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Can Men’s Centers Reverse the Gender Gap on Campus?

photograph of empty lecture hall

Within the past couple decades, the gender ratio of students entering college has been experiencing a great reversal from the pre-1970s college admission rates. Today, college’s student populations are made up of almost 60 percent of women and 40 percent of men, a number that is only expected to rise. Millions fewer men are even stepping foot on campus. And even once in college, women are graduating at higher levels than men across the four-year, five-year, and six-year rates. After a year of online classes due to COVID-19, 75 percent of those who dropped out of college were male students.

This may not seem like it would be a big issue to many people — after all, it took many decades of fighting by women to force colleges to even accept them into their programs. Now, they’re achieving at far greater levels than their male counterparts. Unfortunately, in the global context, millions of girls and women still have no access to education, or their education is lacking in the quality that boys and men receive. Meanwhile, in the professional world, men still dominate elite and upper level positions, while women are still trying to break the glass ceiling. Despite the significance of these larger trends, the gender gap in college enrollment will also have an important impact on society and the economy for generations to come. Yet, many people, administrations, and institutions are struggling to understand and explain this phenomenon.

While there are mostly likely a combination of factors that result in this trend, some have offered speculative explanations that might provide educators a way to prevent a continuing decline. One such theory suggests that the widening gap is simply an extension of the behavioral trends witnessed in child development. Historically, women and girls have been doing better with their education throughout their childhoods and into adulthood. Even at the elementary level, girls perform better at school with higher grades and improved behavior in the classroom. By the high school age, more girls are graduating with degrees and then applying to college, than boys, who continue to lag behind. The fact that this starts at such a young age could suggest biological factors, but could also speak to larger sociological factors. By the time children are entering school they are well aware of their gender and, while they are not explicitly aware, express behavior that conforms to the societal expectations of that gender. So, if 75 percent of public school teachers are women, then boys in those classrooms may internalize the idea that the educational field is a female-dominated field and not want to pursue higher education later in life. Or, a lack of male role models in school, or at home, could also push boys away from trying to excel in school.

Another historical factor could be that men have been skipping higher education for labor-intensive work for almost a century. Given the high cost of college tuition, it can be tempting to go straight from high school into the workforce for financial reasons. Women, on the other hand, have fewer opportunities outside of college (or marriage) to earn enough money to have a financially stable life.

But even when men do make it onto college campuses, they still are not graduating at comparable rates to women. Some have speculated that it has to do with the current culture and climate on college campuses. First, initial imbalances have a tendency to snowball; if a college’s student body starts becoming overwhelmingly female, then the school begins to lose more and more admissions. In an attempt to counter these shifts, colleges have been prioritizing admitting male students in hopes to shorten the gap because a more equal balance creates a more attractive campus for both male and female students.  Another (seemingly politically-motivated) theory is that college campuses are making men feel unwelcome on campus by focusing their efforts and attention on different student populations. These commentators claim that continued criticism of white male privilege has turned this audience off, and that we shouldn’t be shocked by their disinterest in the academy. Whether this is a factor that can be, or even should be, addressed is another question altogether.

One innovative way that colleges have been trying to address men struggling during college is with Men’s centers on campus. Most people are probably already familiar with Women’s centers on college campuses, which offer a safe place for people to visit to discuss or gather information on topics relating to women’s issues. Men’s centers, on the other hand, would work on issues directly relating to men, whose consequences are often the focus in Women’s Centers. For example, The University of Massachusetts Amherst has their own Men and Masculinities Center that takes a male-positive approach to their mission. By teaching men to focus on changing for the better, this mindset “rejects the idea that men are somehow intrinsically emotionless, violent or sexist.” It is a tragic and historical idea that men cannot feel or cry, which only results in men finding other, often violent, ways to express their emotions, particularly against women. In terms of mental health, this positive mindset could greatly affect the staggering numbers of suicide among men compared to women. For college students across genders, suicide is the second leading cause of death with over 1,000 suicides on college campuses per year. When evaluating the numbers by genders, in 2019 men were over three times as likely to die by suicide than women. Creating a Men’s center on campuses could potentially encourage men to speak with professionals or each other about their feelings and mental health. Even if campuses provide counselors, men might be deterred from seeking out help or visiting for fear of not living up to the image of a “true man” that society has depicted as cold and tough. While these are only a few issues that Men’s Centers could address for men in college, they could have a profound impact on the performance of men in college. Eventually, if more men graduate with college degrees, then more and more might start applying to college in the first place as well.

Men’s centers can’t address all of the issues that men face while pursuing their higher education, but they have the potential to create successful experiences for more men on campus. It would take time, but the ratio could slide back towards a more equal rate if boys see more and more examples of the benefits of higher education. As mentioned earlier, however, many of the factors can be attributed to starting at a young age for boys, so more will need to be done at the earlier stages of education to get at the root of the problem, rather than reaching the percent that make it onto college campuses.

Who’s Harmed by Abortion?

photograph of pro-life protestors in front of Planned Parenthood

Earlier this month, the Texas Heartbeat Act came into force. The Act empowers citizens to sue anyone assisting a pregnant person in securing an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detectable – generally around the six-week mark. This means that anyone tangentially involved in the causal chain of events leading to an abortion can be implicated. From the clinician who conducts the abortion, to the individual or company that provides the funds to pay for the procedure, to the taxi driver who drives the pregnant person to the clinic; if you can be linked to the abortion, you could be sued. Upon a successful lawsuit, the defendant must pay $10,000 to the person who raised the case and cover the legal fees of both parties.

The Act’s introduction has generated a lot of ethical, jurisprudential, and social debate. This includes its constitutional viability in respect to Roe v. Wade, the acceptability of deputizing private citizens to enforce state law, the lack of exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, and the fairness of the ‘six-week mark’ given that most people don’t know they’re pregnant at this point. In a previous post, I’ve highlighted the Act’s problematic use of language. However, a Wall Street Journal article stood out to me, and I wanted to examine it here.

In “The Texas Abortion Law Is Unconventional Because It Had to Be,” Texas State Senator Bryan Hughes clarifies what he believes to be the ill-informed commentary surrounding the Act. He states that the legal gymnastics conducted by the Act were essential as the Supreme Court had gone beyond its purview in its decision in the Roe v. Wade case. Hughes argues that the Court meddled in affairs outside of its jurisdiction by taking the question of abortion out of the electorate’s hands. The Texas Heartbeat Act is a response to this overstep Hughes claims, writing that, “[l]ike it or not, states will keep crafting unconventional means of regulating abortion until the Supreme Court puts the question back where it belongs.”

To support this claim, Hughes talks about the nature of the wronged party in civil cases, arguing that, “[i]n almost every case, the person wronged, and therefore the person who brings the claim, is the plaintiff.” Concerning abortion, the problem, at least as Hughes sees it, is twofold. First, the criminal law is unable to tackle the issue of abortion because of Roe V. Wade. Thus, civil law must be utilized. And this leads to Hughes’ second problem: in instances of abortion, the wronged party can’t bring a civil case against those that have done it harm, as that party no longer exists; abortion eliminates the supposedly wronged party. He writes:

In the case of abortion, the wronged party has been extinguished. If we can’t depend on criminal enforcement, even if Roe is overturned, and the party who directly suffered harm cannot bring a claim, what’s left? Someone else must enforce the law.

The idea that a gestating being is harmed is essential for Hughes. His argument rests upon the civil law being used to compensate for that harm – no harm means no justifiable civil case. Yet, it’s not clear what harm means in this context or why we should care. And it is this lack of clarity that’s fascinating.

You might not think there’s much of a mystery here. You might say that the gestating life is harmed by being aborted, which would not be a novel line of argument. Many anti-abortionists and pro-lifers, such as Pope Francis, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Marco Rubio, make similar claims. But, this stance isn’t without its problems.

Simply saying that something is harmed doesn’t provide us with any clear indication that such harm is morally relevant or a matter deserving retribution. Instead, it’s the outcome of that harm, qualities particular to the harm, or the experience of being harmed that conveys importance here. Thus, harm, in and of itself, is not morally relevant. To illustrate this, let’s turn to the 1995 classic Toy Story.

Sid, the film’s antagonist, is a destructive boy with a penchant for breaking toys. This habit is depicted as horrifying because the toys are not inanimate beings but are conscious, capable of possessing minds and feeling pain. Thus, their destruction at Sid’s hands is vicious, mutilative, and, yes, morally wrong. Yet, if those toys weren’t alive, Sid’s troubling actions wouldn’t be of moral concern. Thus, while he could harm the toys in terms of their physical destruction and deconstruction, it wouldn’t be harmful in the same way as one could harm another living being; Sid pulling the head off his sister’s doll would be entirely different from pulling the head off his sister.

Harm, as it concerns the destruction of an organized matter, is not inherently morally troublesome. We do it all the time when we eat or tear clothing. What matters is that action’s associations. In Toy Story, the toys are alive, so Sid should, in Woody’s words, “play nice.”

In the case of abortion, the harm is judged by anti-abortionists as being ethically reprehensible because it is harm inflicted upon a morally relevant being – the gestating lifeform. For them, the clump of cells developing in the womb is not the same as a toy, nor is it the same as other biological matter (like a puddle of blood). There is something special about gestation that confers moral importance.

But is there? Here, the idea of abortion as harm runs into another, much more substantive hurdle – what is the moral status of the gestating being?

Credit where it’s due, Hughes puts his cards on the table in his article and states, “I believe life begins at conception.” Thus, for him, the moral relevance of a gestating being begins at that exact moment. From then onwards, its moral status is considered comparable to that of any other human. This claim, derivable from the position of the Catholic Church since the nineteenth century, is one of the foundations upon which he builds his argument. Not that abortion causes the physical destruction of a complex material structure, but it harms a morally relevant being through that being’s obliteration; not that something has been destroyed, but someone has been harmed. Yet, this easy-to-understand view – that life after conception is comparable to life at any other point – leads to some counterintuitive outcomes. Namely, you have the same duties to the gestating being as you would to a fully-formed adult.

For example, imagine you discover that a fire has broken out at a fertility center, and you can hear yells coming from inside. With no one around and the fire department unlikely to arrive in time, you enter the building. You eventually find someone in one of the labs, trapped under a table. Unfortunately, freeing them will take time and risk both your lives. In the same lab, you see several trays labelled ‘fertilized eggs’, all of which contain hundreds of test tubes. As the fire intensifies, you realize that you can either save the person or hundreds of fertilized eggs, but not both. Which do you pick?

It’s a numbers game; how many lives can you save? The answer to that question depends on when you think life begins. You should grab the trays and leave the trapped individual to their fate if it’s at conception. After all, why save just one life when you could save hundreds? Yet, this would seem to be a bizarre outcome. To leave a conscious being to a painful death to save clusters of cells would strike many as counterintuitive, regardless of how many fertilized eggs you could carry. Yet, this is what Hughes’s beliefs require.

Now, that being said, I don’t think this line of reasoning inherently discredits the Texas Heartbeat Act. There are arguments, such as it being a response to the Supreme Court’s judicial oversight, which may be used as a justification for its implementation. However, trying to justify the Act as providing a necessary recourse for those who are supposedly wronged, as argued by Hughes, certainly needs refinement.

Should Scientists De-Extinct the Woolly Mammoth?

photograph of woolly mammoth sculpture

The startup Colossal Laboratories & Biosciences made headlines recently when they announced that they had received $15 million in funding for their project that is looking to “de-extinct” the woolly mammoth. The idea is to edit the DNA of an Asian elephant, resulting in the creation of an embryo that would be a hybrid of woolly mammoth and Asian elephant. While the project is in its early phases, CEO Ben Lamm has stated that the group’s eventual goal is to restore a sustainable population of mammoths to their once native tundra lands.

The project has raised more than a few eyebrows. There are, of course, many questions surrounding the science of the project, as it’s not clear what the chances of success really are. Then there have been the ethical questions. Many have drawn connections to Jurassic Park, although it seems unlikely that the woolly mammoth, should it be successfully reintroduced to the wild, would eat many theme park tourists. Instead, there have been concerns about whether the animals that could result from the project would, in fact, be able to live quality lives, whether they would have a negative impact on the environment and climate, and whether we should really be messing around with bringing animals back to life at all. The project leaders have pointed to potential benefits of the project in the form of developing gene technology that could result in new ways of helping existing animals, although this has prompted some to ask why developing this technology couldn’t be pursued without involving woolly mammoths.

Indeed, one of the biggest complaints lodged against the project is that there are plenty of endangered animals that could benefit from these kinds of efforts from the scientific community. For instance, in an interview with NPR, paleontologist and director of the Weis Earth Science Museum Joseph Frederickson notes that, “If you can create a mammoth or at least an elephant that looks like a good copy of a mammoth that could survive in Siberia, you could do quite a bit for the white rhino or the giant panda.” He also emphasized that there are endangered species with “dwindling genetic diversity” that could potentially benefit from the kind of gene technology being developed by Lamm and his team.

Here, though, is a question: why should we have greater obligations to animals that exist, but are endangered, than to animals that are extinct? Let’s say that there is value in trying to ensure the continued existence of the giant panda and white rhino. Didn’t woolly mammoths also have value? Is there more value to preserving the life of an animal species that exists, but is dwindling, as opposed to bringing an extinct species back to life?

