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The Politics of Imponderables

photograph of scales made of pebbles balanced on a boulder

As I glance over the front page (or, let’s be real, the home page) of various newspapers, nearly every story is about either COVID-19 or U.S. racial injustice. Here I want to pause and look not at the stories themselves, but at the discourse developing around both stories. I want to look at the moral outrage we feel when others suggest imponderable comparisons. Consider two personal examples.

I was outraged at Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s suggestion that we should restart our economy even though it increases the chance that our grandparents might die from COVID-19. I was appalled that anyone would compare the merely economic harm of shutdowns to the incalculable and irreplaceable loss of human lives. I felt a similar outrage at people bemoaning the damage done by the looting which followed the murder of George Floyd. I was appalled that anyone would compare the merely economic harm of looting to the inexcusable and incalculable evil of racialized violence in the criminal justice system.

It is this outrage that I want to pause and consider because, while I believe the outrage is appropriate, I worry about the effects of rendering certain comparisons imponderable. In ordinary times I would be horrified by the harm done by a global recession. In ordinary times I would happily condemn looting that exasperates inner city food deserts or harms locally owned businesses. Yet, in this context, not only am I not worried about these harms, but I find myself incensed at those who talk about these harms too openly. Do they not realize how insignificant those concerns are given what else is as stake? Do they not realize how talking about property damage trivializes the continuous damage visited on minority communities?

Fortunately, there has been excellent research on the outrage we feel when people consider certain trade-offs. This outrage arises when we see others trading off what the social scientist Phillip Tetlock calls ‘sacred’ values for ‘secular’ ones.

To take a commonly cited example, if you present people with a story in which a hospital administrator faces a choice between saving the life of a boy and saving the hospital a million dollars, people won’t just condemn the administrator who chooses the money, they are willing to punish an administrator who even lingered over the question before eventually choosing the child. We are not just upset with those who make the wrong trade, we are outraged with those who even ponder the trade-off we consider taboo. This is true even though a hospital that routinely sacrificed a million dollars anytime it could use that money to save a life would not remain solvent for long.

So why do I find certain trade-offs outrageous. My mind codes the economic liberties of Dan Patrick’s “American way of life” as a merely secular value, not to be compared with the sacred lives of my grandparents. But of course, to many more patriotically inclined citizens, our economic way of life is absolutely a sacred value, and thus something that might sometimes require tragic trade-offs (a ‘tragic trade-off’ is one where we must sacrifice one sacred value for another; a ‘routine trade-off’ is one where we sacrifice one secular value for another).

Once we understand the psychological underpinnings of our moral emotions, those emotions begin to flounder. As I study moral outrage, I learn that what we consider sacred depends, in part, on the peculiarities of how something is presented. Is life insurance a way to bet on a loved one’s death, or a way to secure the financial security of one’s children? Does social security reform break faith with senior citizens, or technically rework bureaucratic infrastructure? A large portion of politics is reframing taboo trade-offs into routine or tragic ones.

By default, I treat life as a sacred value. But if you want to change how I code it, just point out that every year half a million people die of malaria (and well over one million people from Tuberculosis) and yet I’m not constantly outraged that trillions are not being siphoned from the global economy to malaria eradication. I’m unwilling to admit to myself that I care more about diseases that threaten U.S. lives, and thus, to avoid moral hypocrisy, will swiftly ‘mentally recode’ the millions of deaths caused by preventable disease from a moral atrocity to a routine statistical artifact of a large global population.

Similarly, by default, I’m appalled at the thought that we would send U.S. factory workers back to work where they risk contracting COVID-19 just to jumpstart global supply chains. But if you want to change how I code it, just point me towards the UN University’s recent working paper suggesting the disruption of global supply chains runs the risk of plummeting half a billion people back into poverty and undoing a decade of progress toward the UN’s development goal of ending poverty by the year 2030.

Indeed, present me with both of these arguments and suddenly I feel outraged that my fellow U.S. citizens, who are shielded from the worst economic impacts by stimulus checks and a comparatively excellent public health infrastructure, are willing to cripple the economic foundations of the developing world just to avoid a statistically small risk of death.

As Phillip Tetlock puts it, the “boundaries of the thinkable ebb and flow as political partisans fend off charges of taboo trade-offs and fire them back at rivals.” So what role should these ‘imponderables’ play in my politics? Are they a recognition of incalculable human dignity, or a tool of self-deception by which I write off the legitimate worries of those of different political persuasions while indulging in the personal catharsis of moral outrage?

Should I do away with my imponderables? According to many great ethicists, the answer is: No. The great Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe famously said she was uninterested in arguing with anyone who thought it was an open question whether “procuring the judicial execution of the innocent” could be justified, because such people “show a corrupt mind.” Raimond Gaita, emeritus professor of moral philosophy at King’s College London, agrees with Anscombe and argues that even to see certain courses of action as possible, or certain trade-offs as legitimate, is already to have exhibited a deep moral failing.

To these philosophers, moral imponderables are not a mere peculiarity of moral psychology. Rather, they are essential to a healthy moral sensibility. What it is to have a proper regard for justice is to demand justice be done, whatever the economic costs may be. Why? Because humans have something like a sacred value, or an inner dignity, which dictates that justice take precedence even over the social good.

Why is it appropriate to feel outrage when people bring up the injustices done by looting during a national conversation on racial violence? It is not because the injustices of property damage don’t matter, nor because such injustices are less important (though of course they are). Rather, it is because to recognize the dignity of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery is to recognize that the tragedy of their death is, in a very real sense, incomparable to any other injustice. To bring up other injustices in comparison is already to have missed the incalculable dignity of a human being.

Of course, many disagree with Anscombe and Gaita’s claim that moral sensibility involves a recognition of certain imponderables. Consider this vision of intellectual life offered by Simone Weil:

“The degree of intellectual honesty which is obligatory for me, by reason of my particular vocation, demands that my thought should be indifferent to all ideas without exception – it must be equally welcoming and equally reserved with regard to everyone of them. Water is indifferent in this way to the objects which fall into it. It does not weigh them; it is they which weigh themselves, after a certain time of oscillation.”

It is a beautiful picture of unwavering commitment to honest investigation. Yet, for all its beauty, the position seems contradictory. The thought seems to be that the value of truth is so great that one should be able to ask any question and consider any thought, no matter how vile, if it can help one reach the truth. But note what has happened. We’ve rejected all sacred values, made everything thinkable, because of our commitment to the final sanctity of truth. Weil has made it thinkable to transgress any sacred value, but only for the sake of her own sacred value which she privileges above all others.

We cannot escape sacred values. Of course, it is also difficult to put a recognition of sacred value into practice. It sounds nice to say the value of justice is incalculable, but we cannot spend billions on every trial to make absolutely certain that justice is done. The painful reality is that there is only so much we can spend on any given life. Some trade-offs must sometimes be made.

So, what can we conclude about the politics of the imponderables?

I simply want to urge caution. First, to urge caution when we are tempted to quickly condemn others for making comparisons we find inhumane. When we recognize how fickle our own outrage can be, it should encourage humility and self-reflection. We must remember how our own mental biases might distort what we are willing to consider, and thus might seal ourselves off from insight.

However, we also need to be cautious of the opposite temptation. There is a certain seductive temptation in being willing to trade off certain values. There is a “titillation” in thinking “dangerous thoughts.” We love to congratulate ourselves on being brave enough to think the thoughts others refuse to face. We get to feel smugly superior to everyone else who remains unable to remove their moral blinders. But this too is a dangerous and distorting temptation, and it’s a temptation that compromises our ability to appreciate the sacred.

Rent Crisis Responses

photograph of "Rent Strike" poster

While unemployment numbers continue to skyrocket due to COVID-19, many are left with no ability to pay their rent. Despite states issuing moratoriums on evictions, some landlords have ignored these directives and proceeded to evict tenants anyway. When challenged with the illegality of their actions, a number of landlords have antagonized tenants in other ways such as shutting off their power.

On June 1st, many courts have reopened and are now processing a backlog of evictions which threatens an estimated 20 million Americans to be evicted by September 1st. As service workers are among the hardest hit from job losses caused by the pandemic, some landlords have even asked tenants to provide a full year’s worth of rent payments in advance, evoking an ironic punishment for their being in a particularly vulnerable position.

The rent crisis that the country is experiencing has strained already tense relationships between landlords and tenants who have been voicing their frustrations online, expressing anxiety about how to navigate an unprecedented situation.

“But Landlords Have Bills Too”

One of the most common reactions to the current crisis has been to argue that while it is true that tenants are struggling, landlords are also in financially precarious situations because “they also have bills to pay.” This points to the fact that at least some landlords do not own all their houses, but are still in the process of paying the mortgage. The implication of this line of reasoning is that one should not manifest empathy towards tenants exclusively because landlords are also experiencing financial insecurity. It is factually true that landlords have mortgages to pay, but the argument in support of the “bills” argument paints only half of the picture. The fact that landlords have mortgages means that they cannot afford to pay for the house they purchased in full. Hence the mortgage, and the debt. In an ideal world, one would never want to buy what one cannot afford; no one enjoys being in debt. Yet a middle-class individual often does not have any other choice than buying property with a mortgage. This is all the more sensible when it comes to buying one’s first home. Having a shelter — a place to rest and protect oneself — is a vital necessity for survival. But the same cannot be said of a second house. Such a purchase represents an investment, one whose profit goes on top of what one makes with their own job. No one is required to make such investments. But if it is correct that buying a second house is an investment, then there is a competing response to the “landlords also have bills” argument: landlords may have made a poor investment. That is, they bought a property that they did not have to buy, that they could not afford to buy in full, nor as a mortgage. Investments carry profit margins as well as risks.

“Don’t Rent What You Cannot Afford”

One could respond by saying that if it is true that landlords should not purchase property they cannot afford, then tenants should not rent apartments that they cannot afford. But their situations are markedly different. As workers, tenants utilize their labor to gain the financial resources so that their rent can be paid for. And if it wasn’t for the raising unemployment due to the pandemic, tenants would continue to pay their rent we usual. It could be argued that instead landlords were never really able to afford their second houses by relying only on their financial resources. Proof of that is that landlords do not employ their own labor in order to pay for their second house. They rely on the labor of the tenants who rent their property in order to pay for it. If that wasn’t the case, they would not need to rent the property at all. But they do need to rent it in order to be able to pay it off.

But the necessity of renting should also be taken in consideration. If one moves to a new city for a job, for example, one must find a place to rent. And this problem cannot be obviated by renting in an affordable place or by working remotely. Affordable apartments are harder to find in cities that provide job opportunities, and working remotely is not always possible. Even for international workers, some visas for example (like the J-1) have a residency requirement. So while it is necessary to rent an apartment to live in, it is not necessary to buy a second house.

“But Landlords Provide Essential Housing”

Another argument is that landlords face an unjustified backlash because, after all, by renting properties they are providing essential housing. But this line of reasoning is incoherent by its own lights. To start, there is a difference between providing housing and commodifying housing. Usually it is not the landlord who builds the rented property but the construction company. Thus, technically, it is the construction company that provides the house, the landlord instead commodifies it — meaning, the landlord turns the property into a source of profit.

Let’s also pause on the term “essential.” Something is essential for someone when the lack of it endangers their survival. In this sense, oxygen is essential. Likewise, water and food are essential because one cannot survive without those. Going even further, some believe that healthcare is essential because without proper access to medical care, one may not survive. A shelter is also essential in the sense that without it, survival is at least made more challenging. Thus, landlords are correct in arguing that housing is essential but precisely because housing is essential, this would seem a point against housing being commodified. This of course is not to advocate that canceling rent would be the default solution. As some have pointed out, the issue of how to protect renters is complex and no solution is immune from problems. The point is more that it is not obvious that renters can afford their apartment less than landlords can afford their second houses. Given that renters have lower incomes and less financial stability than landlords, their ability to nevertheless be able to pay for their housing, which is often more than half of their income, should speak in favor, and not against, their being financially responsible.

This analysis should not lead to a confrontational attitude towards landlords, but rather it should be viewed as an opportunity to reflect on yet another issue that the current coronavirus pandemic has forcefully made even more evident. In a world where rents and housing prices exceed personal budgets, the need of more affordable housing is not simply a problem for the future but one that urgently demands our attention.

‘Bon Appetit’ and the Politics of Food

photograph of halved fruits and vegetables arranged around yellow plate in the center

In the same way that the #MeToo movement encouraged women to speak out about sexism in their workplaces, the return of the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of mainstream consciousness has given BIPOC a platform to start a conversation about racism in their fields. Notably, one such conversation is currently unfolding in the food industry. In early June of 2020, Adam Rapoport stepped down from his position as the editor-and-chief of Bon Appétit magazine when a photo of Rapoport wearing brownface at a party surfaced on Twitter. In the last few years, Bon Appétit has been steadily amassing an online following through its YouTube channel, which has helped the magazine present itself as an inclusive and diverse brand to its massive twenty-something audience. In an article for Vox, Alex Abad-Santos describes how

“A dramatic part of Rapoport’s resignation was watching the wall tumble between what he was presenting to the outside world—socially conscious, thoughtful, empathetic—and his real-life actions, which according to staffers included microaggressions, underpaying staff, and taking advantage of his assistant. The ousting of a man who wrote about the killing of George Floyd and standing in solidarity with immigrants and minorities while he was, at the same time, treating his black and brown staffers inequitably, feels a lot like justice.”

However, many former employees have pointed out that Bon Appétit’s problems cannot be solved merely by firing Rapoport. The magazine (and the food industry at large) are still built on a foundation of structural racism, a foundation which is obfuscated by gestures towards multiculturalism. Despite these hollow gestures, BIPOC within the industry have been undermined by their editors in insidious ways. Assistant editor Sohla El-Waylly, for example, claimed in an Instagram post that she would be “pushed in front of video as a display of diversity,” and that only white editors were paid for their video appearances on the magazine’s YouTube channel. Former employees like Alex Lau felt pressured to only make food from their culture, and were told by their editors that “ethnic” food would not be interesting enough to the magazine’s audience. Nikita Richardson, a former black employee, struggled with the emotional toll of working in such a toxic work culture, explaining how “You see your coworkers every day of your life, and to go into work every day and feel isolated is misery-inducing . . . Nowhere have I ever felt more isolated than at Bon Appétit.

It is especially important that this interrogation of white hegemony is happening within the food industry. We tend to think of food as apolitical, one of the few neutral grounds where all people can meet without cultural or ideological baggage. There’s a reason that cooking shows are a safe bet for major networks hoping to attract the largest possible audience. Cooking shows are generally innocuous and uncontroversial, and because food makes up such a large part of our daily lives, it’s impossible for all viewers not to relate on some level. However, food is a deeply moral and political subject. The foundational story of Christian moral philosophy, the story of Adam and Eve from the book of Genesis, is, after all, a story about eating, which indicates that food is a central symbol within philosophical discourse.

Food is political chiefly because it connects us to the world and reveals our place within larger structures of power. As scientist Louise Fresco explains in her book Hamburgers in Paradise,

“Every mouthful we eat connects us with those who long ago started to domesticate plants and animals, with the migrants and traders who spread them across the world . . . with the farmers who are proud of their land and their work, and with the laborers who pick beans and mangoes and pack them and in some cases endure appalling working conditions.”

Food is such a potent way of conceptualizing how social networks function under capitalism that in the 2017 play Young Marx, a fictionalized version of Marx uses the ingredients of his breakfast to explain how capitalism (and the things produced by it) alienate us from other people. He says, “Before capitalism I could see my brother’s hand in the labor content of my breakfast,” pointing out the division between factories that produce food and the tables those items eventually end up on. “A sausage could explain my life,” Marx exclaims, because food (as a young Engels chimes in) “maps your social relations.”

This relationship between food and consumer becomes even more muddled when we consider the online cooking-as-entertainment industry, which Bon Appétit participates in. Even when produced for the sake of entertainment and not consumption, food doesn’t lose its ability to map social relations. Media critic Dan Olson points out in a video released shortly before Rapoport’s resignation that

“Cooking entertainment can’t avoid [food politics] . . . any show is going to inherit those meanings and symbols purely by virtue of the kinds of food the show considers normal, what it considers exotic, and what it assumes the viewer is familiar with or has access to.”

Olson explains that spectacle is generally the main element of online cooking shows. The spectacle can be the chef’s outrageous or charismatic personality (popular celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has built his entire brand on this) or outlandish ingredients (donuts draped in gold-leaf or five hundred-dollar steak dinners, to name a few examples). Bon Appétit’s most popular series, Gourmet Makes, is about a pastry chef who attempts to recreate processed snack foods like Twinkies using high-quality ingredients, a spectacle which draws in millions of views per video.

But the spectacle can also be an “exotic” dish or regional cuisine unfamiliar to American viewers. Travel food shows, both on television and on the internet, often participate in this not-so-subtle racism. A white foodie will visit a non-Western culture and “discover” dishes unfamiliar to Westerners, emphasizing how new or outlandish such dishes are. So-called “superfoods” often rely on the same racist assumptions. Labeling goji berries or acai a superfood gives those products a veneer of the unfamiliar, even imbuing them with magical properties. Bon Appétit has specifically come under fire for this practice. An apology released by the magazine on June 10 in the wake of Rapoport’s resignation acknowledges that “Our mastheads have been far too white for far too long. As a result, the recipes, stories, and people we’ve highlighted have too often come from a white-centric viewpoint. At times we have treated non-white stories as ‘not newsworthy’ or ‘trendy.’” Non-white labor has historically been invisible in white kitchens and restaurants, which is why the tokenization of non-white food and culture for the sake of a magazine spread is especially wrong.

