a mainstay of pandemic advice that one should pay particular attention to one’s mental health, especially when one is feeling stressed and isolated. While this is good advice in general (and indeed, is good advice regardless of whether there is a pandemic or not) it may have the added benefit of reducing the spread of coronavirus-related fake news and conspiracy theories: managing one’s stress may help manage one’s ability to critically engage with information one receives online to the best of one’s ability.

Stories of Vulnerability: COVID-19 in Slaughterhouses

photograph of conveyor line at meat-packing plant

Cases of famous people who have contracted COVID-19 have made headlines. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive and later recovered. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wound up in intensive care. Many professional athletes have contracted the disease. More often than not, however, when we zoom in on coronavirus hotspots, we find that stories about vulnerability come into focus. Many of these stories go unheard unless they cause hardship or inconvenience for groups with more power.

One such case has to do with the production and slaughter of animals that people consume for food. Across the country, there are meat shortages caused by coronavirus. For example, nearly 1 in 5 Wendy’s restaurants has run out of beef, and at many locations other meat products such as pork and chicken are unavailable as well. Supermarkets are also facing shortages. The reason is that the conditions in slaughterhouses are particularly conducive to the spread of coronavirus. Hot spots are popping up at many such sites. 700 employees at a Tyson factory in Perry, Iowa tested positive. At a Tyson plant in Indiana, 900 employees tested positive. According to a CDC report, across 19 states there have been 4,913 cases of coronavirus among slaughterhouse employees. So far, there have been 20 deaths.

Slaughterhouses, also known as meat packing plants, are the next stop for most farm animals after their time in factory farms. When mammals like pigs and chickens arrive, they are put on conveyor belts, stunned, then killed. Their bodies are then sent to a series of “stations” where people carve them up for packaging and, later, consumption.

Work in a slaughterhouse is both physically and psychologically strenuous. Carving flesh and bone requires real effort, and many employees sweat profusely while doing it. The sheer volume of animals that need to be carved up to satisfy the American appetite for meat ensures that employees work together, standing shoulder to shoulder, in spaces that are often poorly ventilated.

This kind of work is not highly sought after for obvious reasons. It is unpleasant. As is so often the case in the United States, unpleasant work is done by those who struggle to find employment—often undocumented immigrants and people living in low-income communities. This complicates the problems with coronavirus spread in several ways. First, employees often do not speak English fluently, so conveying critical information about the virus is difficult. Second, it is common for members of these communities to live in large families or groups. Third, low-income communities are frequently places that are densely populated. All of these factors contribute to more rapid spread of the virus.

In response to the meat shortage, President Trump signed an executive order declaring that meat processing plants are critical infrastructure in the United States. There is disagreement among legal experts about what this means. Some argue that the president doesn’t have the authority to require that slaughterhouses remain open when their continued operation puts employees’ health in jeopardy. One interpretation is that the order simply exempts slaughterhouses from shutdown orders issued by governors. Despite the executive order, plenty of slaughterhouses have closed because they simply don’t have the healthy staff required to carry on.

Those who are supportive of the order are pleased that it provides support to companies that sell meat. Many Americans also approve because it appears that they can continue to put meat on their plates to feed their families and to satisfy their own gustatory preferences. Others approve of the order because they are concerned about the well-being of animal agriculture more broadly. Factory farms raise astonishing numbers of animals every year. The owners of these facilities are not breeding and raising them because they love animals and want thousands of pigs for pets. In these facilities, animals are treated as products to be bought and sold. During the pandemic, new animals are being born and there is no place to put them. The response, in many cases, has been to kill the older animals en masse. For example, Iowa politicians sent a letter to the Trump administration asking for assistance with the disposal of the 700,000 pigs that must now be euthanized each week across the country. The same problem exists for all species of farm animals. People are concerned that this might mean devastation for animal agriculture.

On the other side, many say “good riddance!” Animal agriculture is a cruel and inhumane industry. The pandemic has few silver linings, but one of them is that it brings injustices that might previously have been hidden into the public eye. Our system of animal agriculture could not exist without exploitation of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Slaughterhouses employ vulnerable workers in unsafe working conditions. Factory farms and slaughterhouses abuse and kill animals that cannot defend themselves. Maybe it is finally time for all of this cruelty and suffering to end. In his executive order, President Trump identified slaughterhouses as critical infrastructure. This means that such places are essential, necessary for the proper functioning of our communities. Since consuming the bodies of slaughtered animals is not necessary for human survival, this designation doesn’t seem appropriate.

What’s more, the conditions present in factory farms are exactly the kind that lead to the spread of zoonotic diseases. It appears that the coronavirus jumped from pangolin to human in a wet market in Wuhan. On other occasions, however, diseases spread in factory farms and slaughterhouses—diseases like the swine flu and mad cow disease. Other flus, like the avian flu, are believed to have originated in wet markets in China, but involved animals, chickens and ducks, that we regularly farm for food in the United States. One way that we can help to prevent the transmission and spread of zoonotic diseases is to stop consuming meat.

For those that love the taste of meat, there are alternatives. Beyond Meat and Impossible, plant based products that are engineered to strongly resemble meat in taste, texture, and appearance, are thriving in general, but are doing exceedingly well during the pandemic in particular. In vitro meat, a cellular cultured product that is produced by taking a biopsy of an animal, is a product that is produced in laboratory conditions rather than slaughterhouse conditions and is, therefore, likely to be much safer.

The pandemic shines a light on some of the ways in which our systems of food production exploit the vulnerable—both employees at risk for disease and the animals people put on their plates. Rather than issuing executive orders protecting this industry, perhaps it’s time to dismantle it altogether.

Novak Djokovic and the Expectations of Celebrity

photograph of Djokovic on stage at mic with trophy in front of packed stadium

Novak Djokovic created controversy amidst the coronavirus pandemic. While a vaccine for COVID-19 has yet to be developed, the world No. 1 of men’s tennis expressed resistance to possible compulsory vaccinations for professional tennis players when the tour resumes. “Personally I am opposed to vaccination and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel,” he said in a live Facebook chat.

Rafael Nadal, the world No. 2, waded into the debate and rebuked Djokovic’s apparent refusal to comply with the potential compulsory vaccination. “If the ATP or the International Tennis Federation obligates us to take the vaccine to play tennis, then we will have to do it,” Nadal said. “It’s about following the rules, nothing more than that.”

Djokovic’s resistance to vaccinations is a manifestation of his both belief in natural healing and prioritization of personal liberty. That he would risk severe penalty or possible cessation of his career, prematurely interrupting one of the greatest runs in the history of men’s tennis—and all of the complimentary millions in prize money and endorsement deals—is telling of how seriously the world No. 1 holds this conviction. That an athlete of such esteem and renown would express this conviction at a turbulent time in the health of the world is nothing short of significant. His public stand against vaccinations for himself represents an ethical dilemma about celebrity morality. This dilemma is reflected in one of his comments: “I have expressed my views because I have the right to and I also feel responsible to highlight certain essential topics that are concerning the tennis world.”

Given his fame and stature, should Djokovic exercise caution in taking moral stands? Does greater fame demand greater responsibility from celebrities? Or should they enjoy the same freedom that normal civilians do to express publicly the views they hold privately?

There are at least three reasons to believe celebrities ought to be constrained by greater responsibility. Firstly, the internet is conducive to a rapid and unfettered spread of information. A comment, phenomenon, or craze can promulgate and take hold of the public psyche before there has been a chance to assess its virtue or utility. Writing for the Journal of Business Ethics, Chong Ju Choi and Ron Berger assert that the internet has allowed the influence of celebrities to extend far beyond their respective industries of work. Now, more than ever, celebrities can be heard and listened to.