We have, of course, seen some reasons to be concerned about resurrecting the woolly mammoth already, namely that doing so could have detrimental environmental consequences. While they happily roamed the earth thousands of years ago, a lot has changed since then, and so reintroducing them could very well go poorly for the environment and the animals themselves.

But let’s put that to the side. Say the woolly mammoth could be reintroduced successfully, the environment wouldn’t be any worse off for it, and there would be no JurassicPark-esque disastrous consequences. Would bringing back the woolly mammoth be worthwhile?

Some of those working on “de-extinction” projects think that it would be. For instance, the Revive & Restore group looks to “enhance biodiversity through the genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species,” and has interests in reviving not only the woolly mammoth, but the heath hen and passenger pigeon, as well. Some of the reasons that these animals in particular have been chosen is because of the viability of bringing them back at all (for example, they have close living ancestors), but also because they may be able to occupy certain ecological niches. One reason why we might want to bring such species back to life, then, is that doing so could repair the environmental damage done when they went extinct.

Again, it’s a matter of scientific debate as to whether such animals really are needed to fill ecological voids they may have left when they disappeared, or whether other animals have been able to fill those roles in the meantime. We might wonder, though, whether it would be a better idea to try to preserve the animals that currently exist and are in danger of becoming extinct, since we know for sure that they have a role to play in the environment.

There is perhaps an additional reason why we might want to bring certain species back from extinction: guilt. The going theory for many years was that woolly mammoths went extinct because of overhunting by humans (although that theory is also up for debate), and it is well-documented that the carrier pigeon was hunted to extinction, as was the heath hen. There is no doubt that humans are directly or indirectly responsible for the endangerment and extinction of a tremendous number of animal species, and so we might think that we have a special responsibility to those species that we had a hand in eliminating.

The issue of whether animals like the woolly mammoth should be brought back to life is certainly worth further discussion. However, given the uncertainty surrounding whether such an animal could, in fact, be successfully made un-extinct, and given that there is certainty surrounding the endangerment of animals like the giant panda and white rhino, one might suspect that more good could be done trying to preserve the animals that still exist rather than those that are long gone.

Resurrection Through Chatbot?

cartoon image of an occult seance

There is nothing that causes more grief than the death of a loved one; it can inflict an open wound that never fully heals, even if we can temporarily forget that it’s there. We are social beings and our identities aren’t contained within our own human-shaped space. Who we are is a matter of the roles we take on, the people we care for, and the relationships that allow us to practice and feel love. The people we love are part of who we are and when one of them dies, it can feel like part of us dies as well. For many of us, the idea that we will never interact with our loved one again is unbearable.

Some entrepreneurs see any desire as an opportunity, even the existential impulses and longings that come along with death. In response to the need to have loved ones back in our lives, tech companies have found a new use for their deepfake technology. Typically used to simulate the behavior of celebrities and politicians, some startups have recognized the potential in programming deepfake chat-bots to behave like dead loved ones. The companies that create these bots harvest data from the deceased person’s social media accounts. Artificial intelligence is then used to predict what the person in question would say in a wide range of circumstances. A bereaved friend or family member can then chat with the resulting intelligence and, if things go well, it will be indistinguishable from the person who passed away.

Some people are concerned that this is just another way for corporations to exploit grieving people. Producers of the chatbots aren’t interested in the well-being of their clients, they’re only concerned with making money. It may be the case that this is an inherently manipulative practice, and in the worst of ways. How could it possibly be acceptable to profit from people experiencing the lowest points in their lives?

That said, the death industry is thriving, even without the addition of chatbots. Companies sell survivors of the deceased burial plots, coffins, flowers, cosmetic services, and all sorts of other products. Customers can decide for themselves which goods and services they’d like to pay for. The same is true with a chatbot. No one is forced to strike up a conversation with a simulated loved one, they have a chance to do so only if they have decided for themselves that it is a good idea for them.

In addition to the set of objections related to coercion, there are objections concerning the autonomy of the people being simulated. If it’s possible to harm the dead, then in some cases that may be what’s going on here. We don’t know what the chatbot is going to say, and it may be difficult for the person interacting with the bot to maintain the distinction between the bot and the real person they’ve lost. The bot may take on commitments or express values that the living person never had. The same principle is at play when it comes to using artificial intelligence to create versions of actors to play roles. The real person may never have consented to say or do the things that the manufactured version of them says or does. Presumably, the deceased person, while living, had a set of desires related to their legacy and the ways in which they wanted other people to think of them. We can’t control what’s in the heads of others, but perhaps our memories should not be tarnished nor our posthumous desires frustrated by people looking to resurrect our psychologies for some quick cash.

In response, some might argue that dead people can’t be harmed. As Epicurus said, “When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain.” There may be some living people who are disturbed by what the bot is doing, but that harm doesn’t befall the dead person — the dead person no longer exists. It’s important to respect autonomy, but such respect is only possible for people who are capable of exercising it, and dead people can’t.

Another criticism of the use of chat-bots is that it makes it more difficult for people to arrive at some form of closure. Instead, they are prolonging the experience of having the deceased with them indefinitely. Feeling grief in a healthy way involves the recognition that the loved one in question is really gone.

In response, some might argue that everyone feels grief differently and that there is no single healthy way to experience it. For some people, it might help to use a chat-bot to say goodbye, to express love to a realistic copy of their loved one, or to unburden themselves by sharing some other sentiment that they always needed to let out but never got the chance.

Other worries about chatbot technology are not unique to bots that simulate the responses of people who have passed on. Instead, the concern is about the role that technology, and artificial intelligence in particular, should be playing in human lives. Some people, will, no doubt, opt to continue to engage in a relationship with the chat-bot. This motivates the question: can we flourish as human beings if we trade in our interpersonal relationships with other sentient beings for relationships with realistic, but nevertheless non-sentient artificial intelligence? Human beings help one another achieve the virtues that come along with friendship, the parent-child relationship, mentorship, and romantic love (to name just a few). It may be the case that developing interpersonal virtues involves responding to the autonomy and vulnerability of creatures with thoughts and feelings who can share in the familiar sentiments that make it beautiful to be alive.

Care ethicists offer the insight that when we enter into relationships, we take on role-based obligations that require care. Care can only take place when the parties to the relationship are capable of caring. In recent years we have experimented with robotic health care providers, robotic sex workers, and robotic priests. Critics of this kind of technological encroachment wonder whether such functions ought to be replaced by uncaring robots. Living a human life requires give and take, expressing and responding to need. This is a dynamic that is not fully present when these roles are filled by robots.

Some may respond that we have yet to imagine the range of possibilities that relationships with artificial intelligence may provide. In an ideal world, everyone has loving, caring companions and people help one another live healthy, flourishing lives. In the world in which we live, however, some people are desperately lonely. Such people benefit from affection behavior, even if the affection is not coming from a sentient creature. For such people, it would be better to have lengthy conversations with a realistic chat-bot than to have no conversations at all.

What’s more, our response to affection between human beings and artificial intelligence may say more about our biases against the unfamiliar than it does against the permissibility of these kinds of interactions. Our experiences with the world up to this point have motivated reflection on the kinds of experiences that are virtuous, valuable, and meaningful. Doing so has necessitated a rejection of certain myopic ways of viewing the boundaries of meaningful experience. We may be at the start of a riveting new chapter on the forms of possible engagement between carbon and silicon. For all we know, these interactions may be great additions to the narrative.

Can We Heckle Unvaccinated Athletes?

photograph of Bryson DeChambeau at event with crowd in background

A lot of the pleasure I take in watching sports comes not only from seeing the teams and people I like succeed, but also from seeing those I dislike fail. For instance, I will gladly watch the Blue Jays players hit an impressive string of dingers, but will equally enjoy seeing Ben Roethlisberger get sacked. Being a sports fan means feeling both pride and schadenfreude, and it comes with the territory of being a professional athlete that some people are going to love you, and some just aren’t.

While there are a lot of reasons one might have for disliking an athlete, the pandemic has brought about a new one: being unvaccinated. There have been a number of professional athletes who have come out as having not yet been vaccinated, for whatever reason. In particular, Bryson DeChambeau, an American professional golfer, stirred up controversy recently when he was unable to participate in the 2021 Olympics due to testing positive for COVID-19, and then did not get vaccinated when he returned. He raised the ire of many golf fans even more when he said that he did not regret failing to get vaccinated, stating that he thought that since he was “young and healthy” that he didn’t need it, and that he was waiting for the vaccine to become “really mainstream.”

The result was a serious increase in heckling during his most recent tour, which resulted in an altercation with a fan during which DeChambeau sought the assistance of the police (despite the incident only involving name-calling). Some reporting on the issue have referred to the incident and others like it as “bullying.”

Others, however, have taken the opposite stance. For instance, sports commentator Drew Magary has called for increased booing of unvaccinated athletes, and singles out additional players like NFL stars Sam Darnold, Adam Thielen, and MLB star Jason Heyward, among others. “Has coddling them worked?” asks Magary. “No. And do you know why? Because these athletes SUCK. They don’t want more information. They have it. Everyone does.”

So, what’s the right thing to do in this situation? As we saw above, certainly some amount of heckling of your least favorite athlete is okay: while I would never openly insult someone on the street, the context of being a fan is such that if I got the chance to attend a Pittsburgh Steelers game I would without hesitation tell Ben Roethlisberger that he’s the worst and not feel bad about it in the least. Clearly there is a limit to sports fandom: you can’t throw stuff or kick your least favorite player as they walk past you, and it would probably be too much to shout a string of obscenities in the vicinity of young and impressionable fans. So where’s the line? And has it moved at all when it comes to heckling on the basis of being unvaccinated?

On the one hand, there is a concern that heckling players for failing to be vaccinated goes too far, in that it attacks someone’s personal convictions. For instance, ESPN notes how some of DeChambeau’s fellow golfers have been sympathetic, feeling that it’s unfair for fans to heckle someone based off a personal choice. It does seem that it might be violating some norm of sports fandom to attack someone’s personal beliefs: yelling at someone that they’re washed up is within the realm of sports, but maybe it shouldn’t extend outside of that realm. If the heckling is not only personal but also incessant, then we can see how someone might interpret it as a kind of bullying.

On the other hand, one might think that unvaccinated professional athletes deserve some degree of derision, not only because they are putting their teammates and opponents – with whom, in the case of NFL players, they are very much in close personal contact – at risk, but also because as professional athletes they are, to some extent, role models, and thus face additional obligations to set a good example for their fans. They also do not seem to have any kind of excuse: on the assumption that they do not have legitimate medical reason not to get vaccinated, they have access to information about the safety of the vaccine, as well as ready access to the vaccine itself. Perhaps, then, heckling could help encourage them to change their mind.

But wait, isn’t it just mean to heckle someone excessively, regardless of the reason? If it makes someone feel bad, isn’t that sufficient reason not to do it?

Maybe not. For instance, consider Magary’s justification for increasing heckling:

“So boo them. Call them names. Get personal from the bleachers. Hold up a giant copy of your vaccination card to taunt them with. Let them understand that there are earned consequences for being so negligent. For endangering everyone around you and then having the naked gall to act like it’s some sacred private decision you just made.”

While Magary thus conceives of additional heckling as a kind of deserved punishment, perhaps we could think about it in a slightly different way: heckling unvaccinated athletes is not a mere expression of disliking someone because they play for a rival team, but as a kind of protest. As we saw above, there do seem to be legitimate reasons to be displeased with both the unvaccinated athletes themselves as well as the professional leagues that allow them to continue to play – i.e., that they are endangering their teammates and setting a bad example. Given that there’s more at stake than just the outcome of a golf tournament (or a football or baseball game) it may very well be warranted to make your opposition to them known.

What Toilet Paper Can Teach Us About Climate Change

photograph of empty toilet paper rolls stacked

One of the stranger parts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been people’s sudden obsession with bathroom sanitation. While there was never any pandemic-related disruption to the supply chain, nor the risk of even the strongest lockdown measures in place preventing people from buying essential groceries, many found themselves overcome by a desperate need to panic-buy vast quantities of toilet paper. Ultimately, this created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which paranoid hoarding led to the very shortage that had been feared. A similar scenario played out earlier this year when a cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline led to gasoline shortages throughout the East Coast. Panic-buying ensued once again, with individuals stockpiling vast quantities of fuel and further exacerbating an already struggling supply line.

Many of us might have the intuition that hoarding of this kind is wrong. But why? There are many ways we might try to determine the moral rightness or wrongness of an action. One of the simplest is to see whether it causes harm to others. But that’s not hugely helpful here. Suppose I hold a one-hour exam information session for my class of sixty students. In order to be fair, each student is given one minute in which to ask any questions they might have. Suppose, then, that one student ignores this guideline, and instead monopolizes a total of two minutes for her queries. It seems wrong of her to do this. But why? It’s not clear that her actions harm her fellow classmates. The extra minute she takes only subtracts slightly more than a second from each of their times – hardly enough to make an appreciable difference.

One way of explaining the wrongness of this student’s action is instead to claim that she is taking more than her fair share. We often find ourselves having to divide a finite resource amongst some group of individuals: time in a meeting, pizza amongst friends, holidays between family members. And in each of these scenarios there is, presumably, a fair way of making that division – one that gives full consideration to the interests of all individuals concerned. Once that allocation has been made, exceeding your fair share is wrong, regardless of whether it results in actual harm to others. This is precisely the kind of approach we might take toward food in a famine and water in a drought – and it explains what’s wrong about taking more than your fair share of toilet paper during a pandemic, too.