It’s difficult to say if Bon Appétit will actually follow through on its promise to be better. Matt Hunziker, a white video editor who has vocally challenged the racism his colleagues experienced at Bon Appétit, was suspended from the company on June 25, supposedly because of his willingness to speak out against the company. If Bon Appétit is unable to change its ways, one possible response would be to decenter massive media conglomerates like Condé Nast (the company that owns Bon Appétit, as well as Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and GQ) by investing more material resources in BIPOC chefs and food writers working outside of mainstream food discourse. Only paying lip-service to non-white food without giving chefs the material advantages will only perpetuate an unequal and immoral system.

Under Discussion: On Cancelling “Cancel Culture”

photograph of a fountain pen and a signature on yellow paper.

This piece completes our Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter.

On the morning of July 7th, Harper’s Magazine published its “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” that portended all manner of dangers to contemporary society if the “stifling atmosphere” it referenced was allowed to continue eclipsing the “free exchange of information and ideas.” With over 150 signatories — many of whom were either popular celebrities, Ivy League academics, or a strange combination of the two — the letter commanded a considerable amount of attention and has since spawned a host of responses, critiques, endorsements, rejections, and parodies — including by multiple writers for The Prindle Post — as well as its own Wikipedia article.

But on the evening of July 7th (mere hours after the letter’s initial online release), two of its signatories issued retractions of their original endorsements: Kerri Greenidge, a historian and director of the American Studies program at Tufts University, and Jennifer Boylan, an English professor at Barnard College, both released short statements on Twitter indicating that they did not, in fact, support the letter’s message. Although her name has been deleted from the list, Greenidge has not commented publicly about her decision to retract her support. However, Boylan offered the following explanation on Twitter: “I did not know who else had signed that letter.  I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”

Critics quickly attacked these pivots as being either disingenuous or cowardly; for example, journalist (and letter-signer) Malcolm Gladwell quote-tweeted Boylan’s retraction, sarcastically quipping, “I signed the Harpers letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harpers letter whose views I disagreed with. I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter.” Others, such as Jesse Singal (another letter-signer), took them as further proof of the pervasiveness of the problem the letter purported to highlight in the first place; in a now-deleted response to Boylan’s tweet, Singal said: “Ah yes, here it is — the first official apology for signing a statement condemning the climate of conformity, fear, and mutual surveillance that has descended upon public intellectual life.” For many, the apparent irony of “cancelling” a letter decrying so-called “cancel culture” was simply too much to avoid ridiculing.

But those complaints miss the point.

Even if we set aside the unusual (and potentially deceptive) way that Harper’s Magazine collected signatures for the letter in the first place, it is not hard to understand why someone could initially agree to sign the letter, then change their mind after seeing the final product in all of its context. Put differently: it is not ridiculous for someone to make (or affirm) a public statement, then cancel that erstwhile claim in light of new information learned later.

Of course, everything turns on what you mean by ‘cancel’ here. In its broadest strokes, “cancellation” is a kind of collective public shunning of an individual, typically as a backlash to something for which that person was responsible: examples could include the ways that the reputations of entertainers like Louis CK and Shane Gillis have been damaged as a result of their past sins coming to light. “Cancel culture,” then, is a social force that promotes the cancellation of individuals; Barack Obama recently compared it to “casting stones” instead of actually “bringing about change” and its critics argue that its unforgiving expectations are unrealistic. In its more academic forms, cancellation is akin to censorship and involves critics deploying various social pressures to throttle conversations of which they do not approve — this seems to be the target of the warnings trumpeted by the Harper’s Letter (which denounced a perceived cultural trend towards “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”). In its most public forms, cancel culture manifests as protests or other coordinated actions to sanction thinkers for the ideas that they choose to express, such as the unsuccessful attempt by over 600 academics who recently petitioned the Linguistic Society of America to remove (Harper’s Letter–signer) Steven Pinker from its list of “distinguished fellows.”

Instead of “cancelling” thinkers who espouse distasteful ideas, the critics of cancel culture typically argue that those ideas should be freely and openly discussed and considered — if they truly are distasteful, then conversations held in good faith will render such judgments in due time (see also Desmonda Lawrence’s explanation of John Stuart Mill’s views on free speech). By instead targeting the person encouraging an idea’s discussion, a would-be canceller is unfairly shifting the focus of a conversation from “what is said” to “who is saying it.”

Or so the complaint goes.

I’ve written here before about the importance of distinguishing between the semantics and pragmatics of a sentence — in short, between a speech act’s “propositional content” and the complex manner in which that content is deployed in a given conversation. Most simply, this is the difference between what a speaker says and what they mean by saying it. Often, these two features align, such as when my wife asks me if the coffee is ready and I reply, “No, we ran out of filters” — the content of this sentence is twofold (we have neither coffee nor coffee filters) and my intention in speaking it is simply to inform my audience of these tragic facts. But if I instead reply “Someone forgot to buy coffee filters,” I still mean to report that we have no coffee, but I do so in a way that simultaneously highlights  “someone’s” choices during our most recent shopping trip (which is the target of my reply’s semantic content). In his book The Language Instinct, Pinker explains how “It is natural that people exploit the expectations necessary for successful conversation as a way of slipping their real intentions into covert layers of meaning. Human communication is not just a transfer of information like two fax machines connected with a wire; it is a series of alternating displays of behavior by sensitive, scheming, second-guessing, social animals.”

This feature of natural language — the socially-embedded pragmatic applications of our speech acts — is something that the Harper’s Letter (and critics of so-called “cancel culture” writ large) overlook by focusing primarily on the abstract propositions within a discursive exchange. By saying that various public criticisms and professional consequences have resulted in an “intolerant society” concerned to “steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal” (emphasis added), the Letter seems to pretend like the semantic content of an article, speech, tweet, or what have you is the only meaningful element to consider about a conversation. But often, what would-be cancelers are also concerned with is what is meant by what is said, including what is meant by even having the conversation in the first place.

For one example: Recently, when Tom Cotton, the junior senator from Arkansas, wrote an editorial in The New York Times calling for the deployment of the American military against American citizens, critics not only condemned Cotton’s ideas, but also the paper’s Editorial Board for allowing those ideas to be spread. The concern was not simply about Cotton’s meaning, but about what The New York Times at least tacitly intended by lending the legitimacy of the “newspaper of record” to Cotton’s violent hopes. The important thing to notice here is that even though The New York Times wasn’t “saying” anything in Cotton’s article (because only the senator was responsible for the article’s semantic content), it must have been the case that the Editorial Board meant something by allowing it to be released (insofar as The New York Times must have had a reason for approving its publication) — that meaning is fully eligible for assessment on its own terms. Contra the Harper’s Letter, criticizing the Board’s approval of Cotton’s article is far from a “restriction of debate” that “invariably hurts those who lack power” — instead, it seems a legitimate critique within standard norms of discourse.

And while each incident of alleged “cancellation” must be considered individually, most Americans agree that speakers should be held accountable (and potentially experience “social consequences”) as a result of the positions they defend; for example, a recent POLITICO survey found that fewer than one-third of respondents actually agreed that “There should not be social consequences for expressing unpopular opinions in public, even those that are deeply offensive to other people because free speech is protected.” Because “expression” includes both semantic and pragmatic forms of a speaker’s meaning, it again seems quite normal to expect that a given speech act can have all manner of consequences.

Crucially, the attention needed to interpret what all a conversation expresses is far more complicated than the “literal/non-literal” binary recently suggested by Agnes Callard. In her defense of Aristotle’s lasting value, despite his problematic moral track record, she says that “The answer is to take him literally — which is to say, read his words purely as vehicles for the contents of his beliefs” — in so doing, she says, we can come to see Aristotle’s full-throated defenses of sexism or slavery as being free of any anachronistic “messaging” relevant to contemporary political debates and can instead simply see Aristotle taking an “empirical” approach to the world he knew. According to Callard, “‘Cancel culture’ is merely the logical extension of what we might call ‘messaging culture,’ in which every speech act is classified as friend or foe, in which literal content can barely be communicated, and in which very little faith exists as to the rational faculties of those being spoken to.”

This seems mistaken; “cancel culture” is often just the natural manifestation of the pragmatic effects of a speech act (or a pattern of speech acts) — something easily divorcable from political signaling or social “messaging.” As Bryan Van Norden explains, not only are there legitimate questions of pedagogical priorities with the time constraints of a given syllabus, but the pragmatic effects of both Aristotle’s beliefs and of teaching Aristotle’s beliefs are additional facts that responsible philosophers cannot ignore: “To primly insist that we (and they) treat [Aristotle’s] views as merely ‘empirical’ hypotheses or focus only on the ‘literal content’ of what he says is to leave out too many important — and philosophically interesting! — issues.” Notably, as Van Norden also points out, talking about teaching Aristotle’s beliefs can have additional pragmatic effects, as shown by Callard’s NYT article rippling into more explicitly partisan publications (whose ideological goals are notably different from both Callard and Aristotle).

In short, what I mean to say is that it is simply wrong to pretend like expressed propositions can be fully analyzed “literally” in isolation from the social contexts of their expression. Furthermore, it’s quite unremarkable that those social contexts often include effects on things like a speaker’s reputation. So, if someone’s speech act redounds upon their opportunity to make additional speech acts of a similar kind at a later date, this is ultimately just a function of how societies organize themselves. Certainly, it is a far cry from any sort of “political weapon” wielded by nefarious agents (as Donald Trump has recently asserted): it is instead an epiphenomenal manifestation of public opinion, collectively organized. (This also explains why it is, by definition, impossible for an individual to “cancel” another in the way described here.)

So, what all does this mean for the people who retracted their initial support for the Harper’s Letter? Although she may well have approved of the semantic (or, perhaps, “literal”) content of the Letter in isolation, when Jennifer Boylan learned how that Letter was actually deployed and the likely sorts of interpretations that its many pragmatic features could engender — in particular, features arising from the reputations of multiple other signatories — she could easily reconsider and even retract her endorsement in light of those new facts without violating any moral or rational norms. In fact, Boylan’s cancellation of her support for the Letter is ultimately not that different from the cancellation of a Gricean implicature: she was simply clarifying what she did and did not actually mean.

This is all captured best by Lucía Martínez Valdivia, an English professor at Reed college who also signed the Harper’s Letter: in a tweet posted on July 8th (the day after the Letter’s publication), Martínez Valdivia shared a screenshot of an email where she wrote,

“The presence on that list of those who have shown through their actions that they do not in truth agree with the principles outlined in the letter turned it from a sincere presentation of a difficult but valuable ideal into an entirely different and hypocritical text…it saddens me that a statement that could have fought for the common good and equal protection of everyone…was instead poisoned and perverted by the insincere voices of people who have wielded their considerable influence, platforms, and resources to silence those who would disagree with or criticize them.”

That is to say, the pragmatic implications of the list of signatories means something different from the literal, semantic content of the Letter itself, and approving of the latter does not equate to supporting the former. Martínez Valdivia concluded her email by also withdrawing — or cancelling, in the Gricean sense — her endorsement.

Under Discussion: Platforms of Power and Privilege

image of megaphone amplifying certains rays from an array of color bands

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter.

Many individuals in the public sphere have signed an open letter referred to as the Harper’s Letter. The gist of the letter is that the free discourse of ideas is currently being hampered by what has been called “cancel culture” — the sudden and wide-ranging criticism that individuals in the public eye are subject to when private citizens find their speech or behavior unacceptable. The undersigned of this letter represent all manner of points across the political spectrum and a variety of professions.

The letter itself tends to fixate on contributors who occupy a privileged position in public debate: editors, authors, journalists, professors. In focusing on the figures with high-impact voices in public dialog, the letter misses important features of open discourse. As participants in dialog, there are responsibilities we have to one another as speakers, as contributors to our public discourse. We do not voice opinions, or indeed act, in a vacuum. We speak and operate in contexts where a great deal of our meaning is determined by our intended audience and the conversations we are entering into. In short, what we say and do depend on the world around us for its meaning and impact.

The public figures that signed the Harper’s letter have received public sanction for their speech and behavior, and the letter comes off as a complaint about the public consequences of their own behavior as it does their characterization of public discourse in general. When speaking as a public figure, or occupying a privileged position in public discourse in general, your voice has a context that is open to criticism by a broad audience, and, unfortunately for some, that audience finds their voices wanting.

No one deserves to occupy a particular space in the public sphere in our society, or to be above criticism. No one deserves to be in a privileged position, such as editors, authors, and other media figures who speak to the public. Such figures are open to criticism and bear the consequences for their behavior according to public judgment and standards just as private members of the community do, but at the scale of their privileged position. No one has to listen to them or subject them to “exposure, argument, or persuasion” (as the Harper’s Letter seems to demand of immoral and toxic, misinformed behavior and speech that is particularly damaging to society when amplified by these privileged voices).

We have categories that limit harmful speech, such as “harassment,” “libel,” and “slander” that handle those instances where criticism becomes out of line, but the Harper’s Letter equates publicly criticizing speech or figures being de-platformed with being “silenced.” If one’s livelihood depends on public opinion, then part of their professional expertise is managing their public image, and they have not performed it adequately when they are subject to the amount of public criticism that the undersigned describe.

However, it may be more or less appropriate to take public criticism as the standard by which the speech of individuals should be judged. As public figures, we can, for instance, consider what the standards are for your position as a public figure? Depending on the grounds for the attention and status you have, public criticism may be more or less warranted, or perhaps should have more or less of a degree of impact on your life and career.

An example from the letter regards issues with faculty in universities. On occasion, professors’ scheduled talks at other universities have been met with student protests, making them unable to present their speech. These cases are complicated, as faculty aren’t exactly public figures, but when they are asked to speak, they are being given a voice above other possible speakers — it is not part of their explicit job, and the inviting institution had options for which voices to promote. In that sense, criticism by the audience can be appropriate regarding the speech. Audiences are constituent members of acts of speech, and speakers don’t inherently deserve one. On the wider professional level in academia, your research is judged by your peers, and you are not a privileged speaker or public figure. When your peers find your scholarship wanting, your speech is silenced according to some loose standard. Such an incident happened recently with Daniel Feller, the historian who gave the Plenary Address at the 2020 Shear Conference. Professor Feller drew criticism when his speech diminished the atrocities committed by Andrew Jackson against Native Americans, with many of his peers submitting scholarly evidence countering the points in his speech.

There are further examples where individuals draw criticism for their speech and behavior that are in line with the undersigned’s personal grievances. With individual figures whose careers are primarily in the public sphere, the standards for criticisms can be more amorphous. Whether they should have a career, or whether their place in the public eye should be actively discouraged, could depend on a number of things.

For instance, one complicated example of publicity and criticism concerns businesses and the sudden, large outcry policies and statements can provoke. Large numbers regularly criticize business leaders in and the direction of their profits, calling for their removal from their positions or boycotting their companies’ goods. Chik-fil-A, Soul Cycle, and LaCroix are just a few recent examples. These leaders have a very privileged position; economic realities influence the political reality in an extreme way in the United States. As of 2015, corporations spend more money lobbying Congress than taxpayers spend funding Congress.

It might be helpful to consider other comparisons. Civil servants, for instance, depend on their constituents for their legitimacy. If their voters disagree with anything about their lives, conduct, opinions, or personality, it is sufficient for them to lose their justification for having that position. The grey area here is the connection between celebrity and political role. Often in order to remove someone from their role in politics, public messaging plays a large part and this involves open criticism that damages reputations and employs strategies that are frequently controversial. This is also the feature that makes public criticism and campaigning to remove individuals from the public roles they occupy difficult to parse.

News anchors and other media figures explicitly depend on their behaviors and speech to be understood in particular ways and to meet societal standards where sufficient amounts of their audience approve of their speech and behavior. When their speech and behavior elicits sudden and large public outcry, this is a professional rather than a personal issue, more similar to civil servants than academics.

For artists, the connection between creating art and the celebrity it can bring is more complicated than for civil servants and media figures. If artists take on the mantle of public figure, they also take on the potential for public criticism and blame.

There are two identifiable threads that people find alarming when sudden and marked criticism targets public figures. First, it can seem undeserved, or an overreaction, in which case the outcry seems unjust, or unfairly backing someone into a corner or painting one with too broad a brush. This leads to a defensive response by the object of criticism, and a vulnerable and defensive reaction by some of the audience of the events. The response this engenders denies that the wrongdoing was “all that bad.” It suggests that we should be more tolerant to the behavior that is being called out.

When the defensive reaction elicits a denial of the misstep or outright wrong of the public figure, this can obviously be very problematic. Everyone goes wrong at multiple times in their life be it through behavior, speech, or intention. Public figures *do* go wrong, just as private members of society do. We need to not only acknowledge that, but also take seriously the over-sized impact that public figures have in our society: they influence our communities more than private members do. The increased impact brings with it more responsibility for critical reflection.

It is *wrong* for J.K. Rowling to promote transphobic and hateful positions, just as it is *wrong* for Louis C.K. to commit sexual misconduct. It was similarly wrong for Chik-fil-A to promote damaging and hateful treatment of LGBT+ people. Al Franken lost his political position over allegations of sexual misconduct, and Matt Lauer was removed from the “Today” show due to allegations of rape and sexual misconduct. These examples are of entities that exist in the public sphere, and who faced backlash and criticism based on their expressed views or behavior. Just as there’s not a justification for them to be in the public sphere in the first place, there is not a justification for them to be exempt from losing their place after enough people take issue with their behavior.