Secondly, younger generations in particular are susceptible to the influence of celebrities. Choi and Berger observe that “the younger generation is experiencing a combination of consumer crazes and bandwagon effects.” During a global health emergency, this effect could be rather damaging and dangerous. Many young people were already dismissing the gravity of COVID-19, opting to proceed with their travel plans unabated rather than help to mitigate the virus’s spread. Seeing a world-renown athlete mull over refusing vaccination could help justify their behavior or motivate similar behavior. (However, it does not logically follow from a celebrity’s public expression of a stance that the celebrity’s fans will adopt that stance as their own.)

Relatedly, celebrity morality can confer credibility and cache upon movements that are thought to be dubious. Celebrities have supplanted traditional sources of moral guidance (such as religious figures). Their endorsement is a desirable commodity for any movement. In Novak Djokovic, the anti-vaxx movement has found a spokesperson. Djokovic arguably rivals all celebrity anti-vaxxers and vaccination-skeptics in terms of global fame.

Conversely, there are at least three reasons to believe that celebrities ought not to be constrained by greater responsibility. While the attention of a wide audience and the power of global influence might be a reason to constrain celebrity morality, it is also a reason for precisely the opposite. Those blessed with the megaphone of celebrity can prove to be an effective voice for good. Attention for issues oft-ignored and progress towards a morally righteous end can sometimes only be achieved by the intervention of someone who has many followers. University of Virginia religious studies professor John Portmann argues that celebrities are able to elevate the presence of particular issues, “making ethical and moral debates important” to a public that idolizes famous people.

Among other stars of their time, Sammy Davis, Jr., Nina Simone, and Marlon Brando are credited with increasing the visibility of and spurring on the civil rights movement in the U.S. Ricky Gervais has been lauded for the attention he has brought to animal welfare and his financial support of animal charities. Just recently, former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin commended legendary quarterback Tom Brady for signing his letter asking for the FBI and DoJ to investigate the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, calling the endorsement of such a figure “significant” for the cause of racial equality. The celebrity voice can be the necessary succor that pushes moral goals across the finish line, radically transforming society.

Secondly, if one could develop a comprehensive, incontrovertible, and universalizable standard by which the public moral stances of celebrities could be evaluated and deemed as either morally “Fit” or “Unfit” for public consumption, perhaps then there could be constraints on what positions they take publicly. While that is a ludicrous near-impossibility, backlash against particular stances, such as Djokovic’s, suggest that some critics think there is such a standard. Indeed, celebrity interventions on moral issues tend to draw alarm only if they do not conform with the mainstream, however illusory that may be.

Lastly, fame does not strip celebrities of their membership in society. And as members of society, they ought to enjoy the same freedom to participate in the public debate on moral and ethical issues as those who do not possess their fame.

Since his initial comments, Djokovic has demonstrated an evolution of thought on the matter. In a recent press release, he stated: “I am keeping an open mind, and I’ll continue to research this topic because it is important and it will affect all of us.” This attitude may serve as a useful reminder for the general public, too. The celebrity voice might be simply one thing to consider while researching amidst the cacophony of moral proclamations.

Regardless of the view on expectations for celebrity morality, one thing is true: fame does not endow celebrities with moral authority. Perhaps it is best for the fans to remember that.

Figleaves, Bothsidesing, and the Ethics of Implication

cartoon image of group of confused people

This is an article about the Plandemic video that made waves online at the beginning of May, but, before I can say what I mean to say about it (and how people have interacted with it online), we need to talk about a little philosophy of language.

Imagine that we’re walking down the street one evening when we pass by a panhandler asking for change. After another few minutes, I say, “Did you see that fellow on the corner back there? Do you think anyone would notice if he went…missing?” Hopefully, you’d be both surprised and troubled to discover that such thoughts were on my mind. Moreover, those concerns would not be dispelled if I continued by saying, “What? I’m not saying that we should kill anyone! I was only asking questions! What’s the big deal with that?”

When thinking about how people communicate their ideas to each other, philosophers of language often make a principled distinction between the semantics and the pragmatics of a sentence. The former (which is sometimes called the sentence’s “propositional content”) is simply a matter of how the words in a sentence are defined and what they mean when combined together, while the latter is determined by how a speaker in a given context intends that sentence to be understood by an audience. Put differently, the semantic content of a sentence is “what is said” by a speaker, while the sentence’s pragmatics are a matter of “what is meant” by the speaker.

Often, a sentence’s semantic and pragmatic meanings are the same thing: when I tell  you “Many apples are red,” I mean to communicate simply that many of the pieces of fruit we both know to be apples are colored red. So, of course, the more interesting cases are when these two things come apart: let’s say that you ask me whether or not I’m planning to attend a party that our mutual friend is hosting and I reply with the sentence “I have to work that night.” Technically, the semantics of my reply only mean “I am expected to work a shift at my job on that night,” but, in context, I am still clearly answering your question—even though I didn’t say “No, I can’t go to the party,” that is what I meant, nevertheless.

In his essay “Logic and Conversation,” H.P. Grice used the term ‘implicature’ to describe this curious (and common) feature of how we communicate. In unpacking several different kinds of implicatures, Grice pointed out that they can take many forms. Imagine that you’re hiring someone for a job and receive a reference letter that simply says “Mr. X’s command of English is excellent, and his attendance at tutorials has been regular. Yours, etc.” Even though this letter says only positive things about the applicant, it still clearly means that the letter-writer does not think that Mr. X should get the job (or else the reference letter would be far more substantial and informative). We can even mean things without actually saying anything at all, as when a regular patron in a shop wordlessly places their usual amount of money on the counter and waits for the familiar shopkeeper to hand them their usual purchase.

And implicatures can certainly take the form of questions, too. Imagine I’m walking towards the kitchen and you ask me “Do we have beer in the fridge?” If I simply answer “Yes,” I will have responded fairly to the semantics of your question, even while likely ignoring the pragmatic reasons that you had for asking it (namely: you would like me to bring you a bottle). Or think about someone asking you “Are you really planning on wearing that outfit tonight?”—although the question alone might seem to seek a yes/no answer, it also implicates that the questioner already has a strong opinion about your outfit.

So, a question like “Do you think anyone would notice if that person went missing?” might, on the semantic level, be relatively boring—it’s just a question about the number of people who might notice if the panhandler was no longer around. But, depending on what I mean by asking it (that is, what my pragmatic intentions are), this question could cover a wide range of other interpretations, many of which could be terrible. Notably, my saying “I’m just asking questions!” does nothing to negate the operation of this sort of implicature – what I’m saying is just a question, but what I mean by the question is what really matters.

It’s true that Gricean implicatures are “cancellable,” by which Grice meant that we can clarify what we mean by what we say in a way that explicitly clarifies what we’re trying to communicate. Consider if my initial question about the panhandler instead went like this: “This might sound odd, but do you think anyone would notice if that panhandler went missing? I’m not saying that they should go missing! I’m just wondering if people would care.” Such a construction doesn’t seem problematic at all – the potentially concerning implicature (which could suggest that I was thinking of myself causing him to go missing) was cancelled by me making my meaning explicit.

Simply saying “it’s just a question,” however, is insufficient to actually cancel the implicature; instead, such a phrase functions like what Jennifer Saul has called a “figleaf” by merely “providing a bit of cover for something that is unacceptable to display in public.” Figleaves are like a conversational distraction that purport to shield a speaker from responsibility for what they say: Saul offers the example of someone saying “I’m not racist, but…” before going on to express something racist—the “I’m not racist” figleaf might make it seem (to some) like the speaker has done nothing blameworthy without actually excusing or addressing the problem of the subsequent racist expression. In a similar way, saying “It’s just a question” might make it seem like a question’s implicature is being cancelled without genuinely clarifying or correcting what the speaker really means.