For many, the fair share approach may be so obvious as to appear trivial. But it can help inform our approach to far more complicated problems – like climate change. In 2011, nearly all countries agreed to limit the global average temperature rise to no more than 2°C compared to preindustrial levels – the maximum global temperature rise we can tolerate while avoiding the most catastrophic effect of climate changes. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, achieving this with a probability of >66% would require us to keep our global carbon expenditure below 2900GtCO2. As at the time of writing, only 605GtCO2 remains. Divided equally amongst the 7.9 billion population of earth, this comes out at a lifetime carbon allowance of 76.6 tonnes of CO2 per person — or around 0.9 tonnes per year over an 85-year lifespan.

Of course, it might be the case that a fair share isn’t necessarily an equal share. Another way of dividing up the carbon budget might be to instead require a proportional reduction in carbon emissions by all emitters. Put another way, this requires that everyone’s emissions peak around 2020, drop 50% by 2045, and fall below zero by 2075. The problematic side of this approach is that it allows historically high emitters to continue to emit at a much greater rate than many others around the world. As such, it provides a far more generous carbon budget for those living in a country like the U.S. According to Carbon Brief, a child born in the U.S. in 2017 will – on this approach – have a lifetime carbon budget of 450 tonnes of CO2, or 5.3 tonnes per year over an 85-year lifespan. By contrast, a child born in the same year in Bangladesh will receive only 4 tonnes of CO2, or 0.05 tonnes per year.

Of course, other factors may come into play in determining what a ‘fair share’ of carbon emissions is for each individual. One such factor is need. Suppose, for example, that I live in a part of the country where the only electricity production I have access to is derived from a coal-fired power plant. In such a case, I might necessitate a higher budget than someone who lives in a location with renewable energy options.

But the precise method by which we determine a fair share of carbon emissions is largely academic. This is because – even on the most generous allocation – we are all still horribly over-budget. In 2019 (the most recent year for which data is available), the per capita carbon emissions of a U.S. citizen was around 16 tonnes of CO2. Ultimately, this means that there is a moral imperative on each of us to do all we can to reduce our future emissions in any way possible. Some actions – like recycling and patronizing public transport – may be easy, but other changes (like the one I suggested in a previous article) may require much greater sacrifice. But without these changes, we – like those who hoarded toilet paper and gasoline – will continue to take far more than our fair share, and subsequently treat others unfairly in the process.

What Hypocrisy Tells Us

photograph of the lighted front of the Metropolitan museum of art at night

On September 13th, 2021, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended the 2021 MET Gala wearing a white ball gown emblazoned with the phrase “Tax the Rich” in bright red lettering. The command on the dress was a reference to Ocasio-Cortez’s fiscal platform policy of increasing the tax burden on the wealthiest 1% of U.S. earners. Wearing (literal) statement pieces to the red-carpet Hollywood events is nothing new; celebrities such as Megan Rapinoe and Cara Delevingne have both attended the MET Gala in pieces protesting various social injustices, and Lady Gaga famously attended the MTV’s VMAs in a dress made of meat to protest the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Predictably, Ocasio-Cortez’s look immediately received a flood of attention, some positive, and some quite negative. The most prominent thread of criticism, however, was not criticism of the political position itself. Rather, critics on both sides of the aisle took issue with Ocasio-Cortez advocating for increasing taxes on the rich while attending a tax-payer subsidized event that costs a minimum of $30,000 per ticket. In other words, people were upset that someone would perform (what they took to be) a criticism of extreme wealth while attending an event that indicated they themselves had access to, and benefited from, extreme wealth. That is to say, people accused Ocasio-Cortez of being a hypocrite.

Accusations of political hypocrisy are a fairly standard complaint to make, not only of politicians and public figures, but sometimes also of a movement as a whole. Consider this critique of anti-abortion politicians by a group called Pro-Choice America. Herein, Pro-Choice America accuses politically conservative people who are against legalized abortion of being hypocrites in virtue of rejecting other policy proposals. The other policy proposals in question include: nationalized healthcare, subsidized higher education, affordable housing, eased immigration restrictions, and so on. Their insinuated argument is something like the following: if you are against abortion because you are “pro-life”, then consistency demands you also favor other political positions that would help people live better lives.

From the other side of the aisle, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, republicans have been accusing democrat politicians of hypocrisy for instances of failing to abide by the masking and social distancing rules they have signed into law. Such failures include instances of gathering indoors without masks, patronizing salons and restaurants, and hosting birthday parties with long guest lists.

But what is the purpose of pointing out apparent ideological hypocrisy of individuals or groups? If Nancy Pelosi acts hypocritically in failing to conform to mask mandates that she endorsed, does this indicate that mask mandates are not a good policy after all? There is no obvious connection between a person’s failure to act consistently in accordance with their beliefs, and the falseness of those beliefs. That is, hypocrisy on the part of advocates is not straightforward evidence against the policies they are advocating for. It may be that the policies themselves are the correct ones to implement — the advocates may be merely weak-willed. Yet, charges of hypocrisy are often brought forth as evidence against the beliefs of the would-be hypocrite. Is pointing out hypocrisy a legitimate way of critiquing someone’s beliefs or policy positions?

A common response to perceived hypocrisy is that, in acting hypocritically, we lose the right to advocate for certain beliefs or policies. For example, a politician who advocates against legal abortion may be accused of lacking the right to an opinion on the matter if it is revealed that he once procured an abortion for a pregnant mistress. Are hypocrites doing something wrong by speaking out of turn? It is hard to see exactly how one may lose a “right” to speak to an issue merely by failing to live up to their own standards. There is no commonly-recognized moral duty to only speak up in favor of behaviors that you yourself follow. Additionally, if consequences are what matter morally, then one ought to advocate for correct policies even if they are so weak-willed that they cannot follow their own prescriptions. Of course, it would be better if one could, as they say, take their own medicine, but it would still maximize the good to encourage other people to act well/implement good policies, regardless of whether they act consistently in their private life. For example, if mask mandates maximized well-being for the country as a whole, then politicians who refused to wear a mask would still (according to utilitarianism) do best to advocate for mask mandates.

On the other hand, a virtue ethicist like Aristotle might say that behaving hypocritically, either by failing to act on your convictions or by advocating for positions you do not truly accept, is a sign of vice — that is, bad character. And having bad character may incline one to believe, or advocate for, bad positions and policies. At least, we are probably more confident in the judgments of people with good character than the judgments of people with bad character. And so, if hypocrisy is a sign of bad character, this could provide some indirect evidence against the views or policies in question.

From a psychological perspective, we may infer from an act of hypocrisy that the person in question is being dishonest about what they say they believe. For example, we may suspect that someone’s true reasons for opposing legal abortion is misogynistic in nature rather than related to the inherent value of life if they advocate for other policies that fail to adequately value life. But even if someone is lying or being misleading about their true beliefs, this should not upset any additional evidence we have in favor of those beliefs or policies. Someone who thinks abortion is wrong on the basis of arguments would not be dissuaded merely because some politician lied about his desire to protect all life. Someone who believes, for social and economic reasons, that the tax burden on the top 1% of U.S. earners should be increased, would not be dissuaded from this belief even if Ocasio-Cortez acted hypocritically in attending the MET Gala.

In conclusion, charges of hypocrisy hit hard, but it is not clear exactly whether, or how, the charges constitute a criticism of the positions of the supposed hypocrite. Regardless, we would likely do better to focus more on the beliefs and policies themselves than on the fallible humans endorsing them.

The Moral Danger of Conservative Nostalgia

photograph of old movie projector displaying blank image on screen

When the news recently broke that a remake of the 1992 film The Bodyguard (originally starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner) is in the works, the internet quickly jumped to imagine who might play the lead roles (one popular trend is pushing for a Lizzo/Chris Evans team-up). Against the excitement, however, were critics arguing that the original film was artistically unique (the soundtrack, led by Houston, is hailed as an extraordinary achievement) and that it would be a mistake to try and recreate it without the incomparable Houston at the helm. Nevertheless, the project is moving forward with the award-winning playwright Matthew López writing the script.

There’s a kind of nostalgia at work in this story that, I want to argue, is not only aesthetically questionable, but can (at least potentially) pose serious moral dangers for a culture enamored with “the good ol’ days.”

It’s become something of a cliché to whine about the deluge of remakes, adaptations, reboots, sequels, and reenvisionings coming from Hollywood. The last year alone has seen new versions of Space Jam, Coming to America, Mulan, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure released and sequels to Top Gun, The Matrix, Ghostbusters, and Scream are finishing production (with reboots of everything from Twister to Pirates of the Caribbean to The Passion of the Christ and more in the works). Similarly, television shows like Full House, Who’s the Boss, Gilmore Girls, Saved by the Bell, and The Wonder Years have all recently returned with new episodes. (None of these lists are comprehensive.) When considered alongside the distinct trend of constructing an interwoven narrative across multiple films — most famously demonstrated by the Marvel Cinematic Universe — it could very well seem like “no one in Hollywood now has an original notion in their heads.”

But, importantly, this is not a new phenomenon: as most any historian of film will attest, Hollywood has always been in the business of re-telling pre-existing stories. One of the earliest remakes (a film called L’Arroseur) was released in 1896, making reboots older than the Titanic, sliced bread, and the state of Oklahoma. Remember that many films now considered classics — such as The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, Psycho, and Mean Girls — were adaptations of already-published books; others like Scarface, The Maltese Falcon, and Angels in the Outfield were themselves remakes of already-released films. The upcoming He’s All That is, most directly, a remake of the 1999 movie She’s All That, but that was first a re-envisioning of 1964’s My Fair Lady which was itself an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

Rachel Fraser has described a “nostalgic culture” as “one bogged down in its own history” — the repeated retelling of familiar stories (and the market-driven incentives that motivate studio execs to continually greenlight such projects) is indeed one way that our present age is one “driven” by nostalgia.

But it is not the dangerous one I have in mind.

In general, ‘nostalgia’ describes an experience of sentimental or mournful longing for one’s past; in the words of philosopher Paula Sweeney, it is an “emotional response to change.” One way a person might so respond is by clinging to their memories, perhaps seeking to recapitulate a particular experience (now with updated special effects, pop culture references, and box office returns). But another is to enshrine the details of one’s memory in a manner that sacralizes the past event such that alterations to its contemporary retelling become offensive (or even heretical). The first kind of nostalgia motivates audiences to want a remake of The Bodyguard; the second kind decrees that no such remake could possibly compare to the original. If the first kind of nostalgia is analogous to addiction, the second might be comparable to idolatry.

While both kinds of nostalgia are focused on the past, only one drives people to try and bring that past (however modulated) into the present; call this form of nostalgia (that stokes the fires of reboots galore) repetitive nostalgia. The other kind of nostalgia promotes precisely the opposite, explicitly prohibiting any contemporary recreations of the past that could potentially alter things for the subjective worst; this kind of conservative nostalgia instead seeks to preserve a crystallized form of what the person remembers in order to protect them from the emotional damage of new changes.

Conservative nostalgia is, I contend, a key factor in the phenomenon of “toxic” fandoms, wherein devoted admirers of some element of pop culture bully other people for the sake of preserving their particular perspective on what they love. Sometimes, this is in response to a perceived attack on the object of their affection, as when one fan tweeted a mild criticism of rapper Nicki Minaj in June 2018 and then faced days of verbal attacks online that escalated to serious privacy violations and the loss of her job. Other times, toxic fandom is triggered alongside other biases, such as racism or sexism: consider the irrational backlash from some circles to Brie Larson’s MCU character or Kelly Marie Tran’s and John Boyega’s Star Wars roles. In each case, conservative nostalgia provokes fans to interpret new (sometimes quite minute) changes as threats, thereby prompting them to act in wildly inappropriate (and sometimes literally life-threatening) ways.

In a different way, something like conservative nostalgia seems to be the foundation of many defenses of preserving the statues built in the early-20th century to honor the failed leaders of the Confederate States of America. Although on one hand, it might seem odd for citizens of a country to want to honor domestic terrorists who formerly attacked that same country, the fact that these monuments have been standing for decades means that, for many people, the visual experience of those statues on roadsides or in town squares is a regular (and perhaps even comforting) element of familiar routines, regardless of who or what the monuments commemorate: to remove them is to make a change that can provoke the sorts of threat responses inherent to experiences of conservative nostalgia.

(To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that conservative nostalgia is the only relevant factor in the debate over Confederate statue removal, but rather that its affective consequences are one important — and perhaps often overlooked — element that should be considered.)

But online bullying and the perpetuation of oppressive propaganda, though seriously morally problematic, still might not count as dangerous (in the standard sense of the term). But when we consider the Capitol Riot of January 2021, we can indeed see extreme ramifications of conservative nostalgia that are easily recognizable as alarmingly unsafe: violent insurrection in an attempt to prevent undesired change. Misled by tangled webs of conspiracy theories and spurred on by multiple prominent figures, the failed insurrectionists sought to protect a false-but-subjectively-comforting narrative for themselves about the outcome of the 2020 election and the continued political career of Donald Trump, even if that meant seriously harming others, destroying historic property, and violating scores of laws. Though the rioters’ nostalgia seems to have been rooted in a mixture of ideologies and beliefs ranging from Christian nationalism to white supremacy to neoliberalism to “home-grown fascism,” one common thread was a fearful resistance to the administrative changes taking place inside the building they were storming — it was a conservative nostalgia that responded to change in an abjectly violent way. (And, concerningly, some politicians and media figures are already starting to reference the Capitol Riot positively, further sedimenting this conservative nostalgia within their own brands to, presumably, further weaponize it for self-serving political and financial support.)