Second, it can seem as though there is no possible way to behave in such a way to avoid the strong backlash that some public figures have received. This amplifies the vulnerable, threatened feelings not just among the public figures, but also private members of society who might identify with those behaviors. It may seem that there is no getting away from some types of criticism, of going wrong in some sort of way. And this kind of condemnation cuts off further conversation about repair and progress.

Consider the months in 2019 when many public figures were exposed for having worn blackface in the past. Unfortunately, few who were revealed to have taken part in this obviously offensive and unacceptable behavior took responsibility for their actions. Few admitted to having done something wrong, expressed regret having since learned what made their actions unacceptable, or indicated that they were grateful to those who helped them grow and reflect on their former understanding, etc. The idea that there is no way to respond to criticism or wrong-doing does not help progress or understanding. Again, people will make mistakes. While nearly everyone will not make the mistakes listed here, it could be earnest dialog rather than defensiveness that is the focus when communal moral standards are not met. When private members of society see public figures being castigated, it is an important step past the fear of “cancel culture” to realize that they themselves are not under threat and that most likely they would not do what these figures did in the first place. It is also important to keep in mind that our moral missteps be approached with an attitude geared toward growth and repair.

Adopting such an attitude can be an extremely difficult task. As the Harper’s Letter attests, the criticism that occurs on social media — and that criticism’s real-life consequences — encourage defensive reactions. The threat wielded by such sudden and effective criticism evokes feelings of vulnerability and insecurity. But it is important to remember that it is the place in the public eye, or one’s professional reputation that is under threat, not the person’s safety or even freedom of speech. Further, threatening their place in the public sphere is frequently warranted, especially when their profession confers public status, as with politicians, news anchors, celebrities, etc.

In the end, the discussion of freedom of speech is a red herring that distracts us from our principal target. We should instead be focusing on why individuals receive the attention that they do, and whether the appropriate form of moral engagement when they fail to meet moral standards is to criticize their place in the public sphere. This can result in mutual progress, as opposed to mere removal.

Under Discussion: Free Speech, Cancel Culture, and Compassion

photograph of yellow push pin in the center of blue push pins with their spike turned to the yellow one

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter.

In July, 2020, Harper’s Magazine published a letter signed by 153 prominent authors and thinkers. Signatories included figures such as Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, and J.K. Rowling. Their main contention was that an “illiberal left” has emerged in recent political discourse — a left that allows no room for divergent points of view and that deals with “wrongdoers” swiftly and mercilessly.

Though the letter is about responses to speech, it does not express fear that first amendment violations are occurring; it does not suggest that the government is censoring speech on the basis of content. Instead, the signatories are concerned about the current cultural climate. They are concerned about cancel culture and the chilling effect it can have on the free exchange of ideas. Constitutions provide protections against tyrannical governments, and historically governments have been the primary coercive force looming over the lives of private citizens. In the new age in which we live, the internet — and the anonymous people on it — pose a comparable threat to personal well-being.

The main argument in support of cancel culture, at least when it comes to speech, is that some ideas are so wrong and so harmful that they should not be expressed. If they are expressed, the consequences should be so severe that the community as a whole learns that those views will not be tolerated. Racist, sexist, and homophobic (to name just a few) messages ought never to be advanced on any platform. It isn’t simply that these messages are inherently bad, they also cause real harm. The argument is that our response to speech should match in severity the potential harm caused by that speech.

The idea that the value of free speech can be outweighed by other important values is not new. The approach has been codified into law on multiple occasions. In one such case, the circumstances were morbidly similar in some respects to those in which we now find ourselves — Nero fiddled while Rome burned. In 1918, the Spanish Flu raged. Its existence and severity were undermined and covered up by governments, and the global travel initiated by World War I ensured rapid spread of the virus. Amidst this turmoil, Congress passed The Sedition Act which outlawed “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” against the United States government. Those that violated the act could spend up to twenty years in prison. The rationale for passing the legislation concerned the potential harms and unrest that anti-government sentiment could cause during wartime.

The highest courts in the country repeatedly upheld the act, making use of what is now referred to as the “Bad Tendency Test.” One noteworthy use of the Bad Tendency Test involved a man who wrote a book that contained arguments against war. In the book, the man argued, “that patriotism is identical with murder and the spirit of the devil, that war is a crime, and…that it was yet to be proved whether Germany had any intention or desire of attacking the United States.” At the time, this kind of argument was very unpopular — patriotism and loyalty to one’s country were viewed as important social virtues, and those who did not exhibit said virtues were viewed as pariahs. The courts agreed, and held that the issue at stake was “whether the natural and probable tendency and effect of the words quoted therefrom are such as are calculated to produce the result condemned by the statute.” In other words, the mere potential harms caused by certain kinds of speech were viewed as being so significant that it justified punishment for speech that might have a tendency to bring about those harms. The result was that the man was “cancelled” for being a pacifist. Of course, this example involves state action, whereas cancel culture involves the behavior of private actors. Nevertheless, our history can and should inform our strategies for private punishment of speech. We should never lose sight of the fact that beliefs that we now view as admirable were once viewed with disdain and even hatred by earlier generations. Hubris is dangerous; we are unlikely to have, at this precise moment, arrived at all the right answers regarding both facts and values. Freedom of expression allows us to explore what we have right and what we have wrong.

There are reasons for protecting freedom of expression that go beyond protecting ourselves from tyrannical governments. The ability to express oneself freely is important for living a meaningful, flourishing human life. We are nourished by the words of others and responding to others is part of how we create ourselves. When we nurture our children into the people they’ll become, we provide them with many outlets for expression but also with plenty of room to get things wrong. Building a worldview is a messy process and none of us get through it without making significant mistakes. Respect for the dignity and humanity of another person requires compassion in the face of mistakes that they will inevitably make. One of the most compassionate ways to rectify mistakes is through the patient exchange of ideas, which involves encouraging freedom of expression rather than stifling it. What’s more, antagonistic climates are likely to deter people from developing as thinkers. We want citizens to do more than simply take life as it comes, we want them to take an active interest in developing coherent, consistent worldviews, ideally strongly informed by evidence. The threat of being torn apart if something goes wrong may be enough to make plenty of people give up on the enterprise altogether.

At least some objections to cancel culture have to do with its underlying assumptions. “Canceling” someone for their speech is an act of retribution, which is motivated by the idea that individuals who express problematic views should “get what they deserve.” There are both broad and narrow reasons to be concerned about this. The broad concern is that there are compelling reasons to be skeptical of retributivism as a theory of punishment in the first place. The idea that retribution is the path to justice is a popular one — if you pluck out my eye, I get to pluck out yours. This view portrays justice as something to be exacted rather than as something to be achieved; it maintains that when a person exacts retribution, they somehow get back what the bad actor took. In her book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity Justice, Martha Nussbaum refers to this sentiment as the “payback wish.” People frequently believe that when they are harmed, severe punishment for the wrongdoer will somehow right the wrong. This simply isn’t so. When someone expresses a view with which we disagree, causing that person significant harm in response will not make their speech disappear. If a person feels harmed by another person’s speech, “canceling” the person who spoke will not undo the harm.

The narrow concern has to do with the severity of some of the retributive actions that take place in the climate of cancel culture. Even if one is inclined to believe that proportional retribution is justice, often the consequences for unpopular speech are not proportional. For example, recently, UNC Wilmington professor Mark Adams made national news for making a series of reprehensible comments on social media. He was encouraged to retire from his position, and he was compensated handsomely for doing so. On July 24th, 2020, he was found in his home, dead from a bullet wound. The official cause of his death has not yet been released, but many suspect suicide — it is plausible to speculate that the backlash that resulted from his callous behavior created for him a world in which he no longer could stand to live. It’s one thing to say that there should be consequences for harmful speech — there should. If an author engages in problematic speech, it is reasonable to refrain from buying that author’s books. Making that decision isn’t an instance of “canceling” anyone. The person who did something wrong isn’t off the hook, they should reflect on their actions and take responsibility for them. That said, the set of reasonable consequences for harmful speech doesn’t include bullying someone until they commit suicide.

All of this is not to say that the careful and conscientious exchange of ideas is some kind of magic elixir that can solve all of the world’s problems. Realistically, in most cases, if a person is a racist, misogynist, or conspiracy theorist, trying to talk them out of any of those positions will be a significant waste of time. Belief in the value of free speech shouldn’t itself turn into a form of dogma. We need to look at our social problems straight in the face in order to find solutions. We need to be realistic, also, about when people are engaging in discourse in good faith and when they aren’t. We only make progress when all participants enter the discussion with some epistemic humility. That said, exhibiting epistemic humility need not, and in many cases should not, involve commitment to the idea that all ideas are equally reasonable, evidence-based, or likely to be correct.

What, then, do we do when civil discourse isn’t successful at changing minds and hearts? The cases that we care the most about are cases in which there is a lot on the line; they are cases in which people stand to suffer a great deal as a result of the speech of powerful others. Is cancelling people the only viable alternative? In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr. explained why the demonstrations for which he was arrested were necessary. He directed his remarks at members of Alabama’s religious community who had advised him to wait or to express his demands in different ways. He pointed out that the political leaders “consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.” He concluded that those fighting injustice “had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.” King’s critical insight was to turn to other peaceful and meaningful forms of persuasion when patient dialogue led nowhere. One of the most powerful moves in his playbook was to appeal to the common humanity and dignity of others — even racists.

Creative and productive responses to ugly speech are possible. Cancel culture, at least when it comes to speech, is often fueled by rage and mob mentality — hardly the most noble human motivators. What’s more, if the goal is to change the mind of the bad actor, insisting that they should nevermore be listened to or taken seriously as a rational expressive human being is unlikely to get the job done. If one authentically commits oneself to the task of elevating discussion regarding important social issues and of getting rid of antiquated and harmful attitudes, one will employ strategies that actually work. Anything else looks like an attempt to satisfy the payback wish.

Under Discussion: Weeds Grow in Light and Open Air, Too

photograph of plants growing between sidewalk cracks

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter.

The quickly (in)famous open letter published in Harper’s Magazine forecasts a dire future for free thought and speech. Like a portentous specter, the letter’s signatories point with their veiled hand to a tombstone: “HERE LIES LIBERAL SOCIETY. CANCELED.” But they assure their readers, whom they assume have asked the miser’s question, that if the course be departed from, the end will change.

What are we doing wrong, and what should we be doing instead? We should not, say the signatories of the Harper’s letter (henceforth, simply “Harpers”), “silence or wish … away” bad ideas. Instead we are told, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion.” This mantra, simple and appealing as it might be, immediately runs into problems. First there is a question about what they mean by “bad” ideas — or “good” ones. The second problem is that even if we’ve identified a substantive and independent notion of good and bad for ideas, there’s not much reason to believe that exposure, argument, and persuasion elevate the good and sweep away the bad.

What is a good idea? The letter itself pitches democratic inclusiveness and participation as the central pillar of a liberal society, as set against illiberal intolerance and silencing. We could reasonably conclude that the Harpers would rank as good ideas those that are conducive to and constitutive of inclusiveness and participation. Bad ideas would then be those that hamper or are inconsistent with inclusiveness and participation. Cancel culture — the presumed target of the Harper letter — is presented as a paradigmatic bad idea. The phenomenon of cancellation is painted as authoritarian: there is an official “party” line, and those who either criticize it or fail to provide it a full-throated endorsement suffer professional and social consequences.

Is there anything more to being a good or bad idea than this? Likely, the signatories collectively hold some constellation of views that claim, at bottom, being true is what makes an idea good. This is the traditional justification of free speech within classical liberalism: let everyone express their ideas, and the true ones will eventually win out. Does it matter that the concept of truth is itself not agreed upon? Accounts of what truth is — if indeed it is anything at all — vary significantly. Certain kinds of relativism about truth make the claims of the letter’s signatories simply incommensurable with their opponents’ claims. What is true-for-Harpers may be false-for-cancellers, without any whiff of contradiction. It is open to the Harpers, however, to include theories of truth in their claim: the true theory of truth will also reveal itself through open debate.

The Harpers’ hope isn’t, however, pinned on the outcome of some theoretical debate about the nature of truth and goodness of ideas. We can concede whatever view of truth and good ideas they prefer. There remains the empirical matter of whether exposure, argument, and persuasion is the best way to sort good ideas from bad ones. There are two resounding “No” answers we can offer: a historical one and an empirical one.

Assuming that the United States, Western civilization, or whatever was at least at one time a paradise of free speech — or at least closer to it than the Harpers opine we are now — it’s at the least puzzling why we are so plagued by bad ideas. We can look around the US today and see ravenous resistance to what seems like the simplest of good ideas: stay home as much as possible and wear a mask in public to help suppress the COVID-19 pandemic. This proposition has received as much open debate as seems possible. Ludicrous conspiracy theories, evidence-based medical advice, and all things in between have circulated at every level of society. However in the US, at least, the bad idea that wearing a mask is a sign of sheepish obedience to authority is far from dead. Similar debate swirled around wearing seatbelts in the 1950s and 1960s. Seatbelts, which had been around since the 1930s, were not mandated by law in the US until 1968.

The persistence of racist, misogynist, and nationalist ideology also contributes to a historical case against the effectiveness of exposure, argument, and persuasion. Activists for the rights of sexually and racially marginalized people continue to make many of the same arguments today that they did more than 100 years ago. Voter suppression, economic exclusion, de facto segregation, and general discrimination are alive and well. Some argue, as Ezra Klein does in his recent book Why We Are Polarized, that ideological inflexibility is worse now than it has been at almost any time is US history. Given these phenomena, the Harpers’ insistence that we should retreat from the precipice of authoritarianism represented by cancel culture to what came before it amounts to saying, “Let us abandon evil ways and return to dark, old ones.”

This historical argument may be met with the rejoinder that sufficiently unfettered free speech has never really been practiced. The forces of identity politics and government overreach have never been sufficiently banished for us to witness the full glory of liberalism. (The defense of free market economic policy, to which the Harpers’ concept of free speech is related, is voiced in similar terms.) If we were to adopt a thoroughgoing liberalism, stopping both popular identity-motivated sniping and government censorship, progress would steadily occur. The truth would set us free.

But now comes the empirical argument to rain on our parade. People are generally bad at thinking. Once we come to believe something, whether for good or bad reasons, we do not tend to change our views in the face of even strong contrary evidence. This is especially true of beliefs that we incorporate into our sense of who we are as a person. When we are presented with evidence against a belief that we take to define who we are, we react defensively rather than dispassionately. In a rock-paper-scissors game among the three classical modes of persuasionlogos, ethos, and pathos — argument based on truth and facts is wet tissue paper to the sharp scissors and blunt rock of appeals to authority, character, and emotion.

Humans are not omniscient, dispassionate, or otherwise unburdened by cognitive, social, and moral particularity. Any dominant ideas of society, including the Harpers’ view of how free speech should work, exert not merely passive inertia against change but also active resistance to usurpation. Ironically, despite bemoaning “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty,” the Harpers letter does just that. It says our only alternatives are authoritarian intolerance of difference, or suffering “caustic counter speech” of all varieties. The letter’s title evinces a concern for justice, but doesn’t spare a single word for how injustice can be carried out under the protection of free speech. We do not need, and should not want, social or political thought police; but we can avoid this while still encouraging thoughtfulness and accountability for speech.

Under Discussion: Five Arguments Against the Harper’s Letter

photograph of computer screen displaying Harper's Letter

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter.

On July 7, 2020, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter warning that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted” by a set of “moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” The letter obliquely refers to several incidents in which, in the eyes of the letter writers, individuals have been subjected to disproportionate or inappropriate social sanction for perceived transgressions against left-wing norms of thought and speech. “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class….” Signed by some 150 prominent educators, intellectuals, writers, and artists, the letter provoked a swift backlash by the left-leaning press. That reaction has crystallized around a set of arguments against the letter’s position that I propose to assess in this column.

The first argument, best articulated by The New Republic’s Otisa Nwanevu, is that the moral (and legal) right of free association gives private organizations, including newspapers and private colleges or universities, the right to decide what ideas they are and aren’t interested in promoting and what people they believe will or will not be an asset to them. Hence, no individual has the right to use such an organization as a platform for expressing their ideas, and these organizations, in turn, have no duty to be maximally permissive of ideas with which they disagree. The argument is surely correct that, for example, Tom Cotton had no right to be published in The New York Times, and The New York Times had no duty to publish him. Yet the wrongs that worry the signatories of the Harper’s letter are not, it seems, grounded in these alleged rights or duties. Instead, they are at least in part grounded in the conception of certain types of organization as aiming at certain morally worthy ends. For example, it can be plausibly argued that the role of private colleges and universities, just as much as public ones, is to generate knowledge and serve as forums for debate about pressing political issues. But these commitments seem to ground an obligation to promote debate and discussion. And while this obligation does not require giving a platform to any particular individual or group, it does require giving a platform to some individuals or groups that represent relevant, if ideologically heterodox views. Similarly, in cases of wrongful termination, the idea is not that the organization had a duty to provide a platform for any idea, no matter how offensive; rather, it is that termination of individuals who are not guilty of the offenses of which they are accused is wrongful.

The second argument is that the signatories overplay the importance of a handful of relatively isolated controversies, even if the latter do, in fact, involve wrongdoing on the part of left-wing activists or Twitter mobs. It is undeniable that most critical discussions of progressive identity politics focus on a handful of anecdotes, perhaps mainly because there is no central database of incidents from which to draw. However, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) does compile large databases of free speech-related incidents and policies on college campuses, including disinvitations, free-speech codes, and so on. Whether these databases, together with the anecdotes, amount to a troubling cultural trend is for the reader to decide.