And the ethics of this kind of speech can be important to consider. At their core, manipulative conversational moves like gaslighting and sealioning can both be fueled by seemingly-innocent questions that mask exploitative (or otherwise immoral) implicatures. Imagine an abusive boyfriend trying to twist his girlfriend’s emotions by perpetually questioning her memories and perceptions: not only is this boyfriend doing something wrong, but it is likewise wrong to pretend like he is innocent simply because he’s “just asking questions.” Furthermore, reckless usage of this kind of figleaf can easily contribute to manifestations of the Dunning-Kruger effect (where someone incorrectly believes themselves to be more knowledgeable about a topic than they actually are): if experts agree that a certain course of action is best, my self-confidence to criticize their consensus by asking probing questions suggests that I consider myself equally informed on the matter. So, even in conversations where the main victim is the truth of the matter, we have reasons to be suspicious that a figleaf like “I’m just asking questions” sufficiently covers one’s epistemic obligations to be clear.

In the case of the Plandemic video, the creators repeatedly question numerous elements of the nature, origin, and significance of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the motivations of figures like Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. Repeatedly throughout the 26-minute production, both the host and the interviewee cast doubt on the general consensus that the pandemic is both real and significant, often by asking questions that suggest nefarious (though unstated) answers. For example: towards the beginning of the video, the interviewer asks “How can a man [Fauci] who’s giving—any person who’s giving global advice for health own a patent in the solution of the vaccine?” While this certainly suggests that Fauci’s expert opinion has been corrupted by his financial interests, it does not explicitly say this, nor does the interviewer’s response (which simply names it a “conflict of interest”) fully capture the immorality implicated of Fauci by the question. Similarly to how the fallacy of the loaded (or “complex”) question can rhetorically force an interlocutor into a hopelessly bad-looking conversational position, Plandemic repeatedly deploys such tricks to suggest that competing sources of information are not to be trusted. Despite its idiosyncratic posture, Plandemic paints itself as though it is on an epistemic par with (or even superior to) the public position, simply by self-confidently presuming it has the evidential authority to ask the questions that it asks.

And when it comes to the online response to Plandemic, the same problem recurs. When someone defends their choice to share a link to the video on their social media feed by saying “I’m just asking questions,” this sort of figleaf hides their assumed belief that they have the background knowledge necessary to ensure that the questions being asked are relevant and fair. (Obviously, everyone has the political right to ask questions, but that is different from the epistemic right to do so, which requires an informed understanding of the matter up for debate.) Brute “bothsideism” is unhelpful enough for creating a respectful, functioning political system; it is even worse for people trying to understand what others actually mean to say.

The Problem and Potential of Provincialism

painting symbolizing Manifest Destiny

In most respects, the United States is isolated and protected from the problems of the world. While WWI and WWII devastated much of the world, the wars never made it to US soil. The geography and military capability of the United States made sure of that. And, afterward, US economic and political dominance only grew. The US dollar became the world’s reserve currency. Excepting natural disaster, the only structural damage that comes to the US comes at its own hand.

As such, Americans are exceptionally ignorant of world affairs. We may be better informed than the impoverished of many nations in the Global South, but this comparative advantage is easily explained by our increased access to information. Compared to the industrialized nations in Europe, the United States is greatly outperformed in knowledge of world affairs.

The vast majority of the time, Americans have no reason to think or care about the world. This fact is well-known enough to be a subject for jokes. In the very first episode of the YouTube series, Crash Course US History hosted by author and educator John Green, Green comments on his desktop globe, which has every land region painted over in green except the United States. This is tongue-in-cheek of course, but the joke only works because it has truth to it. Though the people of all countries put their domestic affairs ahead of international ones in most cases, Americans are unique in their utter disregard for problems that do not directly affect them. Here, we are safe. Here, we are free.

But in recent times, we have experienced an exception to the rule. Viruses do not much respect borders and tend to ignore the customs agents. So, the global problem of COVID-19 has seeped into even the smallest, most rural towns in the country. In this rare case, the global problem—as John Green would say, the problem of “the green parts of Not-America”—has become a domestic issue. And so, unlike most every problem of Not-America, COVID-19 is getting tons of mainstream news coverage and many Americans are paying attention to what is happening in Italy, in Korea, in China, and elsewhere, if only to get ahead of their own domestic experience of the virus.

The term for this sort of behavior, common to Americans, is “provincialism,” or, less kindly, “parochialism.” And, as I have presented it so far, associating it with terms like “ignorance” and “disregard,” I seem to be presenting it as a moral flaw of the American populace. But, the idea that this is a flaw is not so clear.

The United States government, like increasingly many governments nowadays, is a representative democracy. Because it is impractical for every citizen to vote on every issue, both for logistical reasons and because it is difficult to assure everyone has expertise on every issue, we elect representatives to decide on political solutions for us. And today, our representatives themselves tend to rely on still other people to guide them because the political issues of today, unlike in 1783, are so much more complex. It is quite unreasonable to expect even a representative to form an opinion on how to approach climate change, or the efficacy of different tax incentive structures, based on the raw data. In the United States, the Congressional Research Service provides detailed analysis for our representatives to use in making their decisions. If we have such a resource, why does every citizen really need to know what is happening in Myanmar, Monaco, or Malawi? So long as each of us acts in our self-interest, so long as we elect representatives who act in accordance with those interests, and so long as those representatives are informed by such reputable sources as the CRS, there seems to be no need for widespread citizen awareness of global affairs. Our province is all we need know.

In the ideal case, this argument obtains. But, reality—in all its stubbornness—rarely chooses to conform to our ideals. The problem of idealism failing when met with reality is well encapsulated in a famous quote from Roman poet Juvenal: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers? Representative democracy is already nonideal. In the truly ideal society, every citizen would have perfect knowledge, would be able to apply that knowledge to their self-interest, and would vote in accordance with that self-interest. Representative democracy is a compromise. And so is our representatives’ dependence on the CRS. As the knowledge of truth and falsehood becomes concentrated in the hands of the few, there is little room to question the government. For what do you know compared to your representatives, or they compared to the scholars of the CRS?

Thomas Jefferson recognized this problem long before our time. He wrote in a letter to George Wythe that “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowlege among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.” In his time, the people were to trust kings and priests and in light of the oppression that came along with that trust he wrote: “Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils” for “kings, priests and nobles. . . will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” Unfortunately, now we the people have been left in ignorance, by our own hands as well as by the news media who respond to our demand only for news of domestic affairs, unless of course, some bombs are being dropped in some exotic locale.

This is not only worse for us, but for all the people of the world. A focus on domestic affairs encourages Americans and their representatives to value their own interests above those of others, even to the point of taking actions to superficially benefit themselves when, as a whole, those actions hurt them as well as others.

The prototypical example of this can be found in the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, the United States government has attempted to hoard medical supplies, including N-95 rated masks, particularly by banning their export to other countries. While these bans were partially lifted later on, that they were ever instituted at all—and allowed to persist even in a limited capacity—is testament to our short-sighted self-interest. In a classic case of game theory brought to life, when these bans are instituted, other nations retaliate, and, on the whole, everyone is left worse off.

“But,” you might say, “you’re demanding the unreasonable and the impossible. How are we, a nation of people working so much, to stay up-to-date on global affairs? How are we, as a collective, to ignore our self-interest?” And you would be right to ask these questions. Thomas Jefferson was, for better or worse, fairly idealistic. Some people just don’t care. And we can’t make them care. The issue, then, is better presented as an either-or.

Either we find a way to approach the impossible, perhaps by way of expanded public education and incentivizing knowledge of global affairs, or we find a way to assure our representatives are tied to the truth, unable to act indifferently to it. There are good arguments for a limited sort of parochialism. In practice, market-based economic systems like those of most industrialized countries, do not rely on consumers having perfect knowledge, and yet they seem to work fairly well at efficiently allocating goods.