Nevertheless, I don’t think that nostalgia — neither repetitive nor conservative — is necessarily bad: it’s an emotional response to triggers that can motivate further action, but it is those triggers and actions that are directly morally assessable. Still, to overlook the role played by our affective systems is to ignore an important element of human life that can have a massive influence on our thoughts and behavior — and we shouldn’t forget that.

On the Obligations of Sports Fandom

image of lined field under bright lights

This season, Cristiano Ronaldo’s been welcomed back to Manchester United (twelve years after leaving them), while Ben Roethlisberger turned out for a seventeenth campaign for the Pittsburgh Steelers. What unites these two players? Both Ronaldo and Roethlisberger (twice) have been accused of rape. Both men have escaped criminal prosecution due to prosecutors being unable to prove the allegations beyond reasonable doubt. There are important questions concerning how teams, sponsors, and governing bodies should treat these players, but I want to explore a question that is more pressing for many of us: how should fans respond to these players?

There are a bunch of complicating factors that are worth mentioning. Firstly, these allegations are prominent: any fan should know about them (whereas sometimes allegations are swept under the carpet). Sure, other players do bad things, but my focus will be on allegations we know about.

Secondly, fans might say that because they haven’t been convicted, we can assume they have done nothing wrong: innocent until proven guilty. But a lack of conviction does not mean that someone did not commit a crime, it means that prosecutors (or, in other cases, a jury) did not find it likely beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed a crime. They may well have committed a crime, we just might lack overwhelming legal proof. Yet other people may be accused and be entirely innocent. The law does not exhaust our moral judgment – if a friend were accused of a crime but not charged, we might have to evaluate whether we believe them, and I suggest we need to do the same when it comes to sports stars. (Sometimes we should conclude “Maybe they did it, maybe not,” but even that attitude should affect how we treat somebody.)

Thirdly, some sports stars have been convicted of crimes. Michael Vick spent nearly two years in prison for participating in a dog-fighting ring. After his release, he continued his career as an NFL player. There is little doubt that he committed the crime. But, as well as doing the crime, he did the time. Again, that seems too easy a moral escape for sports fans. Just because someone has suffered legal punishment, it does not mean that they receive carte blanche to receive the adulation of hundreds of thousands of fans. (On the other hand, Vick later worked with charities to help fight for animal rights. Perhaps taking his crime seriously means that he should be accepted back onto the field.)

Moving on, what matters is that, like ordinary people, sports stars sometimes do evil things, though it can be hard for us to know with certainty when they have committed evil, and it can be difficult to work out exactly how we should respond to them on a purely moral front. Complications aside, how should we respond to sports stars who have been credibly accused (if not convicted) of wrongdoing?

One might draw a useful comparison with artists who have done wrong. Noel Carrol has argued that sometimes a piece of art “invite[s] us to endorse the wrondgoing in question.” To take his example, if an artwork portrays paedophilia, and the author endorses paedophilia, we might have good reason to eschew that work, since appreciating it involves appreciating this endorsement of wrongdoing. But, to take another of his examples, we have no reason to avoid W.B. Yeats’s “The Fiddler of Dooney” because, although Yeats was a eugenicist, appreciating that poem doesn’t require us to endorse repugnant racist views. We can still enjoy artworks if they are unrelated to the artist’s wrongdoing.

This depends on the idea that artworks have content that we can judge morally. Perhaps a player who is violent in their domestic life should not be cheered for violence on the field. But Carroll’s principle will not get us very far, since the wrongdoing of sports players will rarely be represented in any clear way on the field. Most sporting actions have no real relationship to the immoral acts of everyday life, so appreciating them will rarely actively endorse a player’s wrongdoing in the way that we might do with artworks.

But there is clearly something troubling about cheering for sportspeople who have done wrong. What explains this? Alfred Archer worries fans signal that supporting this player is more important than blaming them for their moral wrongdoing. This is a bit like hanging out with somebody who is quite funny but is horribly xenophobic: you show that you think their sense of humor is enough to outweigh the fact that they willfully discriminate against foreign people.

The idea is that fans condone the behavior and do not think it is bad enough to disavow the player, (I’ve discussed a similar issue, concerning sportswashing and the 2022 World Cup). Not only is this troubling in terms of expressing fans’ moral views, it also signals something to victims: the fans don’t care enough about what happened to victims, they care more about supporting their hero.

This is compounded by another feature of fandom. Fans do cheer for sporting achievements, but they also valorize players. Ronaldo’s manager says things like “Ronaldo is a special man and a special player for us in the history of the club.” Commentators talk about tales of personal redemption. Fans are likewise apt to laud players. And it is clearly a morally troubling aspect of fandom: because fans are liable to valorize players, they respect the player as a person rather than just their best striker.

This is troubling because it explicitly involves ignoring or outweighing the player’s moral wrongdoing. Either the fan valorizes the player as a person due to their sporting actions (because they do good things for my team, they are good) or they think that the player is a good person despite their moral wrongdoing (the fact they do good things for my team outweighs the fact the player is, say, a rapist).

Now, this valorization is not an essential part of fandom. Archer suggests that fans might adopt “a form of critical fandom,” which might involve recognizing the wrongdoing of players, refusing to valorize them as people, whilst appreciating their sporting talent and their contribution to a team’s victory. That said, Archer notes this might not be a difficult position to take up. I worry it has the same inherent instability as “hate the sin, not the sinner.” There’s something about fandom that makes it tempting to love the person, not just the athlete.

Background Checks for Alcohol

photograph of alcohol bottles on shelf

Many people think that firearms purchasers should be subject to background checks. Polls have consistently found that more than 80% of American voters support so-called “universal background checks” on firearms purchases. Currently, federal law in the United States requires that anyone buying a firearm from an individual or business with a Federal Firearms License undergo a background check. (This requirement does not apply to those buying firearms from private sellers.)

At the same time, individuals wishing to buy alcoholic beverages are not subject to the same requirement, nor is there much (if any) public support in implementing a background check system for alcohol. To buy alcoholic beverages, one simply needs to provide identification showing that one is at least 21 years old. There is no further requirement to prove that one can safely consume alcohol.

These policies are inconsistent. The same reasoning in favor of background checks for guns applies equally (and arguably with much greater force) to background checks for alcoholic beverages. With that point in mind, I want to defend the following conditional: if there should be background checks on the purchase of guns, then there should be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.

Someone who accepts the conditional has two options. One might embrace the antecedent (modus ponens), which leaves us with an argument for more restrictive alcohol control:

  1. If there should be background checks on the purchase of guns, then there should be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.
  2. There should be background checks on the purchase of guns.
  3. Therefore, there should be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.

Alternatively, one could deny the consequent (modus tollens) and frame it as an argument against background checks as a form of gun control:

  1. If there should be background checks on the purchase of guns, then there should be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.
  2. There should not be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.
  3. Therefore, there should not be background checks on the purchase of guns.

The option that one ends up taking will depend heavily on prior background beliefs about the nature of regulation and freedom. My goal here is not to argue for one of these options over the other. It is rather to show that these policies are connected.

Why Background Checks?

Suppose we think that there should be background checks on the purchase of firearms. What would be the rationale for this policy? The obvious answer is that firearms are capable of causing great harm when put in the wrong hands. The point of a background check is to determine whether there are factors about a buyer’s criminal history that disqualify him from owning a firearm. While background checks aren’t always effective (e.g. they won’t stop someone who has no prior history), they do act as a barrier to prohibited purchasers.

How much harm do guns actually cause? Each year, around 40,000 deaths are caused by firearms incidents — a figure that includes accidents, suicides, or crimes. Around 470,000 people are victims of crimes committed using firearms. That’s quite a large number, and so it is understandable why we might want firearms purchasers to pass a background check. While background checks won’t eliminate all of these harms, they might bring down the numbers. Moreover, in comparison to a policy such as a blanket prohibition on gun ownership, background checks attempt to strike a balance between the interests of those who want to own guns for self-protection and those who want to avoid being harmed by them.

Comparing Harms: Guns vs. Alcohol

But now consider alcohol. Each year, there are around 95,000 deaths from alcohol related causes. This number includes health-related deaths, accidental deaths, and crime-related deaths. That’s more than twice the amount of deaths from guns. Alcohol also plays a significant role in violent crime: each year, there are more than three million violent crimes in which victims perceived the offender to have been drinking at the time of the offense.

The numbers show that alcohol is involved in substantially more deaths and crimes each year than firearms, yet it is very loosely regulated compared to guns. Since reducing the numbers is what we’re concerned about, shouldn’t some of the same controls for guns also apply to alcohol? If the potential for harm is what justifies background checks for guns, then it applies with even greater force to alcohol, which is orders of magnitude more harmful than firearms.

Like with guns, background checks attempt to strike a balance between the interests of those who want to imbibe responsibility and those who want to avoid being harmed by alcohol. They are a common-sense way of reducing harm that is nowhere near as burdensome as (say) total prohibition.

One might immediately object by appealing to the distinction between self-regarding actions and other-regarding actions: many of these harms involve things people do to themselves, not other people. Guns harm mainly other people, whereas alcohol harms mainly the user.

This reply won’t work. First, as far as deaths are concerned, two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, so it is just not true that firearms kill mainly other people. If we shift our view to crime, alcohol clearly fails the test, as alcohol-related crimes affect many times more people than firearm-related crimes. But more importantly: deaths remain bad whether they’re self-inflicted or inflicted by others. The needless death of a person does not become “acceptable” or “morally neutral” simply because it was the result of his own choices.

If our goal is simply to bring down the numbers, then it doesn’t really matter how the numbers were generated or where they came from. What matters is that each “number” represents a harm. And on that point, the death of an innocent person is always a harm regardless of how it is caused. So the distinction between “self-regarding” and “other-regarding” actions becomes irrelevant.

Indeed, if we accept the harm-based rationale for background checks, then given the sheer amount of harm attributable to alcohol, there is a good case to be made for extremely restrictive forms of alcohol control that go beyond just background checks. But we needn’t go that far — the point is that the argument for background checks on guns is weaker than the argument for background checks on alcohol. If we’re going to have background checks on anything, it should be alcohol.

Implications

While my focus has been on background checks, there is a clear parallel between gun control and alcohol control. An argument for the former would also seem to be an argument for the latter, and an argument against the latter would also seem to be an argument against the former. Proponents of gun control are left with a dilemma: either we embrace background checks for gun ownership (and thus also alcohol) or we reject background checks for alcohol (and thus also background checks for gun ownership).

There is no doubt that a proposal to implement background checks on alcohol would prove to be unpopular. Many would object to it on the grounds that it is burdensome and paternalistic. But that is the price of consistency. Perhaps the better option is to reject background checks for both alcohol and guns.

Are Vaccines Passports Ethical?

photograph of COVID immunization card

The pandemic has been this recurring episode of things seeming like they may get back to normal only to find that new developments means that things could last longer. It was easy to think that once vaccinations against COVID-19 were available, people would get vaccinated and the pandemic would be over. As one Canadian scientist notes, “Everyone needs this damned virus to go away…but it’s not done with us yet,” while an American virus expert notes “we thought we saw the light at the end of the tunnel—but apparently the tunnel is longer.” Against the backdrop of this frustration and desire to return to normalcy (and to get as many vaccinated as possible), the matter of vaccine passports have become a significant ethical issue as Israel and Europe move ahead with their adoption. Some U.S. states and six Canadian provinces have (or are) adopting a passport system as well. But why does the prospect of a vaccine passport present such an ethical challenge?

The principle behind a vaccine passport system is that it allows businesses and governments to quickly and easily determine who is vaccinated in order to facilitate travel. In many of the jurisdictions which have adopted them, a passport might be required to enter restaurants and bars, nightclubs, sports and fitness facilities, casinos, concerts, music halls, and more. The goal behind the passports is to help minimize transmission while also encouraging people to get vaccinated. However, their efficacy will depend both on the details but also on which goal is taken to be more important.

For starters, some such as Chloe Kent argue that while passports are an ethical means to help facilitate international travel, they are unethical for use domestically. She points out that vaccinations as a requirement to enter a country isn’t new for international travelers and that in many nations which are behind in vaccine rollouts, an international vaccine passport system could help both the country and the tourists. However, she is concerned about the potential inequalities that could result from a domestic passport system. Thus, it is important to note the potential ethical distinctions between different forms of passports.

According to Rebecca Brown et al. from the journal The Lancet, “Immunity passports could be implemented on the basis of either a laboratory test of immune response or an immunizing event, which would identify individuals less likely to get disease or transmit virus when exposed to SARS-CoV-2.” But, according to the authors, the important immunological issues for such passports are the degree of immunity induced and the duration of the immunity: “A neglected issue in discussions of immunity passports is that of individual protection versus community protection. Perhaps the most important consideration for immunity passports is whether an individual can transmit the infection to others.”

They note that studies of previous seasonable coronaviruses suggest that vaccination may protect against severe disease but with a relatively unchanged potential for transmission. This fact, “provides the greatest challenge to the assurance that individuals who carry immunity passports would have a reduced risk to others.”