The third argument, which is even more dismissive than the second, is that the consequences faced by victims of so-called “cancellation” are relatively minor, particularly given the signatories’ elite status; moreover, they are usually deserved. As Jessica Valenti put it in a Medium.com article, the signatories “want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence and paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them.” The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis agrees, writing that “facing widespread criticism on Twitter, undergoing an internal workplace review, or having one’s book panned does not, in fact, erode one’s constitutional rights or endanger a liberal society.” However, the anecdotes that seem to prompt worries about left-wing censoriousness feature consequences to individuals that go far beyond mere criticism, as the stories of wrongful termination referenced above attest. These individuals are usually not members of the cultural elite. Moreover, undergoing an internal workplace review, which is the outcome of so many of these cases, is very different from facing public criticism; it represents a potential threat to one’s livelihood. To have one’s livelihood threatened because of one’s personal speech is bound to have a chilling effect. Finally, there is a distinction between legitimate criticism of one’s ideas and attacks on one’s reputation or threats to one’s safety, tactics often wielded by social media users on both the left and right. These are serious and often disproportionate forms of social sanction, even when directed at powerful members of society.

The fourth argument is that there are much more pressing threats to free speech upon which the writers of the Harper’s letter ought to have focused their attention, such as violence against journalists, economic threats to journalism and academia, and so on. Logically speaking, this is not really an argument against concern about threats to free speech from the left. To see this, consider the argument that charity X ought to focus more attention on tropical disease Y rather than tropical disease Z, since the former kills five times the number of people. This is not an argument against addressing tropical disease Z, but an argument for proportioning attention and resources appropriately. Furthermore, it does not seem fair to claim that the letter itself does not acknowledge the threat from the right, or that those behind it have ignored that threat. At a number of points the letter alludes to the right-wing threat to free speech, although clearly the issue it squarely addresses is the threat from the left. Thomas Chatterton Williams, who spearheaded the letter, recently called President Trump the “Canceler in Chief”; and Yascha Mounk, a prominent signatory, has written that the primary threat posed to liberal democracy is from the populist right.

The final argument is similar to the last: it is that there are much more pressing political issues than the threat to free speech from the left. As Tom Scocca of Slate puts it, referring to Tom Cotton’s op-ed, “[i]n the world of the Harper’s letter, the threat that mattered was the one to the careers of veteran editors—not the threat that had bullets and bayonets behind it…” Again, this is not an argument against concern about the threat to free speech from the left, and it seems uncharitable to claim that simply because the letter concerns this issue, it is therefore the only issue that matters to its signatories.

The fourth and fifth arguments can also be interpreted as attacks upon the signatories’ motives. Giorgis writes that “it’s telling that the censoriousness they identify as a national plague isn’t the racism that keeps Black journalists from reporting on political issues, or the transphobia that threatens colleagues’ lives.” On Giorgis’s view, what this tells us is that the signatories don’t care, or at least don’t care enough, about the issues she identifies. But arguments about the motives of one’s interlocutor have no bearing on the merits of their position: if they don’t care about these issues that may make them morally bad people, but it does not mean that there is no threat to free speech from the left. In any case, it again seems uncharitable to conclude that they don’t care about some other issues simply because they’ve chosen to focus a certain amount of attention upon this one.

To conclude, my view is that among the arguments in the popular press against the Harper’s letter, the most difficult to answer is that worries about the threat to free speech from the left are overblown. It is simply difficult to tell when a series of incidents becomes a trend, and how concerned we should be about that trend. Beyond this, the arguments miss the mark for the most part. Of course, this does not mean that the letter’s claims are valid, and I have not defended them in this column.

Shockingly Funny: The Morality of Eric Andre’s Comedy

photograph of Eric Andre at an event

In a recent interview with The New York Times, comedian Eric Andre refers to himself as a “benevolent prankster.” Eric Andre is arguably the modern king of hidden camera pranks, which have racked up millions of views on YouTube. Andre got his start performing standup comedy and was scouted by Comedy Central where he debuted his interview-style prank show, “The Eric Andre Show,” in 2012. On June 23, his Netflix standup special “Legalize Everything” released, and it is anticipated that his hidden camera comedy “Bad Trip” will release sometime this year on Netflix.

Eric Andre admits that his career relies on “purposely trying to get a rise out of people.” While a large portion of modern standup incorporates elements of self-deprecation, Andre’s style of humor fundamentally depends on eliciting a reaction out of someone else – and the stronger the reaction, the more humorous the content. This style of comedy is called ‘shock humor’ and often plays on so-called “low culture” subjects such as toilet jokes, sexual themes, and dark humor. With Andre’s steady career in comedy on the rise, there has been little discussion over the morality of his, and other shock-humorists’, methods.

Is it okay to purposefully seek a strong reaction from unsuspecting others? Does the relationship between the shocker and the shock-ee matter? And do the ends of shock-humor’s comical absurdity justify the means?

Eric Andre is not oblivious to the questionable morality of his work. In his NYT interview he discloses that for the shock-humorist, “you end your day feeling like you did something wrong and it’s not until you see the footage edited together properly that you’re like, OK, I have a funny bit in here.” For Andre, it seems the end result of humorous content justifies the short-lived shock he elicits from others. But some might argue this method of achieving comedy is neither respectful toward the rights of others nor justified by the end product. By attempting to upset, disgust, or disturb others, Andre acknowledges he is using people as a means to an end. And though every person appearing in his hidden camera prank has signed a release form, how many other individuals, that Andre elicited a reaction from, have refused to be a part of his videos? This lack of information makes it hard to truly gauge how much emotional turmoil and trauma has resulted from Andre’s process in creating his comedy.

Another moral consideration when it comes to shock humor is the positionality of the person being shocked and the way in which their identity is used in the process. Some instances of Andre’s NYC hidden camera pranks could be interpreted to derive humor by playing on a subject’s identity. In one of his videos, he begins a conversation with a woman asking a lewd question. This instance is disturbing considering the frequency with which women experience sexual harassment in public spaces and could potentially be considered sexual harassment under the New York City Human Rights law. In another video, filmed outside of the Democratic Convention, he asks blatantly sexist questions about Hillary Clinton to a woman who agreed to an interview. In both of these instances, Andre plays on the gender/sex of his comedic subject to attempt to elicit a reaction at their expense.

Andre’s shock humor could also lead to especially harmful consequences if the subjects of his humor are already prone to public harassment or stress. In the official trailer for his upcoming comedy “Bad Trip” it appears that many of Andre’s prank victims are people of color. In fact, one of his more extreme pranks targeted a black barbershop and ended with a black man chasing him and his costar, Lil Rel Howery, with a knife. Even if Andre did not intentionally target communities of color, or play on race stereotypes while doing so, it is still important to consider whether or not it is especially immoral to visit shock and emotional distress upon individuals and communities who experience a higher rate for social and economic stress to begin with.

Despite the morally questionable aspects of Andre’s methods, some might argue that those who are featured in his pranks are, in a way, willing participants in the comedic exchange. While individuals cannot control Andre’s actions, they are arguably responsible for their own reactions to his attempts to shock them. Aside from during his subway hidden-camera pranks, Andre never targets individuals who are incapable of walking away from the situation, and he has stated that he carefully tries to operate within the bounds of the law. While the law is clearly not always a good guide for determining morality, Andre could certainly be considered better than those who shock in order to harass or assert their  power over others, such as in street harassment. Additionally, Andre often uses himself and his body as the “shock,” subjecting himself to public humiliation, judgment, and sometimes potential violence. It could be argued Andre is technically at greater risk for harm than any individual he shocks. This is especially true if one considers his identity as a Black man, in a culture and society where calling the police on Black people is normalized, and police brutality is a common phenomenon. When asked about his experience interrupting an Alex Jones rally outside the 2016 Republican National Convention, Andre admitted to Stephen Colbert thinking to himself, “Oh I’m gonna die…This is where my life ends.” To some, Andre’s willingness to put his life in danger makes the shock he causes others seem minuscule in comparison.

The case in favor of Andre’s comedy becomes stronger when one considers his attempts to question social norms through his comedy. Andre has been vocal about his identity as both a Jewish person and a Black man. One might also observe that unlike some forms of dark humor, Andre’s specific brand of facetiousness often raises further awareness about important issues. Both his standup comedy as well as his social media accounts are used to highlight issues concerning social justice and inequality. During “Legalize Everything” Andre shocks the audience by acting out an exaggeratedly violent imitation of police brutality while yelling, “This is a system invented by rich, white, Christian, heterosexual businessmen, and if you don’t match that description, then it is my job to subjugate and oppress you, motherfucker, for I am your judge, jury, and executioner!”

Andre has also intentionally used the shock aspect of his comedy to target and poke fun at bigoted people and their beliefs. The topics he chose to shock others with during his trip to the RNC such as transgender restrooms, cross-dressing, abortion, and Black Lives Matter were clearly meant to poke fun at the caricature of Republicans as being prejudiced and intolerant towards certain groups of people.

Shock-humor has the potential to call attention to harmful social norms and subjects considered too taboo for casual conversation. It can also, as Andre has shown, be used to force others to reexamine their own engagement with socially harmful institutions and ideologies. However, the morality of shock-humor on an individual level and the relationship between the shocker and the shock-ee are too important to ignore. As the popularity of shock-humor and comedians like Eric Andre continues to rise, it is time we asked ourselves whether the hilarity of absurdity justify the means of shock.

Moral Panics about “COVID Parties”

photograph of teenagers at corwded concert on the beach

In recent weeks, a new feature has appeared in the discourse focused on the global pandemic and its related quarantine procedures: reportedly, people have been hosting and attending parties designed to spread the coronavirus. From Alabama to Florida to Texas, the details of these so-called “COVID Parties” differ, but one element is common: attendees do not take the threat of the disease seriously. Some gatherings seem to be patterned after “chickenpox parties” intended to encourage herd immunity, others are allegedly motivated by sport or financial gain (one widely-circulated report claimed that a party in Tuscaloosa offered a cash prize to the first guest to contract COVID-19).

However, to date, the evidence for the phenomenon of “COVID parties” is surprisingly scarce: that is to say, it is not clear that any such parties have actually taken place. Consider the story of the “Texas millennial” who supposedly confessed to attending a COVID party shortly before he died in a San Antonio hospital in mid-July.

The hospital’s health director admits that she heard of the disclosure secondhand and journalists have been unable to locate the nurse who purportedly received the confession in the first place. Similarly, most of the claims about college students in Alabama holding contests to intentionally catch COVID-19 are traceable to a single member of the Tuscaloosa City Council commenting on (and seemingly embellishing) a rumor shared by the city’s fire chief about sick teenagers leaving their homes: at this point, no hard evidence (such as alleged eyewitnesses or posts on social media) have surfaced of these parties and the University of Alabama has been unsuccessful at locating any potential attendees. Nevertheless, both of these small-scale stories have been reported by national news outlets.

This suggests that the trending discussions about “COVID parties” evidence what’s called a “moral panic” concerned with discouraging lackadaisical responses to the coronavirus. Such panics result when false beliefs about a purported threat to a social group spread throughout that group, thereby leading group members to be increasingly hostile towards anyone or anything they suspect of embodying the rumored threat. Consider the overreaction of the Christian Right to the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s, longstanding urban legends about the risks of poisoned Halloween candy, and the relatively recent “Momo Challenge” where a YouTube video supposedly tried to convince viewers to harm themselves: each of these were rooted in false beliefs about over-exaggerated threats to children. More serious examples of moral panics can be found in the abuses suffered by patients with HIV/AIDS or members of LGBTQ communities as ignorance and fear-mongering among more dominant social groups fueled (and still fuels) official policies of abandonment and exclusion. Importantly, Oxford Reference points out that “moral panics are generally fueled by media coverage of social issues” — a feature only exacerbated by the contemporary explosion of social media.

Given the many risks posed by the coronavirus, the perceived threat of a COVID party might be understandable: if such a party were to happen, it could significantly contribute to more people contracting the disease — including, crucially, more people than just those who actually chose to attend the party. But there are at least two broad kinds of problems with moral panics, and the rumors of COVID parties seem to exhibit both.

Firstly, moral panics unavoidably pose epistemic problems insofar as they are, by definition, fueled by false beliefs and, often, mishandled evidence (or evidential requirements). For example, to date, the reports of COVID parties have ranged from hearsay to misattribution to, potentially, straightforward fabrication. Consider the tragic case of Carsyn Leigh Davis, an immunocompromised seventeen-year-old in Florida who died after contracting COVID-19 in mid-June. Shortly before she fell ill, Davis attended a party at her church where neither face masks nor social distancing practices were required; initial reports (now corrected) labeled this church gathering a “COVID party,” despite there being no clear evidence that the event was actually intended to spread the coronavirus (the church has explicitly denied these allegations). By jumping to conclusions about the nature of the church party, at least some reporters (and self-styled reporters who share information on social media sites) seem to have fallen prey to the problem of confirmation bias. In a similar way (and for a variety of additional reasons), failures to thoroughly vet second-(or third or fourth)-hand reports of COVID parties have led to what amounts to conspiracy theories being shared openly and uncritically.

Which leads me to the second — and, arguably, more problematic — issue about moral panics: what they tell us about the social groups doing the panicking. Naturally, in order for biases to be confirmable, they must first exist in the minds of biased observers: someone cannot, for example, reflexively equate homosexuals with pedophiles if they do not already falsely believe that those two groups of people are somehow logically associated. Certainly, it is no secret that plenty of skeptics doubt the severity (and even reality) of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the panic about COVID parties suggests more complicated stereotypes are at work.

Consider the commonalities amongst the COVID party reports I’ve already mentioned: each of them focus on patients (or imagined patients) who were also members of subcultures frequently treated as fair game for jokes by the culture-at-large: millennials, college students, and religious fundamentalists. Perhaps most importantly, all three stories hailed from the Deep South. For these sorts of stories to seem salient to readers in the first place, those readers must already be at least somewhat suspicious of (or, at the very least, pretentious towards) those subgroups in a manner that will be suspiciously unvirtuous.

Let’s imagine that Barry is a person who takes the threat posed by the coronavirus seriously, but has never before heard of a COVID party. When Barry reads allegations that people in Alabama have been intentionally competing to contract COVID-19 and win a pot of money, they will likely be skeptical (because it will strike Barry as a wildly unlikely thing for people to do). If, however, Barry then reads that it was a group of college students throwing this alleged COVID party and Barry thereby takes the premise of the story to be more likely, then we can reasonably infer certain unflattering things that Barry likely believes about college students. Replace “college students” with “millennials, “religious fundamentalists,” or “Southerners” and the story reads no differently.

This kind of condescending attitude is akin to what Aristotle decried as an act of “insult” (sometimes also translated as both “insolence” and “hubris”). In his Rhetoric, Aristotle explains that insult consists in shaming someone simply for the mean-spirited pleasure of doing so; as he says, people prone to such acts “think that, in committing them, they are showing their superiority.” Such behavior, Aristotle continues, is often evidence of a dishonorable character and this seems equally true of biased attitudes that do not provoke overt action (beyond tapping the “share” link). Insofar as rumors about COVID parties activate biased presuppositions about various subgroups that Barry assumes to be inferior, we can thereby reasonably suspect that Barry harbors certain immoral prejudices.

So, in addition to their other features, moral panics can function as a barometer for subgroups that prideful members of the dominant social group reflexively patronize. If real evidence of COVID parties becomes available, then critical reactions to such threats would be warranted, but in the absence of such evidence, moral panics are epistemically unjustified. Moreover, insofar as moral panics are motivated by regionalism or other kinds of snobbish stereotypes, they run the risk of actually being prideful moral hazards.

Judgment, Condemnation, and Historical Context

photograph of statue of Thomas Jefferson seatedin profile

Is it right to condemn historical figures for moral beliefs that, while common during their time, are now known to be odious?

Our attitudes toward historical figures matter. Our attitudes bear on the question of what public honors should be bestowed on morally flawed historical figures, and our attitudes toward historical figures will influence our contemporary moral thinking. How I view historical figures may influence my trust in moral and institutional traditions I have received from those thinkers. If I believe our Founding Fathers were good and noble people with certain, though largely isolatable, tragic flaws, I’ll trust our constitutional system more than if I believe our Founding Fathers were mostly moral degenerates skilled at couching their corruption in the propagandistic rhetoric of admirable ideals. This trust need not be self-conscious. If you present multiple people with the exact same policy proposals while varying who you say supports it, you can flip who supports which policy. Just seeing an idea as presented by someone ‘on my side’ or ‘in my team’ or ‘within my in-group’ (to use the language of social psychology), will incline you to find it plausible. The extent to which I’ll instinctively trust the political structure set up by our Founding Fathers will depend, at least in part, on the extent to which I see the Founding Fathers as patriotic exemplars.

So how should we think of historical figures with odious beliefs? There are two lines of argument against judging them the way we would judge contemporaries.

The first line is often expressed by language like “they belonged to a particular time.” The argument suggests that these thinkers were, because of their historical context, blamelessly morally ignorant of things we now know.

If you heard about a doctor who, in their rush to treat patients as quickly as possible, did not bother to sterilize materials between amputations, you would reasonably condemn that person as culpably negligent or heartless. However, we do not make similar moral judgements about doctors in the seventeenth century. Sure, it would have been better had they sterilized their instruments, but these doctors did not have the germ theory of disease, they had no reason to think that boiling their surgical instruments would do anything, and indeed they had every reason to think that the longer they took to perform amputations the further infections could spread.