In a similar way, utilitarianism is often chided for demanding practitioners to consider how their actions could affect the whole of humanity for all time. Not only is it impossible to do so for our finite minds, but any attempt to do so can be paralyzing. There is a great deal of allure to leaders who take decisive action, even if they have not considered the problem they seek to solve at great length, seeking the perfect solution. In reality, decisions have to be made with some rapidity.

The solution to the problem of parochialism is unclear, and though in practice it provides great efficiency, its trade-off is increased uncertainty on the part of most people, and the potential for oppression by leaders whose knowledge greatly exceeds that of their citizens. As the aphorism goes, scientia potentia est. Knowledge is power. And since we also know “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” by the transitive property we can deduce, absolute knowledge corrupts absolutely.

COVID-19 has demonstrated some of these flaws, particularly with the more severe parochialism to which Americans are uniquely subject. But due to the rarity of such situations where the global affects the domestic in such an extraordinary way, it is questionable whether Americans will do much to abrogate their parochialism and whether, in fact, they should. Nonetheless, even if the pursuit of knowledge necessary for an ideal citizenry is unobtainable, the citizenry, ideally, will find it necessary to have knowledge of that pursuit. Only then will we know how to go forward, how much we ought to depend on the few holding our collective knowledge, how much we should seek to understand ourselves, and whether our seeking should include global affairs or only those of our own provinces.

Utilitarian Arguments During COVID: A Symptom, Not the Answer

photograph of crowded grocery store with customers wearing masks

As the consequences of the spread of COVID-19 and of the economic recession that it has caused become slightly more clear to us, President Trump has emphasized his belief that American citizens should think of themselves as warriors as he believes that the economy should re-open, noting, “I’m not saying that anything is perfect, and yes, will some people be affected, yes, will some people be affected badly-yes but we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.” The upshot of this thinking is apparently that some may need to sacrifice their lives for the sake of economic recovery. Indeed, this has led many to begin analyzing this dilemma as a utilitarian one. Peter Singer has posed the issue this way, as have others urging for a re-opening. But is this really a helpful way to understand the problem being faced?

After all, even if restrictions were lifted today polls have shown that most Americans do not believe it is safe. If people are reluctant to return to work and reluctant to engage in economic activity, the economy will suffer anyways in addition to many more people dying. The choice is not between economic suffering or more death; that will happen no matter what. The choice is between how much economic suffering we can hope to mitigate and how much death we can hope to mitigate. We then have to face the “big” philosophical questions like how much a human life is worth? But consider a different moral dilemma: If an airline’s negligent policies led to a plane crash where there was no food and no hope of rescue, survivors may be faced with the prospect of eating those who died in the crash in order to remain alive. What should the public take away from an accident like this? Should it be investigating what policies need to be in place to prevent future crashes and to ensure that if one does occur that there are rations for survivors, or should the upshot of such an ethical dilemma be that there is a utilitarian argument for eating Steve? How should we define the problem?

According to American philosopher John Dewey, one of the defining characteristics of the scientific revolution is when we stopped taking observed phenomena as the final or conclusive by itself, and started to see them as problems to be experimentally investigated in terms of the means required to produce them and the effects that they produce. If we perceive a stick that bends as it is placed in water, we do not claim to know that the stick bends in water; the perception creates a problem for investigation in terms of how optics allows for such a perception. It is this intelligent investigation into the relationship between means and ends that allow us to control and regulate our experiences. Applying this lesson to ethics, Dewey notes in Experience and Nature that when we take what we value to be a problem, “it implies intelligent inquiry into the conditions and consequences of a value-object.” What does this tell us about how to define moral problems?

The present situation may lead us to believe that we are facing an ethical problem with two conflicting aims: do we re-open the economy in order to help reduce long-term suffering or do we keep lock-down regulations in place to prevent more deaths? The question has been posed by even the likes of Anthony Fauci who asked this week, “How many deaths and how much suffering are you willing to accept to get back to what you want to be some form of normality sooner rather than later?” As noted, either way there will be suffering and pain and we can try to figure out ways to mitigate that suffering, but perhaps the lesson to be learned is not how to choose between these conflicting aims, but how to prevent those aims from conflicting in the first place. The dilemma being faced between economic suffering on the one hand, and death on the other is not the definition of the ethical problem, but a symptom of it. When we examine the conditions that lead to this conflict and the consequences that follow from it, the moral conclusion to reach is determining what steps are necessary to prevent a conflict between keeping people alive and preventing economic disaster in crises like these.

It is no secret that one of the factors which exacerbates the dilemma between economic health and public health is the rise in economic desperation. Unemployment rates are hitting levels associated with the Great Depression. Food banks are being overwhelmed. 20% of Americans were unable to pay rent for May. It is no wonder that a growing number is desperate to return to work and this urgent need only makes the problem worse. But even before this year roughly 40 million people depended on food banks. Millions lived paycheck-to-paycheck and 30% of adults had no emergency savings. There are plenty of ways of measuring a successful economy, but had there been greater efforts to secure the economic stability of average citizens, the crisis they are facing would not have been as bad.

Government policies to help citizens facing an economic crunch is one way to help mitigate the problem. However, for most Americans a single $1200 check is insufficient. In Canada, the government response has been more comprehensive: the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is providing $500 a week for 16 weeks. The government is also subsidizing wages to ensure that employees can retain their jobs. Efforts like this are a help in removing some of the urgency of re-opening compared to the situation in the United States, but such policies cannot be maintained forever. One of the lessons that perhaps should be learned is to focus less on isolated figures like GDP growth or unemployment rates, and more on ensuring individual economic security against threats to economic activity (this includes a potential second-wave, a future virus, armed conflict, or even climate change).

On the public health side of the dilemma there are also lessons that could be learned. In January, most public figures in North America were still downplaying the threat of the coronavirus. As a result, travel continued unabated, medical equipment was not stockpiled, and the public was not given a heads up about what was coming. As Fauci has admitted, the slow response did cost lives. Had governments and other institutions responded faster, the crisis would not be what it is now. The hard-moral work moving forward is going to be figuring out the conditions that were in place that allowed the problem to become worse. For example, the Trump Administration has no bio-ethics committee (something presidents have had going back to the 1970s). Such a board can help policy makers understand the potentially relevant ethical issues relating to preparation for a public health crisis. Improving methods of handling similar health crises may help prevent them from becoming serious threats to the economy.

The moral imperative for the public is not to go out and consume, but to make sure that that policy makers have plans in place to prevent the next crisis from becoming as bad. Much of this does not help the current dilemma, but that is sort of the point. Allowing the problem to get this bad means that options become limited, time becomes limited, and it makes the public more likely to panic and make rash decisions. Looking to utilitarian ethics in this situation is like relying on a rope made of bedsheets to escape a 10-story apartment fire; it may be a valid option (or not), but ultimately the wise thing is to make sure that future apartments have an adequate sprinkler system so that we do not need bedsheet solutions.

The Question of Genocide in Australian History

black and white photograph of aboriginal dwelling

In 1948, Australia was one of the first countries to sign the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In 1998, three Indigenous activists attempted to bring a case against the country’s then Prime Minister John Howard and several other prominent politicians. The letter they dispatched to all Members of Parliament and Senators, as well as foreign diplomats and the UN read, in part:

“The Commonwealth of Australia is responsible for past, present and continuing genocide; attempt to commit genocide and complicity in genocide against the original peoples of the land claimed by the commonwealth of Australia to be under its sovereign administration.”