However, the picture about transmissibility of the virus by the fully vaccinated is complicated. Studies have shown a reduced viral load in those who are fully vaccinated for certain strains; unfortunately, the delta variant is different. Data on the variant has revealed that those with a breakthrough infection carry similar viral loads to those who are unvaccinated. However, it also suggests that these levels diminish much faster in a vaccinated person than a non-vaccinated person. There is also a long-term concern about how long vaccine immunity lasts (and thus whether booster shots may become necessary) and this could make a passport system largely pointless over time.

So, if a passport is designed to prevent spread, it is unclear how well it will achieve that goal. The delta variant complicates the picture, but for other variants a passport system may prevent spread. But overall, the efficacy of a passport system for preventing spread of COVID-19 is not fully clear. However, preventing non-vaccinated people from entering certain public spaces may still protect them as well. The data has consistently shown that unvaccinated people face the biggest risk and take up the bulk of spaces in ICU beds.

On the other hand, Eloise McLennan argues that the growing frustration with not being able to visit loved ones or to interact in public means that a vaccine passport system could incentivize people to get vaccinated. This may be a better alternative to get people vaccinated rather than to mandate vaccines which carries even greater ethical and legal concerns. If more people become vaccinated because of a passport system, then it could create additional economic benefits as pandemic restrictions can be lifted.

On the other hand, critics of vaccine passport systems argue that, in addition to concerns about their potential efficacy, passports segregate society in ways that are ethically harmful. Natalie Kofler and Françoise Baylis argue that, historically speaking, such vaccine passport systems have aggravated inequalities and permitted systemic racism. Indeed, the capacity for creating inequality is one of the major ethical concerns of such a proposal. According to Scientific American, “An ethical immunity passport system should exacerbate inequality. Access to the vaccine is very unequal in different regions and even within the same region.” There are also members of racialized, indigenous, and disadvantaged communities who may be mistrustful of medical and government institutions. As a result, a passport system would encourage division and potentially make things worse for those who are worse off.

International development expert Robert Huish argues that exclusion can marginalize people to disengage from public health efforts to protect the broader community, noting, “If you feel that the system isn’t working for you, public health isn’t speaking on your behalf, they’re coming up with orders that don’t apply, or that make you feel uncomfortable, you’re more likely to withdraw from engagement.” And Brown et al. point out that inequality in healthcare is not new. Yet, this reason is rarely interpreted as a reason to remove health-care treatments or to refuse to introduce new ones. While they believe more effort is needed to secure equitable health outcomes, this is not a reason to reject an immunity passport.

Another major concern about a passport system is that they violate civil and privacy rights. UNESCO’s ethics commission calls for any passport system to not allow the nonvaccinated to be discriminated against by limiting their movements. On the other hand, some argue that the actual loss of privacy involved to confirm vaccination status is inconsequential. And while there may be reason to worry about the segregation of society into the vaccinated and unvaccinated, it is also important to note from an ethical standpoint that this division is already an established fact. While many cannot get vaccinated, many more could. In effect, such people put additional burdens on healthcare systems and economic activity. So, while there is a reason to be ethically worried about the rights of the unvaccinated, the unvaccinated themselves should consider their ethical responsibilities. Sahakian et al. argue, for example, using Peter Singer’s principle of the duty of easy rescue that the extremely low risk of side effects of the vaccine compared to the benefits it creates means that, “vaccination passports are a minimal cost for returning to daily life…they are a small sacrifice for the greater good.”

This point is even more relevant in regions which have a public healthcare system. The cost of a vaccine is a fraction of the cost of an ICU bed, so those who can get vaccinated but don’t incur great additional cost to the public. So, ultimately the question about the ethical justification of a vaccine passport system involves a trade-off between certain potential benefits and costs which may be largely unknowable for now. If the system is unable to prevent spread, it may be able to increase uptake in vaccination rates. But the question is whether these upsides are worth the potential for social division and a violation of rights.

Do Insects Matter?

close-up photograph of grasshopper

A few years ago I told my mom about a paper I’d written about insect suffering. She said: “Insect suffering? Like if I step on an ant?” I said: “Yes.” She said: “People talk about that?” I changed the subject because I was too embarrassed to explain that, no, they usually don’t, but I think they should.

But whether insects suffer, and whether this matters morally, is increasingly important. Many people now promote replacing meat from cows, pigs, chickens, etc. with protein from farmed insects. They think eating insects, and insect products, would be environmentally friendlier. Others, such as Brian Tomasik and Jeff Sebo and Jason Schukraft, are not convinced. Some are not convinced by the environmental claims, but they mostly worry about the implications for animal welfare. The animals that produce your meat, eggs, and dairy are almost always raised on factory farms where they are treated extremely inhumanely. Many philosophers, including me, think this is a good argument for getting your protein from vegan sources, like beans, lentils, nuts, seitan, and Beyond Burgers. (If that sounds too hard, you might start by cutting out chicken and eggs, since chickens are treated the worst.) Unfortunately, as Sebo and Schukraft describe, insect farms aren’t exceptions on the inhumane treatment front. If insects matter morally, this could be extremely bad: farming insects for human or animal consumption is increasingly popular, and we may soon be farming tens of trillions of insects every year.

I think that whether insects matter morally depends on at least two questions: (1) are insects sentient?, and (2) is being sentient enough for insects to matter morally? I answer these questions: (1) maybe, and (2) yes. Since insects might matter morally, it makes sense to give them the benefit of the doubt when we can do so without sacrificing anything too important. After saying more about all this, at the end, I’ll say some things about what it means to care morally about insects.

Are insects sentient?

Being sentient means that you are capable of having conscious experiences. Something is a conscious experience if there is something it is like to have it. Think about what you experience when you look at the black letters on this page. There is something it is like for you to see the color black, just as there is something it is like for you when you feel sad, or hear a song on the radio, or think about your plans for the future. There is also something it is like when a bat uses echolocation, even though we humans, who can’t echolocate, can’t imagine what it’s like. The experiences of seeing black, being sad, echolocating, etc. are all conscious experiences.

Can insects have conscious experiences? Is there something it’s like to be a fly or an ant, or are they “dark inside”? The short answer is that we’re not completely sure either way. I won’t try to review the evidence here; it’s reviewed in some of the pieces I linked above. What matters now is this: if it’s realistically possible that insects are sentient, and if sentience is enough for them to matter morally (as I argue next), then it makes sense to give them the benefit of the doubt when possible. If they matter morally and we unnecessarily harm them, we’ve done something bad.

Do all sentient beings matter morally?

Some individuals matter morally for their own sake. Others don’t. It’s wrong to hurt you, or a dog, without a good reason. It might be wrong for me to destroy a chair for no reason: maybe it’s your favorite chair. But that would be different. I would wrong you if I destroyed the chair. But I wouldn’t wrong the chair. The chair doesn’t matter for its own sake; only how it affects others matters. If I were on a distant planet with a chair no one cared about, it wouldn’t be wrong to destroy the chair. But if I were on a distant planet with a person or a dog no one cared about, it would still be wrong to hurt the person or the dog. They matter for their own sakes, not just because others care about them.

The question is whether insects matter for their own sakes. I think that if they are sentient, they do matter for their own sakes. Think about dogs. It is extremely wrong to light a dog on fire. It is usually okay to light a picture of a dog on fire. Why is that? Surely the answer has to be something like: the dog has a mind, feelings, an inner life, the dog is someone and not just something, and doing this terrible thing means the dog will feel horrible pain and lose out on valuable future experiences. In other words, the reasons not to hurt a dog have to do with the fact that dogs are sentient. But none of this is true of the picture of the dog; it really is just a thing that you can treat however you want.

So it seems to me that sentience is enough for an individual to matter morally: nothing with a mind, with the capacity for consciousness, is a mere thing. There is a further question about whether it might be possible for an individual that isn’t sentient to matter morally. But we don’t need to answer that here. What matters is that, if insects are sentient, they do matter morally.

What does this mean?

Suppose you and a fly are both drowning. I can only save one. Obviously, I should save you. That’s true even if you both matter morally. For one thing, I know you matter morally whereas I only know the fly might matter morally. But also: you have many desires and hopes about the future which will be foiled by death; you have relationships which will be cut short and loved ones who will miss you; death would make you miss out on a long life full of rich experiences as opposed to, for the fly, a much shorter life full of simpler experiences; the terror and pain you feel while drowning would be much worse than that felt by the fly; etc. These and other reasons mean your death would be much worse than the death of the fly. Some philosophers also think the mere fact that you are human also matters, whereas others think that belief is mere prejudice. But we can ignore that for now. After all, some of the factors I mentioned also apply to dogs, and so mean you should also save a dog over an insect. So I do kill insects sometimes, both by accident (which is unavoidable) and intentionally. For instance, when my cats got fleas, I gave them flea treatment.

But in that case, you might wonder, why worry about insects at all? If the suffering of humans (and dogs, and all those factory-farmed mammals and birds and fish) is so much worse, why not focus on that, and ignore the insects? Well, you should care about all that other stuff, too. But, first, it’s not always a competition. You can take various small steps that won’t detract from addressing these other things. By attuning us to the moral importance of sentience, concern for insects might even make us more concerned about other, more sophisticated beings. And, second, humans have the ability to affect very many insects, and the death and suffering of tens of trillions of farmed insects may be extremely bad when added up, even if each insect’s treatment is only a little bit bad. (In the future, it may even be possible for us to intervene in nature to improve the condition of the quintillions of insects that live in the wild.)

So: live your life and be concerned about everyone, but be concerned about insects, too, and try to avoid hurting them when you can. And let others know you’re doing this. Whether moral concern for insects spreads will affect whether we make the right decisions on big-picture issues, like whether to farm them. And it will also affect how embarrassed I get when I talk to my mom.

On Polygamy

photograph of three paper cutout figures holding hands

When gay marriage was legalized by in 2015, conservative lawyer John O. Hayward lamented in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision that “the only remaining marital frontier—at least for the Judeo-Christian nations of the West—is polygamy.” It’s difficult to determine how many practice plural marriage in the United States; one oft-repeated but sourceless estimate says somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people, and the Pew Research Center puts the number at less than 0.5 percent of Americans. Though polygamists only make up a tiny sliver of the population, a 2020 poll conducted by Gallup showed that the practice is increasingly viewed as morally acceptable in the United States, jumping from around a 7% approval rating in the early 2000s to around 20% in 2020. This change could be the result of the widespread erosion of “traditional marriage,” or the proliferation of reality shows like Sister Wives, which normalize plural marriage. Then again, a more recent reality show called Escaping Polygamy, which follows three sister-wives who leave their Mormon community, suggests that for many, polygamy is still viewed as a a primitive and restrictive form of social organization rather than a viable alternative to monogamy. Is polygamy just one of many ways to organize a household, as Sister Wives suggests, or a trap for vulnerable women?

Polygamy, as practiced in most cultures, tends to involve one man with two or more wives, who share the burdens of domestic labor and child-rearing. There are tangible benefits to polygamy; housework is shared, which reduces burnout, and both children and spouses have access to a vast social support network. David Barash, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, proposes in his book Out of Eden: The Surprising Consequences of Polygamy that monogamy is infrequent in the natural world, and therefore too restrictive for human beings. At the same time, the argument that polygamy is “natural” is a complicated one. Even if a form of behavior is common in the natural world, we shouldn’t necessarily feel compelled to take it up. 18th-century philosopher Montesquieu further demonstrates the problem with the “nature is destiny” argument. Asian women, he wrote in The Spirit of Laws, reach sexual maturity at eight years old, before their sense of reason developed, so they need to be in “a state of dependency” on (presumably reasonable and sexually mature) men in a plural marriage. In cooler climates, reason and sexual maturity arrived at the same time, which led to monogamy and equal relations between the sexes. Of course, his hypothesis was mired in racist pseudo-science, but he illustrates the problem with attributing any social arrangement to “nature”: not only is it difficult to pin down what exactly we mean by “natural” (any concept of nature will itself be a social construct, in other words), but it leads us to paint our practices or institutions as inevitable and not subject to change. Like any social arrangement, polygamy has benefits and drawbacks, and raising it up as a utopian solution isn’t any more productive than disparaging it wholesale.

Criticism of the practice can come from both ends of the political spectrum, and disdain for polygamy usually makes a point about some larger ill plaguing society. As historian Sarah Pearsall explains in her book Polygamy: An Early American History, polygamy is as much a political metaphor as it is a form of domestic organization. She points out that polygamy was considered to be “the supremely unenlightened form of marriage” by Europeans, who encountered the practice both in North America and Africa. The frequency with which indigenous peoples practiced plural marriage demonstrated their unbridled sexual appetites, and therefore justified imperialism. Western thinkers in the age of Enlightenment also believed that plural marriage was insidious to good government. Wealthy men would inevitably have many wives while poor men could only afford to support a few, breeding jealousy and distrust that would ultimately undermine the stability of the state. In contemporary Western Europe, polygamy is inextricably linked to immigration and cultural assimilation. Traditional sects of Islam allow for a man to take multiple wives, but in countries like Germany and France, which have a large population of Muslim migrants, the practice is against the law. This isn’t to say that banning polygamy is necessarily Islamaphobic; it’s been well-documented that in many cases, plural marriages lead to abuse and exploitation of underage brides. But when France passed a bill in February of this year that increases the power of the state over mosques and schools with the ostensible aim of curbing the practice, it’s clear that a government’s stance on polygamy is very rarely just about polygamy.