We do not judge historical figures for terrible surgical practices because we think that at least some forms of non-moral ignorance exculpate. But if non-moral ignorance can exculpate, can’t moral ignorance as well? Just as we, the beneficiaries of the modern medical awakening, cannot fairly judge historical figures for the poor choices they made as a consequence of their worse scientific environment, so, the thought goes, we, the beneficiaries of various moral awakenings, cannot fairly judge historical figures for the poor choices they made as a consequence of their worse moral environment.

There are, however, good reasons to doubt the extrapolation from the non-moral case to the moral case. One contemporary philosopher who argues for an asymmetry between moral and non-moral ignorance is Elizabeth Harman. Harman, following Nomy Arpaly, thinks you are blameworthy if you betray an inadequate concern for what is morally significant.

This account would explain why non-moral ignorance sometimes excuses. If I mistakenly believe a certain charitable organization does good work, then donating to that actually harmful charity need not display an inadequate concern for the plight of the poor, for example. I might really care as much as I should for justice, but simply be misled about what would best serve others.

This account of blameworthiness would also explain why moral ignorance does not excuse. If I’m morally ignorant that I ought to give to the poor, then that very ignorance displays a lack of concern for the poor, and thus a lack of concern for what really is morally significant. Circumstances where we fail to grasp the character of our acts (say I thought the backpack I grabbed on my way out of class was mine, when really it was your very similar-looking bag) do not communicate moral indifference (I may still be fully concerned to respect your property). In contrast, being aware that I was taking your property but not appreciating that it was wrong, would actually prove my lack of concern.

But not all philosophers agree with drawing this strong asymmetry between moral and non-moral ignorance. Why, for instance, is it wrong for us to morally condemn vicious people raised as child soldiers? One plausible answer is that child soldiers cannot be blamed for their ignorance of the moral law.

Of course, even if we accept moral ignorance can, in principle, excuse, it remains an open question if it does in the historical cases we’re considering. There is a difference between having had one’s conscience systematically flayed by the brutal brainwashing that goes into creating a child soldier, and simply growing up in a society with a high tolerance for evil.

Consider the view of Elizabeth Anscombe, who thinks there are some examples of moral ignorance that really do excuse. Anscombe describes an executioner who has private knowledge of a condemned man’s innocence, but who cannot use that knowledge to exonerate the man. She asks us to further suppose the executioner knows the man had a fair trial under a rightful legal authority. Anscombe thinks since the greatest moral theologians can’t agree about this case, the simple executioner might really be blameless for choosing wrongly.

But even if there are cases of excusing moral ignorance, Anscombe thinks they are exceedingly rare. They don’t cover the controversial cases of historical figures. Anscombe follows Aristotle and Aquinas in thinking that the main outlines of morality are accessible by the light of natural human reason, and while humans are incredibly self-deceived, that does not get us off the hook given that we should, and can, almost always know the core of what is right or wrong if we don’t give into vicious self-deception. Their actions betrayed ignorance of basic moral truths which Anscombe thinks were clearly accessible to them. Thus, Anscombe ends up thinking that while there is no principled asymmetry between moral and non-moral ignorance, there is a practical asymmetry. The main outlines of science (say germ theory) are not truths available to everyone just in light of common human reason, but the main outlines of morality (say the evil of chattel slavery) are truths available to everyone just in light of common human reason. Thus, it is far more common for non-moral ignorance to excuse; not because non-moral ignorance alone can excuse, but because moral ignorance is rarely blameless.

Perhaps this first line of argument could be salvaged, but for now I will put it aside, because…

there is a second line of argument I want to consider. This is the argument often expressed by the honest voice in the back of my head saying: “but are you really that confident that if you were a white kid growing up in Antebellum South that you would have had the moral clarity to see the right of things?” Sure, maybe I agree with Anscombe and Aquinas that I should  have been able to see the right of things. But am I really so certain I would have?

The force of this thought comes from an extension of the norm against hypocritical blame. We generally think it inappropriate to blame someone for things I expect I might do were I in your situation. Since I’m not particularly exceptional amongst my own moral cohort, I don’t have good reason to think I’d be exceptional if transplanted to a historical cohort, so I should temper my outrage at historical figures.

However, here we tend to draw the wrong lesson. We’re tempted to think something like:  I’m a morally decent person, I’m probably not in a position to judge at least many historical figures as far worse than me, so many of these historical figures must not have been that bad.

That is almost the opposite of the conclusion suggested here.  We have already seen when considering the first line of argument that there are good reasons for thinking historical figures are fully responsible for their bad beliefs. My hypocrisy does not show the other person is not evil, rather it shows I might be evil as well.

Thoughts on hypocrisy should not lead us to think better of historical figures, but rather to think worse, and more humbly, of ourselves. We should recognize that many of the beliefs about which we are self-righteous might be largely chosen, not from principle, but because it helps us gain the glowing approval of those whose opinions we prize. And likewise, we should perhaps recognize that whatever moral clarity we do have is an undeserved grace.

This does require a pessimistic view of humanity. Yet it is a sort of pessimism shared by many of the great moral traditions and thinkers. Plato thought that our material bodies, filled with appetites, continually pull us away from virtue. Aristotle thought that only someone with an exceptionally fortunate and unearned upbringing could ever become good. Stoics doubted there ever were, or even could be, any true sages. Christians taught humans were slaves to original sin absent the intervention of divine grace. Kant famously proclaimed humans were by nature evil.

If we accept this pessimism, what attitude should we take towards historical figures? On the one hand it allows you to acknowledge the utter evil and depravity of historical figures who defended odious practices. But on the other hand, it also discourages the hatred that inclines us to divide the world into the virtuous in-group and the vicious out-group. We should willingly acknowledge the evil of historical figures, but should be skeptical that it gives us any standing to look down on them, as though we have any moral height from which to condescend.

There are three principled attitudes to take towards historical figures. First, following Harman, we could think there is a real asymmetry between our own blameworthiness and theirs because our differing moral values really show differing levels of blameworthiness. Second, we could see them as similar to ourselves — largely good people though victims of largely blameless ignorance. Or third, and this one seems right to me, we could again see them as similar to ourselves, but as also blameworthy in their ignorance of their own depravity, and so conclude that we are actually closer to their wickedness than we realized.

COVID-19 and Food Justice

photograph of meat-packing workers crowded around conveyor belt

Despite the widespread effects of COVID-19 in the food industry and the centrality of that industry to everyone’s existence food and agriculture systems have not made their way to the forefront of the public conversation about the virus. Yet, the pandemic and the federal government’s bungled response to it reveals starkly how broken our food system is, and how standard responses to the virus threaten simply to maintain the status quo in the food system. The situation illuminates the inflexibility of a consolidated, industrialized food sector dominated by monopolistic companies, and the unethical consequences of such a system, whether under pandemic conditions or not. It highlights even more strikingly the untenable situation in which we find ourselves when it comes to industrialized animal agriculture.

Even as food waste has proliferated, for instance, with unpicked produce rotting in fields and eggs and milk deliberately destroyed, food banks struggled to keep up with the demand for their services. Food supplies have not been systematically redirected to meet the needs of the growing number of people experiencing food insecurity, but neither was production reduced or redirected. This issue is especially troubling with respect to animal agriculture, as farmers are forced to “depopulate” (i.e., cull) animals they cannot bring to slaughter, often using grisly methods. These disturbing problems are not merely the result of the pandemic, however, but are the natural consequence of conventional methods of raising, growing, producing, and distributing food. Closing or reducing the capacity of slaughterhouses threw off the chain of production because of the mechanical, systematic way animal products are produced: animals are continuously reproduced, bred to grow rapidly on a predictable, shortened schedule to maximize output, and raised in crowded confinement.

Our dependence on animals for food is also a direct contributor to the spread of the virus. Like bird flu, H1NI, SARS, MERS, West Nile Fever, Zika, Yellow Fever, and Ebola, which all have proven or suspected transmission via domesticated animals, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is a zoonotic disease that moves between humans and nonhuman animals. Although some of these diseases did not originate in domesticated animals, their spread is often amplified, in various ways, through humans’ close contact with them. In a recent report on preventing pandemics, the UN Environment Programme explained that, “The frequency of pathogenic microorganisms jumping from other animals to people is increasing due to unsustainable human activities. Pandemics such as the COVID-19 outbreak are a predictable and predicted outcome of how people source and grow food, trade animals, and alter environments.” Among the worrisome trends that the report addresses are increasing human demand for animal protein and unsustainable agricultural intensification, including factory farming. The UNEP recommends shifting from “short-term political responses to long-term political commitments to secure human, animal and environment health” as a way to reduce the risk of zoonoses.

A prime example of such a misguided and short-term political response to the pandemic’s effect on our food system is the Trump administration’s decision in April to invoke the Defense Production Act to force meat processing plants to remain open to “ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.” Meat-processing plants rank among the top hotspots for COVID-19 and, to date, over 16,200 meatpacking workers have been infected with the virus and at least 86 have died. Not only is social distancing impossible given production speeds in such plants, but experts also hypothesize that normal working conditions in the plants encourage the spread of the virus. Despite continued assurances that workers’ lives and health are valued, this use of the DPA highlights the overall disregard for working-class, migrant, immigrant, and refugee workers that is a persistent feature of the food industry. Following this order, and receiving much less publicity, the USDHS removed limitations on the H-2B Visa program, making it easier for meat companies to hire guest workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union criticized both decisions as “a betrayal of America’s meatpacking workers, giving companies free pass to ignore safety.” The safety guidelines delineated by OSHA are voluntary and not enforceable, and companies are defying the state and local authority and law that could be used to protect workers, claiming that the federal mandate takes precedence. In addition, most people doing this work do not have the financial freedom not to return to work; the DPA order means that they can no longer utilize unemployment compensation, so they must choose to put their lives (and those of their families and members of their communities) at risk to make ends meet.

Designating meat-processing facilities as “critical infrastructure” through the DPA is a destructive decision, but is also a logical conclusion of the existing, exploitative system of agriculture and food production in the US, which involves farming so intensively as to deplete the soil, pollute the water, bolster antibiotic resistance, and harm the health of people in surrounding communities. Animals are treated as mere raw materials. Workers are devalued as replaceable and disposable, especially as the burden of farmwork shifted onto migrant laborers, people of color, and disempowered contract farmers. These kinds of exploitative relationships are at the heart of the system of industrialized, intensive agriculture because profit and efficiency, narrowly understood, are valued above all else. Through our food system, we have cultivated dependency on exploited labor, tortured animals, and powerful and monopolistic corporations, all in exchange for cheap, plentiful, and readily available food. The proliferation of COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-processing facilities is consistent with those values, revealing yet again that companies like Tyson are “… worried more about getting chicken on the shelves than the people who put the chicken on the shelf,” as one worker noted. While food corporations are adjusting to the new normal, they aim to go about business as usual by implementing testing regimes, which may foster the perception of safety in lieu of actually creating safe working conditions. But testing is not failsafe since it only identifies but does not prevent infection, and lag times as well as gaps between the administration of tests mean that workers could unknowingly be exposed to the virus before anyone realizes there’s a problem. Invoking the DPA to keep meat-processing facilities open thus clearly exposes the perverse logic of the dominant way of producing and consuming food.

Another looming global crisis, climate change, indicates how shortsighted and counterproductive it is to preserve the status quo with respect to food production and animal agriculture in particular. According to the UNFAO, animal agriculture is a significant driver of global climate change, contributing at least 18% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. By promoting the increased production and consumption of meat, the U.S. continues to ignore both the dangerous and intensifying consequences of climate change as well as the clear connections between animal husbandry and the spread of zoonoses. In fact, the frequency and transmission of zoonotic diseases are worsened by climate change: many disease vectors and the pathogens themselves tend to thrive in warmer, wetter climates, and in places where biological diversity is threatened. Thus, the more we depend on intensive animal agriculture for food, the more we commit ourselves to dangerous climate change, and, in light of both, the more likely we are to catalyze the outbreak of another deadly zoonotic disease like COVID-19. This risk is increased by both close and unnatural contact with animals as well as the changing environmental conditions brought on by climate instability. Yet, the approach of food companies and the federal government, along with many state governments, has been to uphold the status quo in our food system at all costs and, so, to declare that meat is so important that we will sacrifice human lives and climate stability to secure it.

The pandemic should be an occasion to call for changes to our food systems that genuinely bolster food security and protect human health by reducing reliance on a fragile, harmful, and overly centralized system of production. Yet, loosening the hold of industrialized animal agriculture on our system of food production is challenging because of the belief that meat is essential to both diet and the economy. It is unquestionable, however, that meat is not necessary, that there are various different sources of protein, and that alternative agricultural and food production enterprises could sustain the economy.

Still, we struggle to detach ourselves from the pervasive cultural narrative that we need meat. The standard American diet is synonymous with huge portions of meat, and many Americans consider a meal without it un-thinkable. This perception is unsurprising given that the USDA dietary guidelines do more to promote corporate interests than human health, and messaging campaigns funded by the government via check-off programs have been wildly successful in convincing Americans to increase consumption of animal products. Perhaps there’s no stronger evidence of the success of these efforts than the aforementioned use of the DPA, which fortifies the myth of the necessity of animal protein into law.

The pandemic has revealed our food and agricultural system to be cumbersome, unadaptable, unsafe, and unethical. The responses to the impact of COVID-19 on that system have been mere mitigation measures, simply shoring up the existing state of affairs. The current crisis, however, presents us with the opportunity to rethink how we relate to, produce, and consume food, and then to transform our food system radically. Such an examination should start with redefining what is truly “essential” regarding food and taking stock of all the costs of intensively raising animals for food. Meat, especially in the vast quantities produced in the US, is not essential. What is essential is a resilient, sustainable, and democratic food system that provides healthful food, offers safe and meaningful work, treats animals as sentient beings, and involves agricultural practices that conserve and sustain natural resources. The forms that such a system can take are myriad and no one agricultural model is a cure-all.

Likewise, in the face of global climate change, we must acknowledge that our real needs are radically different from how we have been accustomed to think of them. We need food systems that are flexible and responsive, that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that foster human health, that cultivate ecological, biological, and socio-cultural diversity, and that restore environmental integrity, especially in anticipation of climate instability and the resultant serious environmental problems. The work of organizations like Soul Fire Farm, which not only farms in ecological regenerative ways that sequester carbon but also prioritizes racial justice through mentorship and care for the local community, is a model. Policy changes are also necessary to address structural injustice and support the work of such organizations. One key move is to redirect agricultural subsidies from agribusiness, especially commodity crops and animal agriculture, to farmers using carbon neutral and carbon negative practices.

The global pandemic has highlighted all the ways in which our current food system is failing: instead of pouring more resources into a harmful food system and bolstering the profits of big agribusiness, we need a food system that serves the interests of the people from farm and factory to the table.

Re-evaluating Addiction: The Immoral Moralizing of Alcoholics Anonymous

photograph of church doorway with chairs arranged

As of 2019, Alcoholics Anonymous boasts more than 2 million members across 150 countries, making it the most widely implemented form of addiction treatment worldwide. The 12-step program has become ubiquitous within medical science and popular culture alike, to the extent that most of us take its potency for granted. According to Eoin F. Cannon’s The Saloon and the Mission: Addiction, Conversion, and the Politics of Redemption in American Culture, A.A. has “spread its ideas and its phraseology as a natural language of recovery, rather than as a framework with an institutional history and a cultural genealogy . . . A.A.’s deep cultural penetration is most evident in the way the recovery story it fostered can convey intensely personal, experiential truth, largely free from the implications of persuasion or imitation that attached to its precursors.” And yet, medical science continues to debate the effectiveness of A.A., or if it’s even effective at all. Critics have pointed out that the organization’s moral approach to suffering and redemption leaves much to be desired for many addicts.

It’s worth beginning with a basic overview of the social and historical context of A.A. The organization has its roots in the Oxford Group, a fellowship of Christian evangelical ministers who believed in the value of confession for alleviating the inherent sinfulness of humanity. Bill Wilson, who would go on to co-found Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, was a member of this group, and based many of the founding principles of his organization on the teachings of the Oxford Group. A.A. was also rooted in a much broader historical moment. As Cannon explains, “A.A. embraced the disease concept of alcoholism in an era of rising medical authority and popular psychology. It formulated a spirituality that used the language of traditional Christian piety but was personal and pragmatic enough to sit comfortably with postwar prosperity.” Also crucial was “the evangelical energies and professional expertise of its early members, many of whom were experienced in marketing and public relations.” A.A.’s marketing was so effective at embedding the organization in popular culture that virtually all depictions of addiction and recovery have been colored by the 12-steps-approach, even into the 21st century.

Furthermore, the Great Depression was ending as the group achieved national prominence, and its philosophy was closely aligned with that of the New Deal. As Cannon explains, the pain of the economic crisis (which was characterized by contemporaries as a kind of drunken irresponsibility) was transformed into an opportunity for a moral makeover, a narrative pushed by FDR and the New Deal that A.A. either seized upon or unconsciously imitated. Cannon explains that “recovering narrators described their experiences of decline and crisis drew on the same kind of social material that, writ large, defined the national problem: the bewildering failure of self-reliant individualism, as evidenced in job loss, privation, and family trauma. A.A. narrative, just like FDR’s New Deal story, interpreted this failure as a hard-earned lesson about the limits of self-interest.” In this sense, A.A. is hardly apolitical or ahistorical. It was forged by political and economic currents of the early 20th century, and its ascendancy was hardly natural or inevitable.