In 1949, the Genocide Convention Bill, written to approve Australia’s ratification of the UN Convention on Genocide received bipartisan support in Parliament. But in the intervening years, despite being an enthusiastic signatory, Australia had not enacted it’s articles into law, and, though there were other findings against the appellants in the case against Howard et al, there was no corresponding law in Australia that dealt with the specific crime of genocide to be prosecuted in the first place. This legal situation has not been sufficiently remedied.

Meanwhile the national conversation about genocide; in Australian colonial history, in modern governmental policies and its remnants in current systems, is fraught.

Genocide is a profoundly confronting, disturbing subject; most people have very strong views about genocide and rightly associate it with events like the Nazi holocaust, Pol Pot’s campaign of slaughter in Cambodia, or the horrors of Rwanda.

While many are deeply disturbed by the suggestion that genocide could be invoked to characterize the Australian colonial history/experience of Australia’s First Nations, and many reject and repudiate the claim, others believe that the strongest moral and criminal terms are indeed warranted to condemn aspects of Australian colonization. And many have argued that there are at least three or four distinct, intended attempts or instances of genocide in historical and modern Australia.

The term ‘genocide’ was adopted after WWII as a way of comprehending in moral terms and prosecuting in legal terms the crimes of the Nazis against the Jewish people across Europe.

In the present UN Convention, genocide is defined as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Hannah Arendt, following her coverage of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, defined genocide as ‘the desire that a certain distinct people disappear from the earth.’ Her definition tries to grapple with the moral terribleness of attempting to expunge an entire people from existence. Thus the concept of genocide is a unique moral category through which to apprehend the particular character of acts driven by the intention to destroy a people.

Genocide need not refer to the kinds of atrocities, or scale on which they occurred, of the Nazi Holocaust; there is much more to the concept than mass murder – the attempt to destroy a human group in whole or in part can take many forms.

When Australia supported the convention there was a notable, and seemingly unquestioned, absence of any second thoughts regarding colonial or modern Australian treatment of Aborigines. Indeed, forcible removal of Aboriginal children intensified in the twentieth century and was carried out until the 1970’s.

During the proceedings surrounding Australia’s adoption of the Genocide Convention Bill (to approve Australia’s ratification of the Convention) one Member of Parliament said, of Australia:

“That we detest all forms of genocide and desire to remove them arises from the fact that we are a moral people. The fact that we have a clean record allows us to take such an attitude regarding genocide.”

This seems, even given the prevailing views of Australian history, to have been an oddly blinkered view since Ralph Lemkin, the lawyer who first coined the term genocide to describe the Holocaust (just a few years before it was adopted by the UN), thought it had many historical precedents and he mentioned in particular the actions of the Tasmanian colonial government of the 1820s and 30s which resulted in the virtual extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines during that period of colonial expansionism.

During the frontier wars of the early years in all areas of colonial settlement and expansion through the continent of Australia First Nations people resisted and fought back against the British; but as those wars escalated in the 1800’s there were many instances of mass killings of Aborigines by white settlers.

In official literature and settler records (letters, diaries and the like) there are numerous characterizations of the colonial relation with the indigene as one of extermination. Some accounts endorse this and some find it regrettable. Massacres continued into the early twentieth century, after which a policy of forcible removal of children from Aboriginal parents into missions or non-Aboriginal households continued in various forms until into the 1970’s.

As per the UN Convention, genocide means “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such…” The inclusion of “intent” has been a major, and contentious, issue in how genocide is defined, and how it is identified as such.

Intent is problematic, of course, because it can be hard to prove – but also it is problematic in case there is thought to be a disparity between the intention (of the state, or significant actors) to bring about an outcome and the failure to prevent it or cease activities that result in it. Thus genocidal intent can be particularly difficult to isolate in some situations of war, and in the context of colonization.

Thinking about the effects of colonization on Australian Aborigines (and on Indigenous people the world over) raises the question of whether colonization itself is a genocidal project, and how the inclusion of ‘intent’ in the conventional and legal definition can be located in that question; notwithstanding those specific episodes in both colonial and modern Australia that can be pointedly identified as candidates for the crime of genocide.

Scholars and activists, as mentioned above, have long considered the events in Tasmania to be a relatively clear case of genocide. Following a systematic campaign of dispossession and murder, in 1833 the remaining Tasmanian Aborigines were removed by the government to Flinders’ Island. Even as, in historical records, there are ample expressions of regret, gestures of paternalism, and attempts to “provide them every comfort,” this was understood at the time to be the terminus of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture. Flinders’ Island was essentially a place of death in whose confines the population declined so dramatically that demographic recovery was impossible.

On the fraught question of intention it is not altogether clear where its relationship to culpability stands. Does the intention have to be primary? Is it, for instance, to be considered genocide if the government of the day foresaw probable extinction of Aborigines as an effect of their policies yet carried on those policies unchanged? Is it genocide if, without (perhaps) the primary intention to destroy a human group, a government or other dominant social group carried out activities that hastened the extermination of the culture —  such as forcible dispossession of traditional and tribal lands, deprivation of resources depended upon for survival, massacre, incarceration, forcible re-education of children including loss of language and forced removal of children from Aboriginal families? Given this (incomplete) list of atrocities, it is really not a great stretch to identify the behavior of colonists and subsequent Australian governments as carrying out acts of genocide.

Lemkin argued that genocide is not just forced assimilation but a policy that by drastic methods “aimed at the rapid and complete disappearance of the cultural, moral and religious life of a group of human beings.” For Lemkin, genocide is present when a coordinated plan of actions is aimed at the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of an ethnic, cultural or national group. The conclusion that this applies at least to certain specific episodes in Australian colonial and modern history, if not the whole colonial project, seems inescapable.

The final article of the UN Convention on Genocide makes special mention of the practice of removing children. The case brought against the then Prime Minister in 1998 accused the Commonwealth of acts of genocide in the policy of forced removal of Aboriginal children from their Aboriginal families which took place in the decades from 1010 to 1970. The victims of this policy are now referred to as ‘the Stolen Generations.’

This policy was designed to isolate Aboriginal children from their families and their cultures, and to destroy their relation to land and extinguish their traditional languages. The disastrous effects of this policy on the communities, families, culture, and individual lives of Aboriginal people throughout the nation continues to cause deep cultural trauma and affect health and social outcomes for Aboriginal people. It remains a deep wound in the national psyche for the whole country.

That genocide can take different forms does not render mass murder of Jews in gas chambers equivalent, in one sense, with forced removal of children from their parents – these things are clearly not morally equivalent in every way; nevertheless both belong to the moral category of genocide, and both have what Australian philosopher Rai Gaita has called “the inexpungible moral dimensions” of genocide, whatever the forms it takes or actions that entail it.

Even in the absence of a specific law in Australia, which makes prosecution of cases of genocide virtually impossible, understanding the necessity of the concept of genocide as a category to name the particular moral terribleness of attempting to expunge an entire human group and their particular, unique instantiation of humanity, is essential. This is true even though thinking about Australian history through that moral lens is extremely painful. As it is not clear that Australia can heal these wounds.

Healing, in the sense of making it better, may not be possible, but we have to show up to the conversation prepared to hear and tell the truth about our history, with the courage to acknowledge the role of genocide in that history.

Is TikTok Good or Bad for Rap?

photograph of TikTok icon on ipod sitting on empty counter

TikTok has taken over the world by storm. In 2018, it became the most downloaded app on the IOS networks app store with 45.8 million downloads, passing up YouTube’s 35.8 million and Instagram’s 31 million. With around 800 million active users worldwide, the app has been the hub for the latest viral challenges, skits, and dances.

In the wake of TikTok’s popularity comes a very noticeable shift in the music industry, specifically for rap. Lately, rappers look for the success in the virality of their music through TikTok and have continued to engineer their music for the platform. This new wave of rap music coming up through TikTok begs the question if it’s a good thing for the genre or causing a regress.