Polygamists, much like same-sex couples, have historically struggled for recognition from the state and society at large. As Andrew Solomon explains in an article for The New Yorker, “polygamists face innumerable legal obstacles, affecting such matters as inheritance, hospital visits, and parentage rights. If wives apply for benefits as single parents, they are lying, and may be committing welfare fraud; but if they file joint tax returns they are breaking the law.” Though polygamy is criminalized in most places, that may not always be the case. In March of 2020, the state of Utah, which famously has a large Mormon population, effectively legalized plural marriage, though supporters of the bill argue that they’re trying to liberate those who have been forced into plural marriage by allowing them to seek help without fear of legal retribution. Criminalizing the practice makes those who wish to leave their situation less likely to come forward, in other words.

Critics of polygamy have raised up polyamory as a less hierarchical alternative. As Solomon explains,

“Unlike polygamy, which is usually religiously motivated and typically involves a man with multiple wives who do not have an erotic relationship to one another, polyamory tends to be based on utopian ideas of sexual liberty and may involve a broad range of configurations . . . In the popular imagination, polygamists are presumed to be right-wing misogynists and polyamorists to be decadent left-wingers, but the two groups share goals and, often, ways of life.”

The choice to enter a plural marriage is rarely political, but polyamory is consciously revolutionary, and both groups remain on the fringes of society at large. Polyamory, like any social arrangement, is never perfect, but it does prevent many of the abuses common in plural marriages, and presents an interesting challenge to monogamy as an institution. This isn’t to say that we should all abandon monogamy, but at the very least, criminalizing polygamy in all its forms is hardly the way to save those who want to leave their situation. As social mores change and these non-conventional relationships become increasingly visible, legislators and citizens alike will have to confront both the good and bad of plural marriage.

Reproductive Autonomy and Climate Change

photograph of stick family carved into beach

Last week, fellow writers Daniel Burkett and Marshall Bierson debated the ethics of having children against the background of climate change. Burkett defended the view that we should have fewer children due to the negative impact each child (throughout their lifetimes) has on the climate (and therefore others). Bierson, among other arguments, pointed to the positives that a child’s life might bring about, including donating to effective climate causes. Bierson also discussed reasons to have fewer children he finds more convincing, including the opportunity costs. “I expect that over the course of my life I could have easily donated well more than 50% of my income to those in real need,” writes Bierson, “but instead I got married and plan to have kids. And this, I expect, means I will do less good for the poor.”

Both of their approaches to the ethics of childbearing are interesting and well-argued. But neither writer engages with the value of personal choice and reproductive autonomy. Burkett worries that the moral calculation of putting another human on Earth doesn’t pay off due to the climate harm it causes. Bierson worries that he could have maximized the good more effectively. What is implicit in both these worries, I think, is what the philosopher Bernard Williams called a “totalizing” and “impersonal” conception of morality.

To get a grip on Williams’s point, let’s take a clear example of a totalizing and impersonal conception of morality: maximizing act utilitarianism. This moral theory states that an action is permissible only if it would produce the best possible consequences. Of any choice in life, whether it is whether to have a child or an ice cream, we can always ask if it produces the best possible consequences. So, since every choice has some consequences, good or bad, every choice is actually a moral one. Williams describes utilitarianism as “totalizing” because it suggests that morality’s demands relentlessly reach out into every domain of human life and tell us what is permissible and what is impermissible.

Williams thought of utilitarianism as “impersonal” because it suggests that, regardless of our personal wishes or life projects, we all have exactly the same moral duty in every case: to maximize the good. He asks, “But what if [morality’s demand] conflicts with some project of mine? This, the utilitarian will say, has already been dealt with: the satisfaction to you of fulfilling your project, and any satisfactions to others of your so doing, have already been through the calculating device and have been found inadequate.” The utilitarian view is that any personal choice based on your own deeply held commitments and desires is only acceptable if it just so happens to generate the best consequences. Williams’s complaint is that this picture provides very little space for the values of autonomy or personal integrity.

Having such a sprawling, demanding, and inescapable conception of moral obligations can come to eclipse the value of individual freedoms like reproductive autonomy. But the vast majority believe we have not just a legal right to choose whether we reproduce or not, but also a moral right to exercise that discretion over our private affairs. In other words, there is an intuitive moral right to reproductive autonomy.

Consider, for example, how you would feel if an ethicist approached you and insisted that you morally ought to conceive a baby in the next month, regardless of your actual wishes or particular situation. You would, presumably, not be terribly interested in having this stranger dictate permissible options to you. You might think the choice to have a baby or not is a personal one, yours alone. Indeed, to “give in” to the stranger’s demands might threaten to seriously damage your personal integrity, your sense of self.

If Williams is right, then there must be limits to the demands impersonal utilitarian morality can make on us: areas of our lives that make room for individuals to decide things for themselves. Perhaps our choices about reproduction are one such domain which must allow an ethical role for personal choice.

This is not to say that reproductive choices are free from all moral considerations. But perhaps the relevant, weighty moral considerations will be more personal (and interpersonal) than those impersonal considerations on which the utilitarian focuses. Rather than maximizing the impersonal value of your actions’ consequences, we might focus on more personal and interpersonal moral questions might such as “Would I be a good parent to my child, if I had one?” Or, “Would I be able to live a life I find meaningful, with children?” It is these more individual, more human-scaled, sorts of ethical questions that most of us seriously consider when we consider bearing children. And perhaps we are right to do so.

Children and Opportunity Costs

photograph of silhouetted figure alone on bench at sunset

In a previous piece, I argued that concerns about a potential child’s future carbon emissions do not give us any good reason to have fewer children. My basic argument there was simple: while a human life causes some harm via carbon production, it also causes far more total good. Human lives are, on net, a good thing for the world.

But while I don’t find the carbon cost argument persuasive, there is a different argument against having kids I find much more convincing.

Had I stayed single throughout my whole life, I expect I could have done a lot of good. Were I to eventually secure a good job — which I expect I will eventually do — then, with only myself to support, I could have donated a lot of money to high-impact charities.

I don’t have expensive tastes, and in the past I always found it easy after I receive a raise to mostly maintain my prior standing of living and funnel my new income to those in need. (To be clear, this is not because I’m a particularly generous person; I just don’t really buy much stuff. For example, I have a terrible time coming up with things for people to buy me for Christmas even when I know the money won’t otherwise be donated.) Had I not married, I expect that over the course of my life I could have easily donated well more than 50% of my income to those in real need.

But instead I got married and plan to have kids. And this, I expect, means I will do less good for the poor.

That is because kids are expensive. The USDA estimates that raising a child costs over two hundred thousand dollars (not including college). That is money that I could, and probably partly would, have spent providing malaria nets to families in Africa or funding vitamin A supplements.

This objection to having kids, what Stuart Rachels calls the “Famine Relief Argument,” is powerful. It points out that while the direct costs of having a child are not very high (my child will probably not make the world a worse place), the opportunity costs of having a child are huge. If one can save a life by donating about three thousand dollars to high-impact charities, then for the amount of money the average American spends raising a kid, I could save almost one hundred lives.

Of course, I could be more frugal than the average American parent (and do hope to be). But even living frugally, having kids will substantially increase my essential expenditures.

An Uncomfortable Demandingness

This argument is extremely strong, but you don’t see it brought up very much.

I’ve seen far more people on Facebook mention climate costs as a reason not to have kids than mention opportunity costs. Every couple months we see a new news article asking whether climate change should make us rethink procreation. I don’t see similar news articles about if global poverty should make us rethink procreation (other than those occasional very confused articles that suggest that poverty might be a result of overpopulation). There is a whole BirthStrike movement of women refusing to have kids until progress is made on climate change. Why is there not a BirthStrike movement of people refusing to have kids till we’ve eliminated global poverty? Why is more attention paid to the climate costs of having children, rather than the much, much larger opportunity costs?

It’s always dangerous to try and guess at underlying psychological motivations. But I expect two things are in play.

First, we never see opportunity costs. We see the damage our actions do but are never viscerally confronted with the goods we forgo by not performing certain actions. Thus, our brains are much better at considering costs other than opportunity costs.

Second, once you begin factoring in opportunity costs you suddenly realize just how radically demanding your ethical duties are. If I don’t have a child, I can donate far more money to charity. But also, if I give up philosophy and become a lawyer, doctor, or computer programmer, I can probably make far more money to donate to charity. Am I required to give up the career I love to help the poor?

Americans spend over 10,000 dollars per child on average each year. But Americans also spend over 3,000 dollars each year eating out. And the good of eating out is surely at least three times as small as the good of a child’s life. Are we doing something wrong anytime we eat out at restaurants?

Part of the reason you don’t see the opportunity cost argument made very often, is because making the opportunity cost argument forces you to confront the extraordinarily demanding nature of justice.

Responding to the Argument

Are there any plausible responses to this argument?

You could deny that ethics is really all that demanding. Perhaps your money really is yours, not just in the sense that you have the right to decide how it is used, but in the sense that you don’t have any moral reasons to use it to help others.

But, I’m convinced this is wrong. It really is wrong to spend money on luxuries when you could be donating that money to effective aid organizations. So are there any considerations that might justify having kids, even if they would not justify eating out or buying a new car?

Maybe. If there are, I think they come down to the special sort of value involved in a human life. The value of a child is very different from the sort of value involved in going to a restaurant, buying a new car, or taking international vacations.

All four (children, restaurants, cars, and vacations) are luxuries in the sense that they are not things that we need. Thus, you might think that since there are others who need food, shelter, clothing, and medication, it would be unjust to acquire those luxuries.

But there is also this important difference. If it was unjust to buy the car, it is obviously also unjust to keep the car. If I don’t need the car, not only should I not have bought it, but now that I have it I should sell it and donate the money to the poor.

But the same is not true of a child. Once I have a child, I should not sacrifice that child even if it means I can donate more to charity. Why is that? Because the value of a human life is profoundly different from the value of a car. Cars have a fungible value. It makes sense to trade one car for another, or to exchange one car for a certain amount of food.

Human lives are different, as is clear when we consider the unique type of tragedy involved in a human death. Consider how the point is put by Tal Brewer:

“Human beings have a very distinctive kind of value, wholly unlike the value of a physical pleasure, or a pocket full of money. It can make perfect sense to trade off physical pleasures against each other, foregoing one so as to experience another that differs only in being longer and more intense. … The loss of a human being is not compensable in this sense by the creation or preservation of another human life. This is not to deny that it sometimes makes sense to choose a course of action that will lead to the foreseeable death of one person but will spare the lives of many others. It is only to deny that in the wake of such a choice, it would make sense to regard the lost life as compensated for without remainder—indeed, without a literally grievous remainder—by the fact that other lives have been spared. This is precisely the blindness at the heart of utilitarian conceptions of value. …

It is worth pausing for a moment over the enormity of what we are referring to when we say such things as that the loss of human life cannot be compensated without remainder. … What is at issue here is that which we cannot or at any rate won’t quite believe in the possibility of when we struggle to fathom the fact that someone no longer is: it is an unfillable absence, a sense of which opens like a fresh wound when we turn our thoughts to the person who has been lost.

… For example, mature grief at the death of a loved one involves an awareness, whether articulate or inarticulate, that nothing could represent a compensation for what has been lost. Consolation might be possible, but compensation is not.

When we seek to stretch ourselves towards a fuller appreciation of the badness involved in the death of strangers, we often remind ourselves that the deceased was someone’s son, someone’s best friend, someone’s lover. … This familiar discipline of vision, then, testifies to a widespread confidence that the value of human beings is seen more clearly through the eyes of love than through the aggregative arithmetic of the utilitarian or the bureaucrat.”

Of course, the choice to not have a child is different from the choice to let a child die. To let a child die is monstrous, it is not monstrous to not have a child.

But even if this does not show there is any obligation to have children, I do think this should give us reason to doubt that we are obligated to not have kids in order to donate more to charity.  A human life has a type of value totally different than that of a car — it is a life with its own sort of incalculable meaning and importance.

And because of that unique value, it is unclear to me if it makes sense to make the sort of comparison required to say that it is more important to donate to charity than it is to have a kid. I worry such a comparison misunderstands the unique kind of value possessed by each and every human life.

On the Permissibility of Procreation

photograph of four silhouetted youths at sunset

People are, increasingly, citing climate change as a reason to not have children. Two kinds of arguments are generally made. Some argue that it is cruel to bring a potential future child into a rapidly warming world. Others argue that having children harms other people by contributing to climate change.

While I think both arguments are mistaken, in this post I will address the second argument since that argument has recently been made quite powerfully by fellow Prindle Post author Daniel Burkett.

Daniel’s Case

Our children, Daniel calculates, will produce approximately 16.16 metric tons of carbon per year. Multiplying that by an average life expectancy of 85 years, he finds that the carbon cost of procreation is, on average, 1373.6 tons of CO2 per child. And this leads Daniel to conclude that the choice to have a child will contribute far more to global warming than any other choice you might make in your life.

But even if having a child is the biggest contribution we will make to climate change, just how big a deal is that contribution?