The spiritual dimension of A.A. is impossible to ignore. The Oxford Group’s foundational influence is evident in the famous the 12-step program: for example, steps 2 and 3 read,

“2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3.. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we

understood Him.”

The final step, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs,” sounds like a call for religious conversion. Most would agree that medical treatment should be secular, so why is alcoholism an exception?

Furthermore, an emphasis on spirituality doesn’t necessarily make addiction treatment more effective. A 2007 study conducted for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion acknowledges that “Studies focusing on religiosity as a protective factor tend to show a weak to moderate relationship to substance use and dependence . . . Studies that have examined religiosity as a personal resource in treatment recovery also tend to report weak to moderate correlations with treatment.” However, the 2007 study takes issue with this data. The researchers argue that most previous studies rely “on the assumption that religiosity, although an outcome of socialization, is an internal attribute that functions as a resource to promote conventional behavior . . . An alternative model to this individualistic, psychological framework is a sociological model where religion is viewed as an attribute of a social group.” In other words, we focus too much on how religion functions for individuals instead of how religion functions in a social context.

Rather, this study uses the “moral community” hypothesis, first articulated by sociologists Stark and Bainbridge, as a framework for understanding addiction treatment. This theory argues that individual interactions with religion (how much importance you place on it or specific beliefs you subscribe to) are not as important as your entrenchment in a religious community, which is the ultimate predictor of long-term commitment to and effectiveness of treatment. The results of the 2007 study seem to support this idea; the data “revealed that an increase in church attendance and involvement in self-help groups were better predictors of posttreatment alcohol and drug use than the measure of individual religiosity.” The study found that “individuals with higher levels of religiosity tended to have higher levels of commitment” to AA, but more broadly, “in some programs religiosity functioned as a positive resource whereas in other programs it served as a hindrance to recovery.” In other words, religion isn’t universally helpful, depending on the person and how easy they find it to assimilate into their moral community. Perhaps those who already have incorporated organized religion into their life will be better equipped for group participation in the context of addiction recovery. What all of this seems to suggest is that A.A. is only effective if you’re already receptive to its framework, which hardly makes it a cure-all for alcoholism. Non-Christians and atheists who drink are more or less left out in the cold.

In fact, there are very few studies that conclusively support A.A. as the best or only treatment plan for alcoholism. As writer Gabrielle Glaser pointed out in an article for The Atlantic, “Alcoholics Anonymous is famously difficult to study. By necessity, it keeps no records of who attends meetings; members come and go and are, of course, anonymous. No conclusive data exist on how well it works.” The few studies that have tested A.A.’s effectiveness tend to find less than impressive results. For example, psychiatrist Lance Dodes estimated in his 2015 book The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry that the actual rate of success for the A.A. program is somewhere between 5 and 8 percent, based on retention rates and long-term commitment. As of 2017, there are 275 research centers devoted to studying alcohol addiction worldwide. The majority of research is conducted in multi-disciplinary research institutions, and nearly half of all research on alcoholism comes out of the U.S, which given how prominent the A.A. approach is here, may skew what facets of addiction are given attention by researchers.

Despite a dearth of proof, A.A. claims to have a 75% percent success rate. According to the movement’s urtext Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism (affectionately referred to as “The Big Book” by seasoned A.A. members),

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves . . . They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way.”

While alcoholism can have a genetic component, the idea that some people are simply doomed to be incurable because of the way they were born (or that any treatment plan for addiction can be “simple”) is deeply troubling. Reading this passage from the Big Book, one can’t help but notice a parallel to early 20th-century eugenicists like Walter Wasson, who argued in 1913 that alcoholics (who he labeled “mental defectives”) should be “segregated and prevented from having children” so as not to pass down their condition and further pollute the gene pool. Eugenicists believed that alcoholism was incurable, and while A.A. ostensibly believes that it can be cured, they still believe that some are genetically destined to always drink. If their treatment plan for you doesn’t work, it’s simply your own fault, and you’ll never be able to get help at all.

Since its post-Depression inception, A.A. has relied on a moral framework that places blame on the individual rather than society at large. Alcoholism is understood as an innate failure of the individual, not a complex condition brought about by a number of economic, social, and genetic factors. As one former A.A. member explained,

“The AA programme makes absolutely no distinction between thoughts and feelings – a key factor in cognitive behavioural therapy, which is arguably a more up-to-date form of mental health technology. Instead, in AA, alcoholism is caused by ‘defects of character,’ which can only be taken away by surrender to a higher power. So, in many ways, it’s a movement based on emotional subjugation . . . anything you achieve in AA is through God’s will rather than your own. You have no control over your life, but the higher power does.”

Many individuals have found comfort and support in A.A., but it seems that the kind of moral community it offers is only accessible to those with a religious bent and predisposition to the treatment plan. For those who drink to escape crushing poverty, racial inequality, or the drudgery of capitalism, A.A. often offers pseudoscience instead of results, moralizing condemnation instead of medical treatment and genuine understanding.

Does a Post-COVID World Change the Plan for Court-Packing?

"Equal Justice Under Law" Supreme Court facade

In recent weeks the United States Supreme Court has made several landmark decisions that have surprised many legal observers. Recent rulings on immigration, LGBTQ rights, and abortion highlighted the importance of Chief Justice John Roberts as a potential swing vote, tempering the conservatism of the Court. Recent headlines highlight this development: “John Roberts Shatters Expectations for the Supreme Court,” and “Chief Justice Roberts Steers High Court to a Surprising Term.” I imagine that the surprise many seem to have is owing to the expectation that with the appointments to the Court over the last four years, the Court would take a far more conservative approach. If Joe Biden wins in November (and if the Democrats gain control of the Senate) the matter of whether to “pack” the Court will become relevant again, but in light of recent events, would this be appropriate?

The debate over court-packing is not necessarily a new one. During the Depression, several New Deal provisions, like the National Recovery Act, were struck down. With five aging conservative justices to deal with, FDR proposed to expand the Court to appoint a new justice for every sitting justice older than 70 and who had served for 10 years. Had that proposal been carried out, six new justices would have been added to the Court. The move attracted controversy, but in the end one of the justices who opposed the New Deal retired a few months later and Roosevelt was able to appoint his own justice and shift the balance of the court.

It is important to note that nothing in the Constitution mandates that there be 9 justices on the court, and recently there have been calls to “pack” the Court with more liberal justices in order to shift the balance yet again. These calls follow the wins of Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, both of whom became president despite losing the popular vote and who managed to appoint four justices between them (including Roberts himself as Chief Justice). Had the presidency been given to Al Gore (possibly assuming re-election in 2004) and Hillary Clinton, those three to four justices would have been able to tilt the Court heavily to the left. It is worth noting that Republicans have only won the popular vote of a presidential election once in the last 28 years. There is also the matter of Merrick Garland. Garland was nominated by Obama following the vacancy created by the death of Antonin Scalia. Had he been confirmed, the Court would also have shifted leftward. But Republicans refused to hold a hearing or vote, and after Trump became president in 2016, the vacancy was filled by Neil Gorsuch instead.

If Biden and the Democrats win in November and retake the Senate and the White House, the (now) lack of a filibuster on such votes could allow for more justices to be appointed. But with Roberts’ tendency to be a swing vote, tempering the more conservative voices on the Court, why would packing be needed? After only a few recent decisions, assertions like “John Roberts is Just Who the Supreme Court Needed”, that Roberts is “steering the court on a middle course,” that Roberts is “leading from the center” or that the Roberts Court defies partisanship have been made, and if it were true then the case for packing the Court would be undermined. Those who make such claims suggest that Roberts is trying to protect the integrity of the court from being seen as too partisan.

However, there is good reason to be cautious about these claims. As lawyer Tom Goldstein told NBC News, “The chief justice is more of an incrementalist than a swing justice…He is moving the law to the right, but slowly. And the liberal justices are willing to go along with him, to minimize the damage.” The LA Times reports that while trying to demonstrate that the Court is not in Trump’s pocket, “they quite often hand down ideological cases that go his way.” Indeed, in other cases, such as on the matter of voting rights, Roberts supported the conservative position. In other words, the evidence for the notion that the Court is now balanced or nonpartisan may be more anecdotal than conclusive. Given that these recent swing votes have taken place during an election year, it may be that Roberts is trying to prevent public resentment which might lead to court-packing. While political participation is generally low, issues concerning the makeup of the Supreme Court can be a significant motivator for voters.

Despite recent rulings, there are more arguments to be made for and against packing that are poignant during the current crises taking place in America. Courts are now ruling on the legality of COVID-19 orders, and this may be the most litigious election ever, setting countless precedents regarding voting by mail and absentee ballots. The Supreme Court itself ruled on cases in Texas and Alabama which have made it more difficult for people to vote by absentee, meaning that voters will have to risk infection if they wish to cast their ballots. The rulings that could be made following COVID-19 could have massive social, ethical, economical, and legal consequences. Climate change may require massive shifts in state intervention that conservative jurists regard as unconstitutional. In fact, hostility to voting rights are one of the reasons made for court packing. But court-packing may also be a useful threat to either gain voluntary compliance from the court on key issues or spur action to depoliticize the judiciary.

On the other hand, the arguments against packing tend to focus on the worst-case scenario where all the Court’s credibility is lost. With this in mind, certain proposals, like Pete Buttigieg’s, provide for the appointment of both conservative and liberal justices. But, as yet, there is no hard evidence to suggest that court-packing would work for or against public respect for the Court.

Former Obama White House Counsel under Barack Obama Bob Bauer has argued that attempts to pack the Court are ill-considered. He notes, “It seems that Trump’s opposition would do better to distinguish its reform politics from anything resembling the approach of this president, which seeks to undermine institutions and associated norms to engineer his preferred outcomes.” Institutional reform can be done in a way that is “bona fide” or in a way that will “merely result in additional or perhaps irreparable institutional damage and political fallout.” Bauer is clear to distinguish between institutions and outcomes, noting that court-packing secures chances of winning cases but does not strengthen the institution or our trust in it. In essence, it may delegitimize the Court, however, there is no reason to think that evaluation of an institution and evaluation of its outcomes are distinct endeavors. Certainly, some outcomes have undermined the legitimacy of the institution.

But this distinction between the Court as independent body or the Court as political tool requires further explanation and justification. Otherwise, the definition being adopted is that “bona fide institutional reform” merely excludes consideration of desired political ends for arbitrary reasons. On the other hand, while potentially useful even as a potential threat, if there is going to be a plan for packing, it also cannot be arbitrary. That plan must come from a particular vision of the purpose and function of the Court.

To Requite, To Restore, or To Deter: Punishing Amy Cooper

photograph of empty courtroom from Judge's perspective with gavel in foreground

On May 25, Amy Cooper called the cops on Christian Cooper after he asked her to leash her dog in Central Park. Video of their interaction sparked further debate about racial bias and police brutality, and also led to the renewed pressure to pass a NY State bill banning race-based 911 calls. Amy Cooper was fired from her job, had her dog temporarily confiscated, personal history exposed, and became a household name as one of the many faces representing the white “Karen” complex. She released a subsequent apology in The New York Times, but also immediately hired a defense attorney when she was officially charged with filing a false police report. However, on July 14, Christian Cooper announced he would not be cooperating with Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Cooper concluded that he must “err on the side of compassion and choose not to be involved in this prosecution.” His announcement shocked many and raises further questions about the purpose of punishment and the criminal justice system at large.

Why should we punish “bad actors?” Is the purpose of criminal law to deter crime, to punish perpetrators, or something else? And should prosecutors listen to victims when deciding whether to pursue charges?

Within the theories law and punishment, there are two major answers to the question of the purpose of criminal law: retribution and deterrence. The retributive approach to punishment and criminal justice is the belief that people who do the crime, should serve time. Under retributive theory, perpetrators should be punished regardless of the future consequences. Retributivists believe that the goal of punishment is ultimately to give people what they deserve. Retributivism therefore is inherently backward looking in its justification of punishment. The utilitarian approach to punishment, however, purports that the purpose of punishment is to deter future crime, both by the perpetrator and potential future bad actors. The goal of deterrence-based punishment is positive outcomes for society as a whole, and it is inherently forward-looking in its justification and goals. Both of these approaches to punishment can be used to answer whether or not Amy Cooper should be prosecuted.

In his explanation, Christian Cooper concludes that neither the retributive nor the utilitarian approach to punishment logically justifies Amy Cooper’s prosecution. In terms of retribution, Christian believes that Cooper has already gotten what she deserves. He explains that he believes “in punishments that are commensurate with the wrongdoing.” Cooper sees Amy losing her job and reputation as sufficient punishment for her crime, and even suggests she has little more to lose. He also argues there is little to be gained by punishing Amy Cooper further since the issue of racial bias against black and brown folks is a “long-standing, deep-seated racial bias” which “permeates the United States” and cannot be solved through one symbolic prosecution. He believes that charging Amy Cooper not only does little to solve the racial bias but may in fact cause a different problem because it “lets white people off the hook” from more deeply examining the ways in which they engage with and perpetuate racism. As Cooper explains, “They can push for her prosecution and pat themselves on the back for having done something about racism, when they’ve actually done nothing.” Cooper also points out that the social consequences of her actions might serve as the ultimate deterrence to many. He contends that, “if her current setbacks aren’t deterrent enough to others seeking to weaponize race, it’s unlikely the threat of legal action would change that.” Prosecution is no guarantee of securing positive consequences; it will not deter others who fail to see themselves as holding racial bias. In fact, Cooper argues, there is the potential for her prosecution to backfire and contribute to the continued apathy and unprobed racial bias of white people.

While Christian Cooper believes prosecuting Amy Cooper isn’t justified on retributive or consequentialist grounds, his sister Melody Cooper has a different perspective. In a recent tweet she explains that she believes that the potential for deterrence is simply too beneficial to ignore. Melody agrees with her brother’s argument that policing must change, she also believes that because “People are getting hurt and killed in the meantime” that “if there’s a chance to send a message to other white women they can’t and shouldn’t put black people at risk in this way, it should be done.” To Melody, and those who agree with her, the potential deterrence generated by prosecuting Amy Cooper outweighs all else. She references the very real consequences of interactions between Black people and the police, and the phone calls that precede them. Melody clearly favors the traditional utilitarian approach to punishment in which deterrence and positive outcomes are the highest goal of the criminal justice system.

While Melody and Christian clearly disagree on Amy’s prosecution, another question still remains: should the prosecuting attorney take Christian Cooper’s perspective into account when deciding whether to pursue charges? Neither retributive nor utilitarian approaches to justice necessitate acknowledging the victim’s perspective in determining punishment. However, there is another theory of criminal justice which would center Christian’s perspective and cooperation as the victim of a crime: restorative justice. This approach aims neither to produce the best outcomes nor to give perpetrators what they deserve, but rather intends to repair the harm caused by crime. In a restorative justice system, Christian Cooper’s desire for Amy Cooper not to be sentenced would hold far greater weight than in a retributive or utilitarian system. An article in The Indypendent by Kiara Thomas argues that a restorative justice approach would be the best approach in this situation, since it is not only about harm caused between two people, but represents larger harms such as racism, police violence, and white privilege. This approach might also address the issue of deterrence, since restorative justice has been shown to decrease the likelihood of repeat offense on the part of perpetrators.

Amy Cooper’s first court date is October 14. Despite Christian Cooper’s lack of cooperation, experts predict Amy Cooper will still be successfully prosecuted due to the stark video evidence against her. Whether or not this is immoral depends on what one views the purpose of criminal law to be: to requite, to restore, or to deter.

Is There an Ethical Duty to Buy American?

photograph of "Made in the USA" embroidered pillow will US flag pillow in background

For many years, the U.S. economy has been dominated by the services sector, a broad category that includes financial services, media, transportation and technology. Service industries account for about two-thirds of the U.S. GDP and eighty percent of all jobs. Manufacturing, by contrast, makes up only eight percent of all jobs and eleven percent of our GDP.

Yet if one consulted only the views of both major parties’ candidates, one would come away with the impression that the health of the entire economy depends upon subsidizing U.S. manufacturing. On July 9, 2020, Joe Biden rolled out his nationalist economic agenda in a speech in Pennsylvania. In it, he outlined policies aimed at reducing reliance on foreign manufacturing and creating domestic manufacturing jobs. “I do not buy for one second that the vitality of American manufacturing is a thing of the past,” he said. And economic nationalism is by now one of President Trump’s signature positions; on his Inauguration Day, Trump tweeted that “Buy American” and “Hire American” were two “simple rules” that would guide his administration. Since then, he has levied numerous tariffs on foreign goods, supposedly in order to encourage domestic manufacturing.

There are surely political calculations behind this emphasis on a tiny part of the economy — our electoral system endows residents of Rust Belt states with disproportionately powerful votes — but it might be argued that there are specifically moral reasons why ordinary people ought to support domestic industry. That argument can perhaps best be presented in the form of a parable, which I call the “Parable of the Tamales.”

My next-door neighbor makes his living by selling tamales from his porch at 50 cents per tamale. One day, I am driving across town and spot another person selling tamales from her porch for 25 cents per tamale. I buy a few and return to my home. As I pull into my driveway, my neighbor spots me contentedly munching my tamales. As I return his gaze, I can see the betrayal and anger in his eyes. I reflect that I ought to have bought my tamales from him.