The power of TikTok and what it could do for the modern day music artist first came apparent with Lil Nas X and his smash hit “Old Town Road.” The song saw a variety of remixes, was the source of endless memes, and maybe most importantly, it sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a record breaking 17 consecutive weeks.

Lil Nas’s success wouldn’t have been possible without TikTok though. Before, his song sat in the void with millions of others hoping for even the slightest exposure. But once it popped up on TikTok and people grew curious about the rap-country mashup playing in the background of other user’s videos, the song exploded from there. Since then, along with Lil Nas’s affirmation, TikTok emphasizes what the app can do for music creators.

With Lil Nas’s success in mind, how is TikTok regressing rap? After all, along with the accolades the app helped his song achieve, TikTok and Lil Nas X demonstrated how versatile rap can be when blended with other genres. It even shed some light on the LGBTQ community’s relationship with rap music when Lil Nas came out as queer.

Maybe the issue isn’t so much with “Old Town Road” than it is with the surge of music artists coming after Lil Nas, looking for their chance at virality and Billboard standing. Since then, countless rap artists and groups have strategized putting their music on TikTok for their chance at pushing their brand, so much so that there are tutorials on how to make music on TikTok go viral.

But in the midst of this scramble for virality, up-and-coming rappers who are already established, as well as seasoned rap veterans, have made their mark with their music on the app. For instance, the rapper/singer Doja Cat’s song “Say So” entered Billboard’s Hot 100 at number 96 after trending on TikTok. Even the living rap legend Drake has gotten in on the app when his 2018 hit “Nonstop” gave rise to the “Flip the Switch Challenge,” where people stand in front of a mirror and change clothes after turning off a light. The challenge received more than half a billion views.

Now, in the midst of the world in quarantine due to COVID-19, Drake released his latest single “Toosie Slide,” a track with lyrics turned instructions for a simple dance that Drizzy seemingly made up on the fly. Like the dance, the song itself isn’t groundbreaking. Yet it reached number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Why? Besides the fact that he’s simply Drake, the Toronto rapper has been doing for years what rap artists looking for virality on TikTok have just started to do—using social media creatively to push music. The majority of people listening to “Toosie Slide” don’t have it on their playlist to study or travel. Whenever the song is playing, the person who turned it on is filming themselves or someone else to post online to go along with the latest trend.

So, yes, tapping in to social media to push music isn’t anything new. But while Drake has always bided his time and made calculated moves with marketing his music, it’s as if rappers looking for TikTok to make their music viral are throwing what they have at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Maybe this is the core of the issue with TikTok and a negative impact on rap. The genre is over saturated to begin with. But now, with the advent of TikTok and its formulaic nature, anyone who’s read a Dr. Seuss book and knows how to use Garage Band has a shot at becoming the next big thing. It seems as if rap artists looking to TikTok for fame are looking for just that. The music itself and the quality of it becomes second to virality.

However, even compelling and unique works can come from the combination of rap music and TikTok, arguing that music quality and virality go hand in hand. Take Tierra Whack, a Philly rapper who made waves in the rap industry with her debut project Whack World. But there’s a catch. There’s a total of 15 tracks on Whack World, and they’re all 1 minute long. For the music listeners who want an immersive music experience, Whack released a 15 minute visual consisting of a series of vignettes that catered to each track.

But the short songs themselves are engineered towards potential listeners on TikTok. It’s easier for users to pick out what they want to use for their 15-second video from a 1-minute song than a 3-minute and longer song. Even a producer that worked on Whack World said that TikTok’s 15-second window is pushing producers  to be more concise with their songs. No more long intros or inside jokes on outros.

But why should TikTok dictate how rap music is made? For likes and to be featured on the app’s main page? This way of thinking is reminiscent of that of those in the PR/advertising industry—modern day Mad Men.

But should music really be made the same way that Super Bowl commercials are? A person with a glass half full way of thinking might say that we should welcome this shift in hip-hop and encourage how the genre is reaching so many people through the app. But then, the most cynical critic could take one look at artists engineering their music to be featured for 15 seconds on an app and say that they’re catering to a generation of listeners with decreasing attention spans.

With TikTok growing ever present in rap, it seems like we’re one generational shift away from the music from the early 10’s and prior being considered archaic. And the amazing thing about rap music is that the genre is always evolving. Though that shouldn’t mean that the past is completely forgotten, and the future is always one that we should be headed for.

Ongoing American Exceptionalism: To Infinity and Beyond

photograph of American flag planted on Moon with Astronaut staring off into space

On April 7th, the Trump administration released an executive order declaring that the USA doesn’t understand space or the moon to be under international jurisdiction, but rather a domain for particular countries to pursue their own interests. The order states, “Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space.”

There are 108 signatories for the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” the main document outlining law in space. This document is now a precedent for treating space continuously with international law: no particular government has authority unless there is a particular interaction with data transmission between citizens, for example, that clearly falls under the jurisdiction of a particular nation. For instance, in 2019, Anne McClain, a US astronaut allegedly signed into Former Air Force intelligence officer Summer Worden’s bank account without Worden’s permission. Worden filed an identity theft charge against McClain. Because the data connection, bank, and citizens were all under the purview of the US, it was determined to fall under U.S. law.

Unless circumstances as particular as these arise, however, corporations, states, and entities in space are meant to operate under a set of regulations that broadly set out international regulations. This is for practical reasons as much as anything else:

“When there’s a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster, Harrington said that multiple countries with remote-sensing satellites — including the U.S., Japan, South Africa, Russia and the European Union — are part of a disaster charter. Whomever had a satellite passing over the disaster-ridden region before, after and during the event has agreed to share data to mitigate damage, saving lives and property.”

Trump’s executive order breaks with the international push for cooperation and neutrality in pursuing space exploration. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as NASA, have repeatedly emphasized that international cooperation is crucial for pursuing space exploration.

Trump has been enthusiastic about expanding American power into space, as his ambition for developing a Space Force has shown in the past year. His enthusiasm for expanding mining rights and removing mining regulation on Earth make this also a natural expansion of his previous zeal. However, similar to his propagation of the Space Force, it remains unclear what, if any, interest or action will follow from this declaration of Trumpian interest.

Having a leader that is out of touch with the reasoning behind the policies is dangerous and can have lasting impact on not only our nation’s progress but the necessary cooperative efforts of the international community. When one powerful nation withdraws efforts, the rest of a coalition suffers. This is one way to harm a community—not by sanctioning, attacking, or aiming malice directly towards other nations or actors, but by neglecting to take their interests into considerations in one’s own pursuits. Neglect in such circumstances is a form of disrespect. It also is not in the USA’s best interests, for, as experts agree, the successful pursuit of progress in space will necessarily be a joint effort, relying on the very nations Trump continues to ignore in the here and now.

Expert Suspicion: Arendt and the “Public Space”

photograph of Open Ohio protesters

In the opening days of May, health care workers reported nearly 100,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the United States; in that same time, several thousand patients died of the disease. Nevertheless, as of May 4th, at least nine states have begun to loosen restrictions on movement in public spaces placed in response to the coronavirus outbreak, reopening beaches, restaurants, gyms, and other “nonessential” businesses.

As shouted by protestors from Arizona to Wisconsin to the White House, one explanation for rolling back the pandemic response, despite the spread of the pandemic itself showing no signs of slowing, is that “the cure cannot be worse than the disease.” Since March, more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment and these numbers indicate only a fraction of the economic fallout from the enforced quarantines. Thus far, almost no industry — from entertainment, to higher education, to oil production, and more — has escaped unaffected and, particularly with the globe teetering on the edge of a recession, it is far from clear what sort of long-term consequences of the shutdown lie ahead.