To try and answer that question Daniel cites an article by John Nolt which argues that an average American’s lifetime carbon contributions will, over the next millennium, cause the suffering and/or death of two future people. (Though note, because Nolt wrote his article a decade ago, he was using a much higher per capita emission figure of 1,840 metric tons — 500 metric tons higher than the number Daniel cites for life-time emissions.)

So, Daniel argues, in choosing to have a child you are making a choice which will cause the suffering and/or death of two future people (or 1.5 future people if we adjust for the now lower per capita emissions rate).

This leads Daniel to the conclusion, expressed in a related article of his, that if individuals bear responsibility for their carbon emissions, then “we have strong moral reasons to refrain from choosing to procreate, reasons which – for many – amount to a moral obligation to refrain from choosing to have children.”

My Response

I believe this argument, while compellingly presented, is wrong. Trying to fight global warming by having fewer children strikes me as an unbelievably inefficient strategy. We end up fighting global warming by sacrificing all the goods of a human life. This, it turns out, is a terrible trade no matter how concerned you are about global warming.

To demonstrate this,  I want to raise a number of objections to Daniel’s argument. Some descriptive, and some normative.

Descriptive Disagreements

First, these numbers are misleading. Even if we agree with Daniel that having one fewer child would decrease total emissions by the per capita emissions rate (something you might doubt given economies of scale), these estimates are far too pessimistic. Per capita emission rates are already dropping. In the year 2000, the annual U.S. per capita emissions totaled 20.472 metric tons, in 2018 that number was down to 15.241 (my data source only goes to 2018).

While some climate models do assume emissions will remain constant, the authors of these models acknowledge that this is because the point of the models is to show what would happen if we don’t lower emission rates. The point of such models is not to show what is actually likely to happen in the future.

But what should matter to a prospective parent is what the future emissions of their child will likely be, not what they would be if everyone throws up their hands. Once you account for expected future policy shifts, the apparent benefits of not having a child plummet. This was shown in a report by the Founder’s Pledge (an organization dedicated to finding the highest impact solutions to climate change). If emissions stay the same, not having kids looks like a great idea. But once you account for expected policy shifts, not so much…

I expect the Founder’s Pledge report is overly optimistic; many states will not hit their emission goals. However, given that we have already seen a 25% drop in per capita emissions over the last 20 years, and given that we have every reason to expect that drop to continue or accelerate, the Founder’s Pledge report seems to better reflect the reality.

Are Humans on Net Bad?

But what if you accept Daniel’s predictive claims? It would, I think, still not give us a good reason to not have children. This is because not having a child is one of the most costly things you could do to fight climate change.

It can sometimes be hard to assess these costs when looking at potential people. So instead let’s look at an actual person: yourself. Ask yourself, “would the world on the whole have been better had I not existed, and so had the world been spared my carbon contributions?”

When I ask this question about my own life, the answer seems clearly to be no — even if my carbon emissions will cause the suffering and/or death of two future people.

I have probably already, very early in my career, donated enough money to prevent at least that much suffering. If, over the course of my lifetime, I donate a measly one percent of my future income to effective aid organizations then I will prevent far more suffering than I cause in carbon contributions.

It might be worth pausing here and unpacking just what is meant by the phrase: “the suffering and/or death of two people.” John Nolt included under this category anyone who will be “adversely affected” by “increased coastal flooding, reductions in water supplies, increased malnutrition and increased health impacts.”

Why is this important? Because the sort of suffering caused by global warming, and so caused by my carbon contributions, is the same sort of suffering that someone in a developed nation can prevent for an absolutely tiny percentage of their lifetime earnings. If I donate ten percent of my income to combat malnutrition or improve childhood health outcomes, still far less than what I think we are morally required to donate, then the amount of suffering I prevent will dwarf the harms I produce through climate change by several orders of magnitude.

We live in a world where it is easy for those in developed nations to do a huge amount of good at very low cost. But this means that bringing even moderately good people into the world has extremely high positive value. It turns out your child may only need to donate a mere 1% of their future income to carbon offsets to sequester more carbon than they will produce (using Daniel’s numbers for the cost of carbon offsets).

If you factor in that carbon emissions are likely to decrease, or that the cost of carbon capture will likely go down with scale, or that — as people like Matthew Yglesias and Tyler Cowen point out — more children increases the chances of discovering technical innovations necessary to reach carbon neutrality in developing economies, or that your child might donate, 2%, 3%, or even 5% of their income to climate causes, then suddenly having a child looks like the overwhelmingly best thing you can do for climate change.

To suggest you should not have a child because of climate concerns strikes me as bizarre. It is making one of the costliest sacrifices imaginable, the entire good produced by a complete human life, for the comparatively tiny benefit of lowered carbon emissions.

Adding in Generations

The case becomes even clearer if we consider future generations.

In considering our impact over time, Daniel mentions a paper by Murtaugha and Schlax estimating that the true carbon costs of an American having a child are approximately 9,441 metric tons of CO2. This number is derived by looking, not just at your child’s emissions, but also your children’s children’s emissions, and your children’s children’s children’s emissions, and so on. Murtaugha and Schlax then weight these numbers by relatedness (so I’m responsible for half my child’s emissions, a quarter of my grandchild’s emissions, an eighth of my great grandchild’s emissions, and so on).

But here is the thing, 9,441 metric tons was the number you get if you assume “constant emissions” across ALL future generations. In other words, you get this number if you assume that the 25% decline in U.S. per capita emissions we’ve seen over the last twenty years suddenly halts and never resumes.

Murtaugha and Schlax acknowledge this assumption is implausible, the number was not intended as a prediction of the future, but an illustrative model of a possible scenario. For example, they also consider an ‘optimistic scenario’ where we meet the UN’s 2100 emissions goals. In that scenario, you are responsible for only 562 metric tons of CO2 — one sixteenth the original number.

Now the optimistic scenario is, indeed, too optimistic (just as the “constant emissions” scenario is far too pessimistic). That is not the point. Rather, the point is that we should expect with each generation that per capita carbon emissions in developed countries will go down. However, we have no reason to predict that the amount of good a person can do will decrease nearly as quickly. The average person has the resources to do far more good now than the average human at any previous point in history. And that potential to do good is only likely to increase, at least in the immediately foreseeable future. (Eventually we will gather all the low hanging fruit for high impact interventions, but also by then technological development and economic growth will likely have expanded our resources even further.)

If carbon costs will decrease faster than our ability to do good — as they almost certainly will — then as you consider each subsequent generation the case for having children gets stronger and stronger. This is important, because remember that John Nolt’s study looked at the suffering and death caused over the next millennium. If you take the long view on costs, you need to take the long view on benefits.

A Deontological Rejoinder

But, you might object, even if children will do more good than harm, does that really justify the harm that they do? It is wrong to kill one person to save five, so then isn’t it wrong to have a child if that will cause the suffering or death of one even if it helps avert the suffering and death of many?

Deontological constraints, however, do not apply to the diffuse and temporally distant effects of our actions. If they did, just about every action would be deontologically constrained. Anything you do, by setting off a ripple of changes in the causal ether of the world, will result in a radically different future. By driving to work, and so slightly altering traffic patterns, you probably change each and every human who will exist five hundred years from now.

This, in turn, means that every particular murder that happens five hundred years from now would not have happened had you not driven to work. Of course, any number of different murders might have occurred, and so we have no reason to think that driving to work is a bad idea.

There is no particular person in the next millennium who will suffer and die as a result of my child’s carbon emissions. So, there is no concrete death or instance of suffering that I either intend or cause by having a child. Since deontological constraints require such causal particulars, there is no deontological constraint against procreation.

Conclusion

Having a child does not violate any deontological constraint against causing harm. Nor does it make the world a worse place. Having a child does more for the good of the world than almost any choice you can make because it enables the good of an entire human life.

Of course, none of this is necessarily a reason to have a child. There is something odd about bringing someone into existence just so that they can fight climate change. You are having a child, not summoning a genie. But, even if these considerations don’t show you should have a child, they undermine the thought that climate change gives you a reason not to.

Of course, there are other worries about the ethics of having a child — worries that have given me much greater pause. But a discussion of those worries will have to wait for a future post.

The Worst Thing You Can Do for Climate Change

photograph of NYC at rush hour

Last month, the United Nations marked World Population Day – the anniversary of the 1987 date on which the world’s population first surpassed 5 billion people. It took hundreds of thousands of years for us to reach the first billion humans, then only two hundred more years to increase that number sevenfold. The UN projects that our current global population of 7.9 billion will grow to 11.2 billion (an increase of roughly 140%) by the end of the century.

Such explosive growth would be concerning at the best of times. The resources of our planet are finite, and research suggests that our global population level is already at 2 to 3 times the sustainable level. But we are also in the midst of a climate crisis, the effects of which will be devastating for both the environment and our society. As a result, many believe that we each have an obligation to do all we can to avert climate catastrophe. Despite this, little mention is made of the worst thing you can do for climate change: namely, have a child.

Why might we think that having fewer children is a viable way of combating climate change? Consider the numbers: In the U.S., giving up your car will save approximately 2.4 tonnes of CO2 per year, while recycling and going vegan will save an additional 0.21 tonnes and 0.8 tonnes respectively. Yet the choice to have one less child will instead save a whopping 9441 tonnes of CO2or 59.8 tonnes per parent per year. To put this into perspective, the carbon cost of a single child is enough to undo the lifetime recycling of 684 other people.

This figure may seem outlandish, particularly given that the per-capita carbon emissions of an individual living in the U.S. is around 16.16 tonnes per year. Why, then, is the carbon cost of procreation so high? The main reason is that, in deciding to have a child, a parent chooses not only to create that child, but also all of the future persons who result from the existence of that child. To use an analogy: choosing to roll the snowball down the mountainside makes you responsible for the avalanche at the mountain’s base. Each parent is therefore taken to be responsible for 50% of their child’s emissions, 25% of each grandchild’s emissions, 12.5% of each great-grandchild’s emissions, and so on. Using average fertility rates, lifespans and projected per capita carbon emissions, it is then possible to calculate the average carbon added to the atmosphere as the result of an individual’s choice to have a child.

But perhaps this is unfair. If I’m morally responsible for my choice to have a child, then surely my children are also responsible for their procreative choices. So maybe I should only be accountable for the children that I directly choose to have. But even if we limit our responsibility to only our first generation of descendants, this is still a carbon cost of 1373.6 tonnes of CO2 per child. Even at this discounted rate, having a child remains the single worst thing an individual can do for climate change. It’s damage that a lifetime of going carless, recycling, and eating vegan doesn’t even come close to counteracting. To put it into stark terms: the carbon cost of a single child born in the U.S. is enough to cause – through climate-related harms – the severe suffering and/or death of two other people. Of course, climate-conscious parents could attempt to offset these emissions by purchasing carbon credits. But at current rates (around $4.99 per 1000lbs – or $11.00 per metric ton), this would cost them $15,109.60 per child. Offsetting the full carbon cost of their future descendants would instead come in at an astronomical $103,851.00.

But in spite of all of this, our procreative choices rarely factor into discussions of climate action. A study of ten Canadian high school science textbooks yielded 216 individual recommended actions on how to address climate change – but none of these suggested having fewer children as a way to reduce emissions. And this silence goes far beyond textbooks, with The Guardian, The New York Times,  and The Huffington Post all omitting procreative choices from their lists of the best ways for an individual to reduce their carbon footprint.

I recently wrote a paper on this inconsistency in our attitudes towards climate action. In response, many are tempted to point to the far greater emissions of industry, and claim that the burden is on those companies – not us – to address the climate crisis. But this is a bad argument for several reasons. Firstly – as I demonstrated in a previous article – attempting to avoid your responsibility by pointing to the greater responsibility of others simply doesn’t work. Secondly, this argument misses the important fact that industries don’t simply emit carbon for no reason. Rather, the coal burned by power plants and the gas used by Amazon delivery trucks is a by-product of profitable activities carried out to meet consumer demand. Fewer people means less demand, which means less pollution by industries in the long run. Thirdly, there’s no reason to treat this as an either/or scenario. Morality may very well require both systemic changes by companies and the modification of our own personal behavior. In fact, a recent study shows that 59% of emissions savings between 2020 and 2035 must come from individual behavioral changes. Such ‘dual obligations’ are nothing new. Consider the fast-fashion industry: It’s clear that corporations might have a moral obligation to stop utilizing rights-violating sweatshop labor to manufacture their clothing. But at the same, we as individuals also have an obligation to modify our own behavior and buy less sweatshop-manufactured products.

Finally, redirecting blame towards industries isn’t just an argument against reconsidering our procreative choices – it’s an argument against taking any individual action at all. If industries are the only ones who can fix the problem, then we, as individuals, might as well give up doing anything to combat the climate crisis. Driving less, recycling, and going vegan all become pointless from a climate perspective. If, however, we truly believe that what we do as an individual matters, then it only makes sense to focus on those actions that are most effective. While small positive changes are to be lauded, it’s important not to lose sight of other choices that are far more important – like the choice to have or not have children.

The Texas Heartbeat Act and Linguistic Clarity

black-and-white photograph of Texas State Capitol Building

On September 1st, S.B. 8, otherwise known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, came into force. This Act bars abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detectable by ultrasound. While the specific point at which this activity can be identified is challenging to pin down, it most often occurs around the six-week mark. Past this point, the Act allows private citizens to sue those who offer abortions or ‘aids and abets’ a procedure – this includes everyone from abortion providers to taxi drivers taking people to clinics. If the suit is successful, not only can the claimant recover their legal fees, but they also receive $10,000 – all paid by the defendant.