There are a few reasons why I might believe that it was my duty to buy from my next-door neighbor. On a consequentialist view, the rightness or wrongness of my actions is solely a function of the goodness of their effects. It might be argued that the effects of buying from one’s neighbor are better than those of buying from the tamale-purveyor across town. It is true that both benefit from selling tamales to you. But you may benefit more from supporting your neighbor, and of course the beneficial effects to you of actions you perform are legitimate inputs into the consequentialist calculus. For instance, you may feel satisfaction from seeing your neighbor thrive and knowing you contributed to his well-being. More selfishly, you may want to live in a prosperous neighborhood where the houses and lawns are all well-kempt, the children well-fed, and the cars in the driveways well-maintained; helping your neighbor prosper may in this way be a means to satisfying your self-regarding desires. In these and other ways, the consequentialist calculus may require you to support your neighbor over the tamale-seller across town, particularly since your neighbor’s tamales are not unreasonably costly. Mutatis mutandis, it might be argued that the consequentialist calculus supports a duty to buy American, since most of us want to live in a prosperous society and see our fellow citizens thrive.

On the other hand, you may not care at all about the flourishing of your neighbor or the prosperity of your neighborhood. If so, the consequentialist case for the duty to buy from your neighbor collapses. Thus, consequentialism cannot support a universal duty to buy from one’s neighbor, since the case depends upon the content of people’s contingent desires. Moreover, in this kind of case consequentialism might be self-defeating. If you come to believe that it is your duty to buy from their neighbors, rather than something good but not obligatory, you may experience less satisfaction when doing it. But in that case, buying from your neighbor will not bring about better effects than buying from the tamale-salesperson across town, and the consequentialist case again collapses. Finally, if the analogy to the case of domestic manufacturing holds, then it is quite possible that the tamale-seller across town benefits more from each 25-cent sale than your neighbor benefits from each 50-cent sale, given that foreign workers tend to be poorer. Thus, consequentialism would appear to favor supporting foreign manufacturing, not domestic.

Another argument for buying from your neighbor is that it is a way of discharging a debt of gratitude. After all, your neighbor may babysit your kids occasionally, help you with home repairs, and myriad other small favors. Since spending 25 cents more per tamale is not an unreasonable cost, it seems that buying your tamales from him may be a good way of discharging your debt of gratitude. By the same token, it might be argued that one owes a similar debt of gratitude to one’s fellow citizens on the grounds that they contribute to your own well-being through taxation.

The trouble with this argument is that arguably, we owe a debt of gratitude to others only for benefits they freely confer upon us. If my neighbor helps me out with home repairs only because doing so fulfills his mandated community service sentence, I do not owe him anything. Similarly, while my fellow citizens may benefit me by contributing their tax dollars to programs that help me, these are not voluntary contributions.

A final argument for buying tamales from your neighbor is that your relationship with him, and in particular all of the mutual expectations that naturally arise from that relationship, ground a special moral duty to help him if doing so is not unreasonably costly. Similarly, it might be argued that the relationship of co-citizen, with all of the mutual expectations it entails, ground a special duty to buy American.

Unfortunately, this argument either proves too little or begs the question. On the one hand, the mere fact that my neighbor expects his neighbors to buy his tamales is not enough to ground a duty that I do so. My neighbor could, psychologically speaking, expect anything at all from me.  He might expect me to help him bury bodies in his yard, but nothing at all follows from this about what I ought to do. On the other hand, if it is claimed that his expectations are legitimate, then this argument simply assumes that I have a duty to buy from him. But that is precisely what the argument was supposed to establish!

Thus, it seems that there is no moral duty to buy American based on consequentialist considerations, debts of gratitude to our fellow citizens, or our roles as co-citizens. It does not follow from this, of course, that our government should not subsidize domestic industry. Such policy decisions rest not only on the moral relations amongst citizens, but the moral duties of government to its citizens, as well as non-moral considerations.

Nevertheless, the fact that there is no moral duty for ordinary citizens to buy American simply throws into starker relief the disproportionate attention that manufacturing receives by our political elites. As I suggested at the start of this column, government would probably do better to focus on helping workers in the services industry. Furthermore, if the various sectors of the economy have a claim to government largesse that is proportionate to their contributions, then it seems positively unjust to neglect services in favor of manufacturing. Presumably, an economic populism worth its name must be one that helps the industries that employ the vast majority of people.

Let Hongkongers In

photograph of peaceful protest in Sheung Shui district arms raised

In 1997, Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to Chinese possession under the guidelines set forth in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The Declaration established rules whereby Hong Kong which would eventually become part of China once more would retain their legal and administrative systems distinct from those in mainland China known as ‘one country, two systems’ for the next 50 years (from the signing of the treaty).

The one country, two system policy came to a premature and unfortunate end, however, with the recent passage of a new security law in the Chinese legislature that curtails political and civil freedoms — banning secession, subverting state power, terrorism, foreign intervention, and allowing mainland China’s security agencies to operate in the city — the case continues to grow stronger for letting Hongkongers migrate to the United States. This policy would be an economic boon for the United States, help the people of Hong Kong, and stick it to mainland China. Much as we would have a moral obligation to save a small child drowning in a shallow pond — given that we could intervene with little or no risk to ourselves — we have an obligation to offer Hong Kong a hand, contrary to what naysayers may claim. Allow me to make the case.

Many believe there are compelling reasons to favor low levels of immigration because, say, higher immigration would harm workers. But the reverse is true: economists estimate that if rich nations, like the United States and Canada, opened their borders to peaceful, law-abiding immigrants, the world would be trillions of dollars richer. The economic gains of open borders would be so substantial that many costs of such a policy would be minor compared to the gains, as economist Bryan Caplan cleverly argues in his graphic non-fiction book, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. Allowing immigrants, even those from poor nations with lackluster institutions, to emigrate to rich nations with robust institutions would magnify their productivity, and benefit host nations — e.g., just as the same worker would be more productive with a computer than a mere typewriter.

Many critics object that open borders will result in immigrants taking jobs from natives, or that they lack similar political values that would undercut essential institutions like democracy or the market, or even that they would bankrupt social welfare programs. But every objection, unconvincing as it is under ordinary conditions given the vast wealth liberalizing immigration would create, is even more underwhelming when applied to immigration from Hong Kong. We should review these objections to increased immigration generally, and with respect to Hongkongers specifically.

Many critics of relaxed immigration worry it harms workers, especially low-skilled workers — by, in part, increasing the supply of cheap labor. However, the empirical evidence shows that this isn’t true: according to recent U.S. Census Bureau (2011) data, most Americans aren’t low-skilled — many are at least high school graduates — and greater levels of immigration hurt low-skilled workers, but only slightly in the short term, and benefit everyone else. (Most Americans are customers of new immigrants, not competitors). Other critics worry immigrants will take advantage of social welfare programs, thereby straining their limited resources. As it happens though, the evidence doesn’t bear this out either: good evidence of widespread abuse is lacking, and even on the most pessimistic figures, higher immigration would cost American families but a few dollars a month in taxes to fund the welfare state. This number leaves off the sizeable economic gains from liberalized immigration we discussed earlier.

Finally, with respect to immigrants from Hong Kong, some may worry letting Hongkongers in would undercut our political institutions — they may, for instance, hold values that are antithetical to the liberalism undergirding our society. However, based on the available evidence, Hongkongers tend to be pro-democracy. And this trend has been increasing in recent years — presumably in part because of greater pressure Beijing has exerted over the region. In addition, many Hongkongers speak English, and they tend to be well-educated with a high college graduation rate. And finally, their legal system is based on English common law, and local laws codified in the Laws of Hong Kong — both the United States and Hong Kong have similar legal systems as former British colonies. Together, these factors cast doubt on the claim that Hong Kong immigration would be a bad idea, and instead put the onus on critics to explain why letting Hongkongers in would be sufficiently bad to justify keeping them out.

The conflict between the Chinese government and free nations isn’t merely about trade policy or shipping routes in the South China Sea. It includes how other nations, as onlookers, are influenced by China and the US in crafting their internal policies, supporting international law, and securing civil liberties – things like peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, and the right to criticize the government. We often take these things for granted, but events in Hong Kong are a stark reminder that we shouldn’t. Freedom isn’t free, but we can lend it a helping hand, by responding to China’s aggression with a positive-sum approach that would benefit both Hongkongers and the US.

The Moral Challenges of Opening Up Schools During the Pandemic

As we inch ever closer to August, the question of if and how schools will open in the fall is increasingly pressing on everyone’s minds. Many decisions related to COVID-19 are presented as morally controversial when they really shouldn’t be. The issue of opening the schools, on the other hand, is complex. No matter what decision is made, some individuals and groups will experience significant hardship.

One critical question should be procedural: who should get to make decisions related to if, how, and when schools open back up? The fact of the matter is that, across the country the entities actually making the decisions, at least when it comes to public schools, are local school districts. COVID-19 is a tragedy of a sort that no one has experienced before, and there is no reason to think that local school districts know better than anyone else how to proceed. Comparatively, the number of people who are in decision-making positions in school districts is small. As a result, decisions could easily be made by a group of people who don’t believe the virus poses a significant threat.

A second approach, then, is to let communities decide. As the entire community will suffer the consequences of gathering large groups of people together in school buildings, the least we can do is give each one of those members a voice regarding if and how they would like that to happen. One problem with this, however, is that we are experiencing a strong wave of anti-intellectualism and science denial in the United States. This wave started building momentum before COVID-19 hit, but in response to the virus it has become a tsunami that threatens the lives and well-being of everyone every day. A democracy infected in this way can’t ensure just or even safe outcomes.

A third option is to let matters be settled by epidemiologists. This is a novel virus, so no one has perfect knowledge regarding what might happen in the future. Keyboard-certified “experts” flood the internet with baseless predictions that “sunlight kills the virus” or that “children can’t spread the virus.” Best, then, to leave the decisions up to the people who have dedicated their lives’ work to the study of infectious diseases in settings in which peer review and replication studies happen regularly. There are a handful of concerns for this approach as well. First, it can be tempting to think that people of science are people of dignity that are immune from political pressures. This simply isn’t so. An epidemiologist in one state may be more reliable than one in another. An alternative approach may be to act on the basis of what appears to be the consensus among experts. That said, the experts that arrive at consensus aren’t themselves going to be making the decisions in local communities, so again, the question becomes: who should be responsible for crafting policy? Since this is a decision by which everyone will be bound, it’s important that the decision is made in a way that is procedurally just.

However it turns out, the parties responsible for crafting policy will need to look carefully at the arguments, and there are compelling considerations on all sides of the issue. Right out in front is an argument that points to the intrinsic value of the lives and health of the children, teachers, and staff that will be crowded together in the school. Many people argue that the schools must reopen for the greater good. We’ll consider some of those arguments below. The response to them is to say, “life and health are not the kinds of values that should be bartered away.”

In response to concerns regarding the well-being of teachers and students, people often claim that spread of the virus to and from children is rare. Those making that argument point to studies like this one conducted in the Netherlands. One concern with the information presented there, however, is that the sample size is very small, and cases in the Netherlands never came close to approaching what we have experienced in the United States. In the United States, the circumstances simply aren’t the same. In northern Georgia, a YMCA summer camp had to shut down because 85 campers and staff tested positive for coronavirus. In Missouri, a summer camp shut down after 82 campers and staff tested positive for coronavirus. Across the country, cases of coronavirus spread at daycare facilities have been reported. In plenty of these cases, people who knew that they or their children might have coronavirus dropped their children off at daycare anyway because they couldn’t miss work. This seems like a situation that is likely to be repeated if schools open up in the fall. What’s more, the Netherlands report suggests that coronavirus has not killed any children there. Sadly, that is not true in the United States. We have the grim distinction of having more information to work with on this topic than the Netherlands does. All one has to do is search news sources for “child dies of coronavirus” to find plenty of cases.

Even if children don’t die from the coronavirus, we do know that it is possible for them to suffer severe organ damage, including brain damage. Many viruses have symptoms that only show themselves much later in life — consider the case of the chickenpox virus producing debilitating cases of shingles decades after the initial infection. Coronavirus cases might appear mild in children, but viruses can stay in the body of the carrier for their lifetime, and we don’t know enough about this virus to know what might happen down the road. Best then to err on the side of caution, social distance, and educate our children from the safety of our own homes.

Let’s imagine for a moment that children never get the virus, never pass it, or never experience any deleterious effects. The fact remains that COVID-19 clearly can be spread between adults. Adults can suffer and die from it and are doing so in great numbers. Bringing children back to school in the fall doesn’t just involve packing children into small buildings together, it involves packing adults together in close quarters too. In many cases, teachers and staff have been given no choice regarding what they would like their educational delivery method to be in the fall. This includes teachers who are immunocompromised or those who have immunocompromised loved ones for whom they care. Continued employment, especially during a recession is an immeasurably coercive force. Many people simply can’t afford to quit their jobs. These are skilled people and we should value what they do. We need them, and shouldn’t force them to work in conditions that are unsafe.

The considerations mentioned above are compelling, but there are also compelling arguments in favor of reopening. Of course, one of the most obvious arguments concerns children’s need for formal education. Some people believe that students have already experienced a developmental pause because when material was presented during the lockdown period, it was presented in less than ideal ways. Educational quality needs to improve in the fall. Of course, whether this goal can be realized depends a great deal on the area in which a person lives and the particular teacher, class, learning environment, and student in question. Some teachers went above and beyond the call of duty in planning course content that may have resonated with students better than it would have in a traditional classroom. It is a fact, however, that education in a physical setting does work better for at least some students, and this fact must be acknowledged in decision making about what to do in the fall.

Another argument for opening up the schools is that, for various reasons, parents can’t constantly be the full-time caregivers for their children. Many jobs can’t be done from home, and parents who work those jobs need a place for their children to go where they know that they will be safe and fed. Many of these people are already suffering financial hardship because of the pandemic. These people already pay taxes that fund the schools. It is a challenge for many people to find and pay for daycare in addition to everything else. On top of that, daycare situations may pose just as significant a threat as schools, so these parents would incur all of the harms and none of the benefits.

What’s more, not all children and parents have the same needs. Attending school in a physical way may be particularly important for certain special needs children. Educators trained to provide valuable resources to such children are critical in the lives of both the children and parents. Not having access to these resources might put significant strains on these households.

One way of replying to these concerns is to get creative — how might we design schooling that allows for children who need to be there to do so safely? One answer might be to offer high-quality online options to students and parents for whom that delivery method makes sense, freeing up space for in-person learning to be done in a safe, socially-distanced way. This kind of arrangement requires careful planning. Unfortunately, in many areas across the country, school districts have squandered away critical planning time while they were busy holding their collective breath hoping that the virus would disappear before it was time for the children to go back to school.

There are all sorts of considerations that are legitimate here. But there are at least three positions that are not morally defensible. First, there is no good argument for starting school in the fall with no coronavirus protections in place. Masks and social-distancing plans are a good place to start. Second, relatedly, it is not acceptable to commit the perfectionist fallacy — to say, “there are problems with all approaches, nothing is perfect, so let’s just stick with the status quo.” Though it may be true that no approach is perfect, some approaches are surely better than others. Finally, it is not morally defensible for decisions about if and how to open up schools safely to be motivated by re-election hopes, either at the local or the national level. A culture that would play politics with the lives of children and educators has truly lost its way.

Parler and the Problems of a “Free Speech” Social Network

Image of many blank speech bubbles forming a cloud

Twitter is something of a mess. It has been criticized by individuals from both ends of the political spectrum for either not doing enough to stem the tide of misinformation and hateful content, or of doing too much, and restricting what some see as their right to free expression. Recently, some of those who have chastised the platform for restricting free speech have called for a move to a different social media platform, one where opinions – particularly conservative opinions – could be expressed without fear of censorship. A Twitter-alternative that has seen substantial growth recently is called Parler: calling itself the “Free Speech Social Network,” its userbase gained almost half a million users in a single week, partially because of a backlash to Twitter’s recent fact-checking of a Tweet made by Donald Trump. Although the CEO of Parler stated that he wanted the platform to be a space in which anyone on the political spectrum could participate in discussions without fear of censorship, there is no question that it has become dominated by those on the political right.

It is perhaps easy to understand the appeal of such a platform: if one is worried about censorship, or if one wants to engage with those who have divergent political opinions, one might think that a forum in which there are fewer restrictions on what can be expressed would be beneficial for productive debate. After all, some have expressed concern about online censorship, specifically in terms of what is seen as an overreactive “cancel culture,” in which individuals are punished (some say disproportionately) for expressing their opinions. For example consider the following from a recent article in Harper’s Magazine, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”:

“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

So, what better way to defeat bad ideas than to provide a platform in which they can be brought out into the open, carefully considered, and argued away? Isn’t a “Free Speech Social Network” a good idea?

Not really. An assumption for the argument in favor of a platform that allows uncensored expressions of opinions is that while it may see an increase in the number of hateful or uninformed views, the benefits of having those ideas in the open to analyze and argue against will outweigh the costs. Indeed, the hope is that a lack of censorship or fact-checking will make debate more productive, and that by allowing the expression of “bad ideas” we can, in fact, “defeat” them. In reality, the platform is awash with dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories, and while contrarian views are occasionally presented, there is little in the way of productive debate to be found.

Here’s an example. With over 400 thousand followers on Parler, libertarian politician Ron Paul’s videos from the “Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity” receive thousands of positive votes and comments. Many of these videos have recently expressed skepticism about the dangers of coronavirus: specifically, they call into question the efficacy of tests for the virus, claiming that reports of numbers of cases have been inflated or fabricated, and argue that being made to wear facemasks is a violation of personal liberties. These views fall squarely into the camp of “bad ideas.” One might hope, though, that the community would respond with good reasons and rational debate.