Certainly, with their tendency towards ultra-militarized displays of aggression and their often-explicitly racist messaging,  there is much that is inexcusable about many lockdown protests, but when CNN’s Don Lemon says that people unhappy with the lockdowns just “want a haircut” or “want to go play golf,” he seems to be unfairly painting all complaints about the shutdowns as if they are as ignorant as those clearly silly concerns. A “nonessential” locally-owned art gallery or specialty construction company forced to close to prevent the spread of the disease might, nevertheless, feel terribly “essential” to the people whose livelihoods depend on those businesses being open.

Of course, medical experts agree that easing “social distancing” restrictions at this point is premature and could very well lead to an even more serious spread of the virus. The moral calculation of “millions going bankrupt” against “tens of thousands dying” is not a problem I – or, indeed, anyone – could hope to easily solve. Both of these outcomes are clearly unacceptable and most policymakers around the world seem to be trying to chart a course between Scylla and Charybdis that keeps both threats as low as possible, simultaneously. But conversations about the pandemic seem to typically prioritize only one of these two political concerns (“saving citizens’ livelihoods” vs. “saving citizens’ lives”) at a time.

Much has been said recently (including by me) about “expertise in the time of COVID-19.” Certainly, spreading pseudo- and anti-scientific information is dangerous (particularly during a pandemic) and we should think carefully about how we think about the coronavirus. Trusting experts in matters of public health and safety is a crucial part of living in a large, well-functioning society like ours — pretending otherwise, even for looming existential concerns, is simply irresponsible. But, particularly for people whose exposure to the pandemic has been primarily economic — such as those citizens in less-populated states where the spread of the virus has thankfully been less severe — it can be understandably off-putting to have your most salient personal political concerns belittled (or even morally condemned) for the sake of other political concerns, no matter how objectively important both sets of concerns may be. To denigrate your perspective for the sake of “listening to the experts” (when the perspective of those experts is simply orthogonal to your concerns) might well only serve to provoke a backfire effect that leads primarily to greater levels of frustration at the experts being touted and suspicion of the information they share.

This, I take it, was one thing that the philosopher Hannah Arendt was concerned to avoid by her treatment of politics not simply as a process of governmental operations, but as “the place and activity of shared communication based on the distinct perspectives of equal human beings.” Rather than treat politics or political decision-making as an activity properly performed by specially-trained experts, Arendt argued that wherever people gather together “in the manner of speech and action,” they create a community with power to accomplish their political purposes. In her book, The Human Condition, Arendt explains how the development and preservation of public spaces wherein we can politically engage with each other is both a fundamental element of the human experience and a necessary precondition for civic freedom. Importantly, by “public space” Arendt does not just mean physical locations, but rather the realm of discourse wherein perspectives and concerns can be expressed, challenged, debated, and legitimated. When governments seek to restrict and restrain these sociological structures, they begin to take what she calls a “totalitarian” form, thereby precipitating all manner of further oppressions and human rights abuses (on this, see her The Origins of Totalitarianism).

Just to be clear: I do not mean to suggest that Arendt would necessarily be opposed to a mandated lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (and I certainly do not mean that Dr. Fauci or other healthcare workers are totalitarian oppressors!). Of course, Arendt held no principled animus against experts as such; she simply recognized that their expertise would have to be shared within the public space wherein others would be able to respond. Artificially constraining the operation of that public space — even for demonstrably moral purposes — is a necessarily troublesome notion. And from the perspective of people concerned about the dire economic consequences of the lockdown, forcing a conversational shift to a discussion of mortality rates and other healthcare issues might come off as just such a constraining move.

So, I think that Arendt’s realistic analysis of how our perspectives shape our participation in political structures can help to explain some of the curious disagreements about the response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the all-too-common tension in conversations about what we should do next. The clash of perspectives over what is “clearly the right thing to do” cannot simply be resolved with reference to a particular statistic (economic or scientific), but requires the sort of free speech and effortful conversation that Arendt considered fundamental to the human condition.

(I also want to note: I sorely wish that Arendt could respond to President Trump’s widely rejected assertion that “When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total,” but that’s a different conversation!)

A Time for Re-Imagining

photograph of empty New York City street at dawn

As coronavirus continues to change the world, and as some places begin to contemplate tentatively easing distancing measures, the implications of this event for societies everywhere are still being shaped. We are learning how to comprehend and respond to this new challenge.

What can we understand about the character of this new, unanticipated world, and what can we decide about how it takes shape from here?

It seems that we are being shifted, by big political, social, and environmental forces, into a new way of being. What we can understand and what we can decide about it will depend upon what we can imagine.

Fredric Jameson said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”

Interrogating this idea yields different possible interactions between acts of imagination, the end of the world, and capitalism. If the point was a rhetorical one, it was also always a serious charge: that capitalism may be such a reckless, powerful force because it is simultaneously ruinous and desirable. It may now seem not so much rhetorical as a statement of fact. If we can truly imagine the end of the world more easily than the end of capitalism, this is a grave fact. They are of course connected–we are forced to imagine the end of the world because of our failure to imagine the end of capitalism. If the operative concept here is not capitalism, but imagination, then the problem surely is that we have failed to sufficiently imagine both the end of the world and the end of capitalism.

The global pandemic has been a massive disruption to global ‘business as usual.’ But the climate and ecological crisis is still bearing down on us. So what does this global disruption mean for us in the era of climate and ecological emergency, and what are we going to do next?

Rebecca Solnit writes in, Hope in the Time of a Crisis, that, in the altered reality brought on by global pandemic, we are “adjusting to the profound social and economic changes, studying the lessons disasters teach, equipping ourselves for an unanticipated world.” Our task, she writes, is to “understand this moment, what it might require of us, and what it might make possible.” I think we could reflect on Rebecca’s questions in the context of the role of the imagination in comprehending and solving the bigger crisis we face (and, therefore presumably imagining the end of capitalism).

We appear to be entering a paradigm shift–a process which was beginning, I think, before the pandemic but which is now, as a result, accelerating. This is a time of great existential danger, and of great change; the social, political, and moral concepts within which we operate are at issue in fundamental ways. We need to redress these failures of imagination to critically examine the concepts with which we have become used, in the current status quo, to order our world.

Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions coined the term ‘paradigm shift’ to understand how scientific work is conducted at any given time and how science/scientific knowledge progresses, especially through big, revolutionary discoveries.

A paradigm is the prevailing conceptual structure within which scientific work is practiced; it is the whole set of assumptions according to, and by virtue of which, the scientific activities of experimentation, theory-building, evaluation, and verification take place; and which, taken together, constitutes the ‘world view’ in which science operates. The ‘everyday’ activities taking place within the overarching set of assumptions, Kuhn calls ‘normal science’. Normal science works within and further articulates or elaborates the paradigm. Anomalies can exist, but they are small or disparate enough not to put pressure on the whole system.

There is a clear application of this concept to a social paradigm, where a set of prevailing concepts, norms and values–which might be political, moral, economic etc., constitute the paradigm in which ‘normal life’ is conducted.

As with scientific paradigms, if anomalies multiply or magnify, if experimental outcomes, or experiences, can no longer validate the core assumptions, the integrity of the conceptual structure is weakened. When the overarching set of norms or concepts is put under strain, a crisis can emerge in which it is apparent that the paradigm is no longer supporting, or supported by, normal science or normal life. The resolution to the crisis is a shift to a new conceptual structure–a paradigm shift.

A ‘scientific revolution’ takes place when the old conceptual structure is replaced by a new one.

A crisis in the conceptual system of our social paradigm has been coming for some time, and gathering pace as we see the realities of the climate emergency begin to unfold; the conceptual system of, the (let’s call it) neo-liberal capitalist, neo-colonialist paradigm, has been experiencing pressure and disruption as normal life comes increasingly to seem impossible within its conceptual structure. The global pandemic has created a rupture in the system, so significant that normal life will not be able to resume.

If the breakdown of one conceptual structure is going to be followed by the adoption of new or re-ordered foundational concepts, we have to be able to imagine a new reality capable of replacing the old one.

A core part of this is the concept of value itself. The current socio-political paradigm, and its attendant economic paradigm, tends to be constructed around the economic unit as the fundamental anchor of value. Therefore, in our society economic values have been taken as foundational. But economic rationalism only serves a very shallow concept of well-being. Solving the climate crisis will require a renegotiating of these fundamental concepts of value, and will require a grounding of value in environmental and social goods. Solving the climate crisis calls for a ‘re-evaluation’.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy is instructive here: the re-valuation of values must occur when the realities that hold them in place shift. A restructuring of the moral, social, political concepts of value that hold our worldview, of the norms and practices in which we operate in normal life, is needed if and when the ground shifts.

Nietzsche endorses a kind of radical acceptance, which I read as a moral orientation to the world, and as the antithesis to resignation. We can take control of our destiny but only if we let go of our illusions. The point for Nietzsche is that we orient ourselves within the world as we find it.

Letting go of illusions is difficult, and the neo-liberal, colonialist/capitalist paradigm is largely built upon them. It is difficult to shake off a worldview in which we have been comfortable, and the fact that so many of us recognize this while also recognizing that it is ruinous, is disquieting. And there are two distinct failures of imagination at issue here–the failure to imagine the worst excesses and also the solutions to climate change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world into a dramatic encounter with large-scale response to an existential threat of global proportions and it is instructive. There are things happening right now, which would have to happen to address the climate emergency. A new paradigm that was post-carbon, post-capitalist, post-emergency would necessitate a general powering-down of life, slowing of travel and activity, shrinking of production, contraction of the economy around sustainability rather than growth.

Events that create an interruption to normal life, a disruption which can not be adequately described or accounted for within the conceptual structures that ground the norms and habits of normal life, bring us glimpses of something else: of what altered reality looks like, forcing us to confront the adequacy of our understanding and actions. An episode such as the global shutdown offers an opportunity to reflect upon what is really important. And these glimpses, these reflections are vital for the task of re-imagining.

Graduation: A Moment of Upheaval

photograph of graudation programs on rows of empty chairs

Even in normal circumstances May represents a moment of disruption and distress as seniors transition out of college into the post-grad life. At this time last year, some would go straight into their careers, some prepared for graduate school, some planned to move out of the country to teach English, and some yet took a break and tried to figure out their next move.

The Class of 2020 will see their college career end in an unexpected and abrupt way. And while they will be robbed of the many meaningful farewell moments of the final weeks, the Class of 2020 will experience what every preceding graduating class has experienced: the end.

Despite the variance in circumstance, our feelings before we set off are likely the same: sadness about the end. Seemingly just as the seeds of relationships and daily routines took root, watered by the unique sense of community and stability only offered by a university campus, the hoe of finality came down and tore those roots out. We will never live that life again.

In the waning weeks of any usual last semester, seniors conduct final run-throughs of their favorite social rituals, staples of their college lives that would soon no longer be. There is a mad scramble to fit in as much as possible into those waning weeks and days, as if four years had not been enough time. Then names are called and diplomas were given.

Once the moment is over, it is over. No member of the Class of 2020 can ever retrieve it, revisit it, or relive it outside of their individual memory. Realizing that, of course, is what anchors you in the feeling of sadness and longing.

Be it the loss of a relative, the severing of a relationship, or the end of a fun vacation; big or small, tragic or happy—some things stay with us and encumber our progress forward through time. After an experience such as that, we jostle with some variation of the question: How do I find satisfaction in the present again? The answer, obviously, does not lie in longing for the past. Yet we do.

Certainly, we do ourselves a disservice by not moving forward. But what role should the past play in our present life? What relationship with our past to we owe ourselves?

Envying the Forgetful Cattle

In his On the Uses & Disadvantages of History for Life, Friedrich Nietzsche writes that humans are jealous of animals’ happiness:

“Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by: they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard sight for man to see… he cannot help envying them their happiness.” 

Of course, sometimes we would all prefer to eat, rest, digest, and leap about but what Nietzsche is asserting is that the cow is happy because it retains nothing of the past and anticipates nothing of the future.

Nietzsche expounds: “In the case of the smallest or of the greatest happiness […] it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget.” The ability to forget is the key to happiness, or so the German Existentialist would argue. But Nietzsche notes that is impossible for people to do. He observes a human “cannot learn to forget but clings relentlessly to the past.” A person’s fixation with the past ends up defining the present moment, preventing the person from enjoying it and thus ensuring that it is wasted.

And so are we destined to be like the man he describes in his passage?

“Then the man says, ‘I remember’ and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever…”

Perhaps some would argue that we should strive to be more like the forgetful cattle and simply, however contrary to our human nature, live in the present at all moments; thus, never longing for the past and never being anxious about the future. Perhaps then we can be happy again. But however appealing the happy life of leaping about and grazing may sound, it is absent of many qualities that characterize a good life.

Remembering a “Moment”

Noted screenwriter Aaron Sorkin delivered a commencement address from Syracuse University’s graduating class of 2012. Among many insightful anecdotes and useful pieces of advice, he said the following, contradicting Nietzsche’s prescription:

“Baseball players say they don’t have to look to see if they hit a home run, they can feel it. So I wish for you a moment—a moment soon—when you really put the bat on the ball, when you really get a hold of one and drive it into the upper deck, when you feel it. When you aim high and hit your target, when just for a moment all else disappears, and you soar with wings as eagles. The moment will end as quickly as it came, and so you’ll have to have it back, and so you’ll get it back no matter what the obstacles.”

The past plays a central role in Sorkin’s prescription. There will be a moment that will end as quickly as it came. It will die, sink back into the night and fog, extinguished forever. But you will have to have it back. And it is in pursuit of reliving that fleeting moment when you hit your target that will give your life purpose. Sometimes it is those fleeting moments, which exist longer in the past than they ever could in the present that drive an individual, motivating them to move through time.

Indeed, the past plays an important role in our lives. Yes, the beast may lead a life of happiness but it will never remember what made it happy. It will never know ambition because it will never remember what it wants. It will never remember the moment that it realized its passion. It will never remember the moment it fell in love. It will never remember the long-standing joke between friends. In short, it will never long for anything because it will never remember what it would long for.

Happiness may arrive when the past is forgotten. But it entails the loss of meaning, purpose, passion, desire, and sustained relationships. We owe ourselves those things, too.

Moving On

Our relationship with our own past is one of the most important relationships we will have in our lives. Understanding how to forge a good one and tend to it properly is key. We should not aspire to be like the forgetful cattle because they know no motivation for today or tomorrow. But we should not allow the past to shackle us either. Temporally, there is no going back. Time moves forward, and the longer it takes us to realize that the longer we will have wasted the present moment. It is good to move on. It is right to move on. You should move on.

But you should not forget the moments that make it hard to move on. It is those moments that are often worth contemplating but not seeking out to relive exactly. It is those moments that can provide a standard for what we desire from the future, even if it cannot be a carbon-copy of those moments. Indeed, it is only because of past experience that you know what you like and what you don’t like.

Whether its a traumatic experience, like the passing of a friend; or a good experience, like a fun weekend too short; or a bad experience, like a poor performance on the ACT; or a memorable experience, like the laugh produced by a joke, which soon becomes recurring between friends: past moments inform what we seek in the present and future. But moving on can overcome the often crippling longing for the past.

Yes, it is time to move on. And that means acknowledging a moment has gone and will never come again. But it also means striving to find another moment like the one that makes it so difficult to move on and being grateful you had such an experience.