Instead, we get a slew of even worse misinformation. For example, here is a representative sample of some recent comments on Paul’s video titled “Should We Trust The Covid Tests?”:

“My friends husband is world renown doctor. He is getting calls from doctors all over USA and World that tell him CV-19 Numbers are being forged.”

“Nurse all over are saying they are testing the same persons over and over and just building up the numbers not counting them as the same case, but seperate cases. Am against shut down period.”

“No. Plain and simple. COVID tests are increasingly being proven to be lies. Unless you believe the worthless MSM liberal sheep lie pushers.”

The kinds of comments are prevalent, and, as can be seen, are not defeating bad ideas, but rather reinforcing them.

Herein lies the problem: productive debate will not just magically happen once we unleash all the bad ideas into a forum. While some may be examined and defeated, others will receive support and become stronger for having been given the room to grow. Without putting any kind of restriction on the expression of misleading and false information we then risk emboldening those looking to spread politically-motivated misinformation and conspiracy theories. The result is that these bad ideas become more difficult to defeat, not easier.

If one is concerned that potential censorship on social media networks like Twitter will stifle debate, what Parler has shown so far is that a “free speech” social network is good for little other than expressing views that one would be banned for expressing elsewhere. Contrary to Parler’s stated motivations and the concerns expressed in the Harper’s letter, mere exposure is not a panacea for the problem of the bad ideas being expressed on the internet.

The BARD Standard and Justified Execution

photograph of symbol of law and justice in the empty courtroom

On June 15, 2020, the United States Department of Justice announced that it will resume executing criminals after a 17-year hiatus. Two weeks later, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the federal death penalty method, allowing the executions of four convicted child-murderers to go forward in July and August. On July 14, the first of those executions was carried out. Only three federal executions have taken place since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988.

Many critics of capital punishment argue that the death penalty is unjust given the glaring procedural problems with all modern justice systems, such as the disproportionate application of the penalty to minorities. This is a worthy argument, but it leaves open the possibility that capital punishment could be just within the context of some justice system. However, I would like to advance an argument that capital punishment is wrong not just in practice, but in principle: that is to say, even if the various elements of the justice system functioned perfectly, capital punishment would almost certainly lead to unacceptably unjust outcomes.

A cornerstone of the criminal justice system is the evidential standard used to determine legal guilt by a jury or judge; that standard is known as proof beyond a reasonable doubt (BARD). There is considerable debate about how to interpret this standard, but all agree that it does not mean proof beyond all doubt: jurors need not be objectively certain that the defendant is factually guilty given the evidence presented by the prosecution in order to find her legally guilty. As a result, a defendant can be found guilty BARD and yet be factually innocent. Thus, the “false positive,” in which juries find a factually innocent defendant legally guilty, is a possible outcome of any justice system that uses the proof BARD standard (or any standard short of certainty), no matter how well-designed or -executed.

How likely is a false positive when juries perfectly apply the proof BARD standard? There is no single accepted definition of proof BARD, but we can use the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals’ model jury instruction as a representative example. The Court says that “proof beyond reasonable doubt…must be proof of such a convincing character that a reasonable person would not hesitate to rely and act upon it.” In scientific fields that use statistics to study interactions among characteristics of populations, such as economics, social psychology, and sociology, researchers take themselves to have sufficient warrant to accept a hypothesis if, given the data, the probability of rejecting the null hypothesis even though it is true is 5% or less. The scientific method is often taken to be the gold standard of empirical inquiry, so ought we conclude that proof BARD is proof such that conditional on it, there is a probability of at most 5% that the defendant is innocent? Adopting this interpretation would entail that when applied perfectly, as many as 1 out of every 20 defendants found legally guilty will be factually innocent. Suppose we decrease the required significance level to 1%. On this standard, and again even assuming that everything goes perfectly, as many as 1 out of every 100 defendants found legally guilty will be factually innocent. To put these fractions into perspective, there have been 1518 executions in the United States since 1976.

An opponent of capital punishment can plausibly argue that the false positive rate of either interpretation of proof BARD makes the death penalty morally impermissible. The fundamental premise of the argument is, as a first pass, that it is wrong for the state to kill an innocent person because it harms her in the worst possible way, and can also seriously undermine confidence in the justice system. As we will see, this premise will require some qualification in response to objections, but the unqualified version will suffice as a start. If it is wrong for the state to kill an innocent person, and the justice system will produce false positives even if it functions perfectly, then in order to avoid wrongdoing the state must not use the death penalty.

An advocate of capital punishment might point out that we tolerate the same false positive risk when the possible punishment is less severe than death, such as life imprisonment without parole. However, one key difference is that any punishment other than death can be appealed and at least partly prevented, while death’s permanence is unique. Once an innocent person is executed, the harm done to them is complete and irremediable. By contrast, when an innocent person is wrongfully imprisoned, the harm done to them before they can successfully appeal may be only partial and can be compensated.

Another objection targets the argument’s fundamental premise, pointing out that it is inconsistent with our practice of empowering police officers to use lethal force against those who pose an imminent threat to others. Giving police this power obviously involves the risk that officers will kill or injure innocent people, mistakenly believing them to be threats. However, one plausible reply is that the imminent lethal harm that can be prevented through the police’s use of force on balance justifies the risk that police will kill or injure innocent people. By contrast, the harms of judicial killings of innocents are not counterbalanced in this way, since factually guilty defendants do not pose a lethal threat after they are apprehended and jailed.

It is important to be clear that this reply does not say that all police killings are justified. Rather, it says that if giving the police the right to use lethal force is justified under some circumstances, such as when the police reasonably believe that someone poses an imminent threat of lethal force against others, then some police killings of innocents are justifiable. Just as the BARD standard inevitably allows false positives, any standard for justified police force other than absolute prohibition could be satisfied by the police when they mistakenly use lethal force against innocents.

If we are to allow that the killing of innocents by police is sometimes justified, then the fundamental premise of the argument against capital punishment has to be qualified. The precise nature of the qualification will depend upon the standard for the use of lethal force by police that we choose to adopt, but it will be something like that it is wrong for state actors to kill innocent persons if those actors do not reasonably believe that they pose an imminent risk to others. With this qualified premise, the argument against the death penalty is as follows. Assuming that juries apply the BARD standard perfectly, there will almost certainly be cases in which innocent people are found guilty of capital crimes and executed. The state cannot reasonably believe that death row inmates pose an imminent risk to others. It is wrong for state actors to kill innocent persons if those actors do not reasonably believe that they pose an imminent risk to others. Therefore, it is wrong for the state to use the death penalty.

Finally, the advocate of capital punishment might suggest that in order to reduce the likelihood of error, death penalty cases ought to be tried by a special commission of highly qualified people instead of ordinary jurors. But this suggestion mistakes the nature of the argument advanced in this column. The argument is not that the death penalty is impermissible because ordinary jurors are likely to make mistakes in applying the BARD standard—although this might well be true—but that even if the BARD standard is applied perfectly, it still entails false positives. Given this, it is irrelevant whether death penalty cases are tried by judges, jurors, or other experts; as long as the BARD standard is used, false positives are almost certain to occur.

The U.S. justice system is riddled with procedural problems that may be sufficient to make the death penalty immoral. What I hope to have shown is that even if all of these problems were fixed, the death penalty would still be immoral. If that’s true, then efforts to reform the death penalty system will inevitably fail, and abolition is the only morally defensible course.

Individualism in the Time of COVID: The Rights and Wrongs of Face Masks

photograph of large crowd walking through strip mall

There are many ways of understanding individualism. On one understanding, it is equivalent to selfishness or egoism. Those who refuse to wear masks have been labelled, perhaps rightly, as individualists in this sense. Yet some anti-maskers claim to be exercising their rights in refusing to wear a mask. In doing so, they appeal to a more profound understanding of individualism in which we are each owed protection against intrusions by the government or other persons. In the words of philosopher Philippa Foot, rights protect a “kind of moral space, a space which others are not allowed to invade.”  That moral space includes a literal area around our person as a zone of privacy. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson argues “if we have fairly stringent rights over our property, we have very much more stringent rights over our own person.” Here ‘stringent’ means that it would take more to override those rights: what provides sufficient reason to do something that violates your property rights might not provide sufficient reason to override your rights over your person.

If our rights over our person are more stringent than our rights over our property, then it would seem to follow that we should have stringent rights over what we wear. Of course, there are laws regarding what we wear, such as public decency laws, but these are, to most of us, unobtrusive. Most of us aren’t inclined to stroll naked through the local shopping mall, and so laws forbidding that activity don’t strike us as an imposition on our rights. Norms regarding such matters are moreover reasonably stable. So, it should be understandable even to those who disagree with anti-maskers that it could feel like an intrusion for the government to dictate our wearing something like a mask over our faces: as some anti-maskers label it, they feel “muzzled.” But is there a moral right not to wear a mask?

First, we have to ask, in virtue of what do we have any rights at all? This is a difficult philosophical question that has exercised philosophers and legal theorists, resulting in some of the most challenging works in those disciplines. But there are some simple ideas at play that have an intuitive appeal and are easily grasped. The first basic idea is that there is an intrinsic value to each individual. We are not valuable only because of our usefulness to others, but just in virtue of something like our humanity, rationality, or having been created by God. Here accounts diverge, and challenging issues arise. Suffice to say that whatever account is given, at least anyone considering the question of whether to wear a mask certainly has this sort of value.

The second basic idea is that this intrinsic value demands consideration or respect in our thinking and action that takes the form of rights. The individual has a value such that their life cannot be disposed of because it inconveniences me: individuals aren’t fungible and have a certain inviolability. Philosopher Ronald Dworkin put it this way: “rights trump utility.” This means that rights prevent us from doing things to an individual (such as killing them) on the grounds that doing those things would promote overall happiness. There is vagueness to this idea that philosophers and legal theorists work hard to dispel: how much utility does a right trump? Can we kill one to save five? If not, then ten, or one hundred? Again, we need not settle this question to answer the question regarding masks.

Third basic idea: when I violate someone’s rights deliberately, I do wrong. Often this idea will receive a great deal of nuance, delimiting the nature of the wrongdoing and exceptions that may arise in various circumstances. The important point is that rights define a moral space within which I can make choices, even choices that lower my expected utility or that of others, provided that I am not violating their rights in doing so. So the moral space defines a domain of autonomy for individual decision-making and choice but not an unlimited one. To see that it cannot be unlimited requires only a moment’s reflection. If we both claim to have rights in this sense, we must recognize each other’s inviolability at the risk of these claims being meaningless. Instead, we must realize that the assertion of rights imposes obligations on us: we must limit the exercise of our autonomy, taking other bearers of rights into account. Our claim to an unimpeded pursuit of happiness must recognize the claim of others to the same, and so my pursuit of happiness must be framed in a way that takes them into account. The kind of individualism that supports rights claims is grounded in the recognition of the value of the individual and imposes obligations that others take that value into account as they act. This is why anti-maskers are acting inconsistently with the ideas they claim to act on. The notion of rights that they invoke seems to have come uprooted from the moral ideas that ground it and become a merely legal notion. It is possibly a nod to constitutional rights, but one that fails to account for why those constitutional rights were a good idea from a moral point of view.

Those who refuse to wear masks on the grounds of exercising rights seem to have decided that their minor discomfort outweighs the lives of others in wearing a mask. Imagine that I have an exceedingly comfortable shirt, but for whatever reason, it kills one out of every thousand people who look at it. Presumably, I have a moral obligation not to wear that shirt anywhere but away from the view of all onlookers. Others would be within their rights to force me not to wear that shirt or to take on the discomfort of wearing it covered, assuming it won’t have its fatal effect when concealed. I cannot object to these requirements by saying, “but my shirt is so comfortable!” or “covering my shirt makes it less comfortable!” because these questions are put out of consideration by the rights of others. If each of our minor discomforts provides grounds for subjecting others to risk of serious illness and death, then, effectively, none of us have any moral rights. The French theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal put it concisely: “Respect means: inconvenience yourself.”

The Case For and Against D.C. Statehood

photograph of D.C. skyline with Washington Monument at dusk

A bill to set Washington, D.C. on the road to statehood has recently been passed by the House of Representatives. The sponsors of the bill argue that while D.C. has a greater population than some existing states, it lacks the federal-level representation that these small states have. Though the bill has extensive Democratic support, among Republicans it is a complete non-starter. Both President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have unequivocally denounced it. However, their objections don’t even attempt to make a substantive case against the measure. Trump’s refusal was given in nakedly political terms, citing the increase in Democratic voting power that would invariably come from D.C. statehood. McConnell has previously criticized the idea on similar grounds. He claimed that admitting D.C. to the Union as a state (and Puerto Rico, for that matter) was a Democratic attempt to gain votes for “full-bore socialism.”Do opponents of D.C. statehood need more substantive arguments, and if so are there any such arguments?

The original argument against the US capital residing in one of the states arose in part from an incident known as the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783. Members of a Pennsylvania unit of the Continental Army, which had fought in the Revolutionary War, protested outside a meeting of the Confederation Congress (the US governing body created by the Articles of Confederation) in Philadelphia. They were owed back pay and decided to force the issue upon learning of the Congress’ meeting. Approximately 400 soldiers, with access to firearms, participated in these demonstrations. Members of Congress were prevented from leaving the meeting until Alexander Hamilton persuaded them that their concerns would be addressed at the next meeting. However, he also sent a request to the leader of Pennsylvania’s executive board, John Dickinson, requesting that the state summon militia to deal with the protestors. Dickinson twice refused this request, even after Congress threatened to move the US capitol from Philadelphia. When drafting a constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, the delegates ultimately settled on creating a district under direct and exclusive control of Congress as set forth in Article I, Section 8. Fear of depending on one of the states for its defense and infrastructure, the newly created federal government led to the creation of the District of Columbia.

The arguments in favor of statehood for D.C. are much the same as those in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico, and every other territory that eventually became a state. In a word, the reason is self-determination. The federal structure of the US guarantees states significant power of their own affairs and territory. Any territory admitted as a state to the US is guaranteed the same sovereignty that every other state enjoys. The importance of this sovereignty includes the power of political representation in the federal government allowing a state to advocate its own interests. The Articles of Confederation under which the original thirteen colonies joined lacked a strong central government particularly because the states feared imposition and interference from centralized power. The motto “No taxation without representation,” did not subside after the Revolutionary War: it can be found lacquered onto the license plates of vehicles registered in Washington, D.C. Taxation without representation is the central grievance D.C. residents want addressed. While Puerto Rico pays federal taxes for Medicare and Social Security, they do not pay federal income tax. Residents of D.C. do pay federal income tax. Yet they, like Puerto Rico, have no senators and only have non-voting members in the House of Representatives. The citizens of D.C. couldn’t even elect their own mayor until 1973, with the post instead being filled by a federal appointee.

Mayor Bowser’s bid for statehood follows the so-called “Tennessee Plan” of William Blount, the first territorial governor of the Southwest Territory. (This was the name given to what would become Tennessee after North Carolina ceded land to the federal government as a settlement for some debt.) This model involves a potential state holding a referendum among its citizens (of whom there must be at least 60,000), and should that referendum pass then holding a constitutional convention to set out the plan for the potential state’s governance. D.C. has done all of this, and so there are two substantial reasons in favor of granting the federal district statehood. First, it fulfills a founding principle of the US that much political power should be reserved for the people and the geographic area where they live, rather than vesting it all in a few buildings in one small part of the country. Second, the people of D.C. have shown overwhelmingly that statehood is what they want. (In contrast to Puerto Rico, which voted down statehood referenda four times before passing one in 2017, albeit marred by low turnout and boycotts by some political groups.)

But what of the original reason for refusing to locate the US capital in any one of its member states? Will the federal government become subject to the whim of D.C. citizen’s and their state government? Proponents of statehood for D.C. do not want to eliminate the federal district entirely. Instead it would simply be shrunk to encompass the buildings of the three branches of government, supporting office buildings, and tourist attractions tied to the capital. Nor is the federal government as small and precarious as it was in the late 18th century. Congress likely has little to fear in shrinking from a federal district to a federal enclave.

Not everyone agrees that the problem of undue influence can be so easily dismissed. But even if it could be they argue there are more problems. While most D.C. voters endorsed the referendum, around 30% did not — and for a variety of reasons. Some were reasons of practical cost and administration, but others were more fundamental — namely that granting D.C. statehood would raise constitutional problems. The official legal advice given by the Department of Justice several times in the last few decades has been that Congress lacks the power to grant D.C. statehood. The issue turns on the phrase “not to exceed ten Miles square” found in Article 1, Section 8. The “plain meaning” (a legal phrase dripping with irony) of this is taken to be that Congress can neither unilaterally enlarge nor shrink the district. Mayor Bowser’s plan points to the Alexandria Retrocession Act of 1846, in which Virginia got back some of the land it had given to the federal government to create the federal district, as evidence that Congress can change the size of the district. However critics point out that this was and had to be a bilateral agreement: the Virginia General Assembly first passed their own bill, and Congress soon passed mirroring legislation.

The 23rd Amendment to the US Constitution is argued to pose an additional problem. This amendment gives the citizens of D.C. power to elect the US president by providing representation in the Electoral College. However, even if the district were shrunk to a small enclave of buildings, it would still be guaranteed some number of electoral votes by the 23rd amendment. The per capita power of these votes would be out of alignment with the minuscule population of the scaled-back federal district.

Statehood for Washington, D.C. is currently a moot question. No statehood bill will make it through a Republican-controlled Senate. But even with a future Congress, success is not guaranteed. Constitutional issues likely to be decided by the Supreme Court may keep D.C. and its citizens under federal rule for the foreseeable future.