The introduction of this law raises numerous concerns. These include (but are certainly not limited to) whether private citizens should be rewarded for enforcing state law, the fairness of the six-week mark given that most people won’t know they’re pregnant at this point, the lack of an exception for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, and whether the law is even constitutional. However, in this piece, I want to draw attention to the Act’s language. Specifically, I want to look at two key terms: ‘fetal heartbeat’ and ‘fetus.’

Fetal Heartbeat

At multiple points within the Act, reference is made to the fetal heartbeat requiring detection. This concept is so central to the Act that not only does heartbeat feature in its title, but it is also the very first definition provided – “(1) ‘Fetal heartbeat’ means cardiac activity or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac.” You would think that such terminology is correct and accurate. After all, accuracy is essential for all pieces of legislation, let alone one that has such crucial and intimate ramifications. Indeed, the Act itself indicates that the term is appropriate as, in the Legislative Findings section, it states, “(1) fetal heartbeat has become a key medical predictor that an unborn child will reach live birth.

However, there exists here a problem. For something to have a heartbeat, it must first have the valves whose opening and closing results in the tell-tale ‘thump-thump’; no valves, no heartbeat. While this may seem obvious (indeed, I think it is), it appears to be something the Act’s creators have… overlooked.

At six weeks, the point at which cardiac activity is typically detectable and abortions become prohibited, a fetus doesn’t have these valves. While a rudimentary structure will be present, typically developing into a heart, this structure doesn’t create a heartbeat. So, if you put a stethoscope on a pregnant person’s stomach at this point, you wouldn’t hear the beating of a heart. Indeed, when someone goes in for an ultrasound, and they listen to something sounding like a heartbeat, this is created by the ultrasound machine based upon the cardiac activity it detects. As such, the Heartbeat Act concerns itself with something that is entirely incapable of producing a heartbeat.

For some, this may seem like a semantic issue. After all, the Act clarifies what it considers a fetal heartbeat when it conflates it with cardiac activity. You may think that I’m being overly picky and that the two amount to roughly the same thing at the end of the day. You might argue that while this activity may not result in the same noise you would hear in a fully developed person, it still indicates a comparable biological function. However, the term heartbeat is emotively loaded in a way that cardiac activity isn’t, and this loading is essential to the discussion at hand.

For centuries, a heartbeat (alongside breath) was the defining quality that signified life. Thus, someone was dead when their heart irrevocably stopped beating. However, with developments in medical technologies, most notably transplantation, this cardiopulmonary definition of death became less valuable. After all, undergoing a heart transplant means, at some point, you’ll lack a heartbeat. Yet, saying that person is dead would seem counterintuitive as the procedure aims to, and typically does, save the organ’s recipient. As a result, definitions of death started to focus more on the brain.

By saying that cardiac activity is synonymous with a heartbeat, the creators of the Act seek to draw upon this historical idea of the heartbeat as essential for life. By appealing to the emotive idea that a heartbeat is detectable at six weeks, an attempt is made to draw the Act’s ethical legitimacy not from scientific accuracy but an emotional force. Doing so anthropomorphizes something which is not a person. The phrase fetal heartbeat seeks to utilize our familiarity with the coupling of personhood and that tell-tale ‘thump-thump.’ But it is important to remember that the entity in question here does not have a heartbeat. Heck, cardiac activity, which is at its core electrical activity, doesn’t even indicate a functional cardiovascular system or a functional heart.

Fetus

So far in this piece, I have used the same terminology as the Act to describe the entity in question, that being the word ‘fetus.’ However, much like the use of ‘fetal heartbeat,’ the Act’s use of the phrase is inaccurate and smuggles deceptive emotive rhetoric. Unlike ‘fetal heartbeat,’ however, ‘fetus’ is at least a scientific term.

There are, roughly speaking, three stages of prenatal development: (i) germinal, where the entity is nothing more than a clump of cells (0 – 2 weeks); (ii) embryonic, where the cell clump starts to take on a human form (3 – 8 weeks); and (iii) fetal, where the further refinement and development occurs (9 weeks – birth).

I’m sure you can already spot the issue here. If cardiac activity occurs typically around the six-week mark, at which point the Act prohibits abortions, then this would place this boundary squarely in the embryonic, not the fetal, stage. Thus, using the term ‘fetus’ throughout the Act is scientifically inaccurate at best, and dangerously misleading at worst. Once again, you might wonder why this matters and think I’m making a bigger deal of this than it needs to be. After all, it’s only a couple of weeks out of step with the scientific consensus. However, as is with the case of ‘fetal heartbeat’ (a term that is now doubly inaccurate as it refers to neither a fetus nor a heartbeat), the term ‘fetus’ comes packaged with emotional baggage.

Describing the developing entity as a fetus evokes images of a human-like being, one that resembles how we are after birth and makes it easier to ascribe it some degree of comparable moral worth. But, this is not the case. An embryo, around the six-week point, may possess some human-like features. However, it is far from visually comparable to a fully formed person, and it is this point that the Act’s language obfuscates. Describing the embryo as a fetus is to try and draw upon the imagery the latter evokes. To make you think of a baby-like being developing in a womb and to push the belief that abortion is a form of murder.

Wrapping it up

It would seem a reasonable claim to make that accuracy is essential in our philosophical reasoning and our legal proceedings. We want to understand the world as it is and create systems that are best suited for the challenges thrown at them. Key to this is the use of appropriate language. Whether deliberative or not, inaccurate terminology makes it harder to act morally as inappropriate assumptions often lead to inappropriate results.

The moral status of the embryo and fetus is a topic that has been debated for centuries, and I would not expect it to be unanimously resolved anytime soon. However, using incorrect language as a means of eliciting a response built solely on the passions is undoubtedly not going to help. Laws need to describe the things they are concerned with accurately, and the Texas Heartbeat Act fails in this task.

Ivermectin, Hydroxychloroquine, and the Dangers of Scientific Preprints

photograph of "In Evidence We Trust" protest sign

There is a new drug of choice among those who have refused to get vaccinated for COVID-19, or are otherwise looking for alternative treatments: ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug that is used primarily in farm animals. The drug recently made headlines in the U.S. after a judge in Ohio ordered a hospital to treat a patient with it, and a number of countries in Latin America and Europe have begun using it, as well. It is not the first time that a drug that was developed for something else entirely was touted as the new miracle cure for COVID-19: hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial, was an early favorite for alternative treatments from former president Trump, despite the FDA’s statement that it had no real effect on patients with COVID-19, and indeed could be very dangerous when used improperly. The FDA has recently issued a statement to a similar effect when it comes to ivermectin, warning that the drug can be “highly toxic in humans.”

It is not surprising that there has been continued interest in alternative treatments to COVID-19: given the existence of vaccine skepticism and various surrounding conspiracy theories, people who do not trust the science of vaccinations, for one reason or another, will look for other ways of fighting the disease. What is perhaps surprising is why this particular drug was chosen as the new alternative treatment. There is, after all, no seemingly good reason to think that a horse de-wormer would be effective at killing the coronavirus. So where did this idea come from?

Not, it turns out, from nowhere. As was the case with hydroxychloroquine, the U.S.-based health analytics company Surgisphere produced a study that purported to show that ivermectin was effective at treating COVID-19, albeit in just “a handful of in vitro and observational studies.” The study was not published in any peer-reviewed outlet, but was instead uploaded as a preprint.

A preprint is a “version of a scientific manuscript posted on a public server prior to formal review”: it’s meant to be a way of rapidly disseminating results to the scientific community at large. Preprints can have significant benefits when it comes to getting one’s results out quickly: peer-review can be a lengthy process, and during a global pandemic, time is certainly of the essence. At the same time, there are a number of professional and ethical considerations that surround the use of preprints in the scientific community.

For example, a recent study on preprints released during the pandemic found a “remarkably low publication rate” for sampled papers, with one potential explanation being that “some preprints have lower quality and will not be able to endure peer-reviewing.” Others have cautioned that while the use of preprints has had positive effects in the physical sciences, when it comes to the medical sciences there is potentially more reason to be concerned: given that developments in medical science is typically of much more interest to the general public, “Patients may be exposed to early, unsubstantiated claims relevant to their conditions, while lacking the necessary context in which to interpret [them].” Indeed, this seems to be what happened with regards to alternative treatments for COVID-19, which have been uploaded online amongst an explosion of new preprint studies.

Additional problems arise when it comes to the use of medical preprints in the media. Another recent study found that while online media outlets linking to preprints was a common practice, said preprints were often framed inconsistently: media outlets often failed to mention that the preprints had not been peer reviewed, instead simply referring to them as “research.” While the authors of the study were encouraged that discussions of preprints in the media could foster “greater awareness of the scientific uncertainty associated with health research findings,” they were again concerned that failing to appropriately frame preprint studies risked misleading readers into thinking that the relevant results were accepted in the scientific community.

So what should we take away from this? We have seen that there are clearly benefits to the general practice of publishing scientific preprints online, and that in health crises in particular the rapid dissemination of scientific results can result in faster progress. At the same time, preprints making claims that are not adequately supported by the evidence can get picked up by members of the general public, as well as the media, who may be primarily concerned with breaking new “scientific discoveries” without properly contextualizing the results or doing their due diligence in terms of the reliability of the source. Certainly, then, there is an obligation on the part of media outlets to do better: given that many preprints do not survive peer review, it is important for the media to note that, when they do refer to preprint studies, that the results are provisional.

It’s not clear, though, whether highlighting the distinction would make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. For instance, in response to the FDA’s statement that there is no scientific basis for studying the effects of ivermectin on COVID-19, Kentucky senator Rand Paul stated that it was really a “hatred for Trump” that stood in the way of investigating the drug, and not, say, the fact that the preprint study did not stand up to scientific scrutiny. It seems unlikely that, for someone like Paul, the difference between preprints and peer-reviewed science is a relevant one when it comes to pushing a political narrative.

Nevertheless, a better understanding of the difference between preprints and peer-reviewed science could still be beneficial when helping people make decisions about what information to believe. While some preprints certainly do go on to pass peer review, if the only basis that one has for some seemingly implausible medical claims is a preprint study, it is worth approaching those claims with skepticism.

What Arguments for the Electoral College Really Show

image of disconnected US states

It is a widely accepted democratic principle that all votes should carry equal power (“One Person, One Vote”). That this is (at least generally) a good principle is less controversial than any attempt to explain why it’s a good principle. If Jeff Bezos proposed that rich people should be able to vote ten million times while everyone else should only be allowed to vote once, everyone would agree this is a bad idea. We might cite different explanations of why it’s a bad idea. We might worry about the well-being of the non-rich people, since politicians would have less reason to care about them. It might seem unfair or disrespectful to everyone else to privilege rich people in this way without a good reason. We might worry that it would make us unfree: if the government can (to some extent) boss people around, and rich people can control the government without our input, it would be like rich people were bossing us around, like they were dictators over the rest of us. We might cite more than one of these explanations, or some other one. The point is that everyone agrees that One Person, One Vote is usually a pretty good principle to follow.

But both the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College violate One Person, One Vote. This is because they give disproportionate power to voters in low-population states. Since all states have two senators regardless of population, California and Wyoming have equal representation in the Senate even though California has about 66 times as many people. Because Senate representation affects Electoral College representation, the Electoral College is similarly biased: compared to Wyoming, California has only about 18 times the electors despite, again, having 66 times the population. Because low-population states tend to be rural, and rural voters tend to be conservative, this biases both the Senate and White House in favor of Republicans: Republicans have controlled the presidency for twelve of the past twenty years despite only winning the popular vote once in that time. Since federal judges are chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the courts also favor Republicans. But keep in mind: the main point here is not about whether it’s good or bad for Republicans to be in charge. It’s instead that our departure from One Person, One Vote really is seriously affecting the government. If we gave Jeff Bezos two votes, that would be bad, but it probably wouldn’t really change anything: his extra vote probably wouldn’t make any difference. But the Senate and Electoral College do make a difference. People who want Republicans to win can still agree that they don’t want them to win like this, by violating One Person, One Vote. And people who want Democrats to win can agree that these institutions would be problematic even if they favored Democrats instead.

Some people want to change the Senate and Electoral College. For instance, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would functionally eliminate the Electoral College, and granting statehood to Washington, D.C. would create new Democratic-leaning Senate seats, making the body more representative. But defenders of the status quo suggest we should keep the institutions as they are to prevent American politics being dominated by the residents of populous, urban areas at the cost of rural voters. Joe Seyton at Reason writes that “By preventing the majority from getting its way all the time, the Electoral College ensures… those in high-population states with large cities aren’t the only ones who have a say.” David Harsanyi, also for Reason, says:

“because of our childish propensity to use the word ‘fair,’ I understand that the Electoral College must seem like a relic that undercuts the sacramental notion of ‘one man, one vote’… [But] the Electoral College impels presidents and their political parties to consider all Americans in rhetoric and action. By allowing two senators for both Wyoming… and California… we create more national cohesion. We protect large swaths of the nation from being bullied. We incentivize Washington, D.C.—both the president and the Senate—to craft policy that meets the needs of Colorado as well as New York.”

Tara Ross, in a video for PragerU, says that the Electoral College encourages developing platforms which appeal to the entire country: “If winning were only about getting the most votes, a candidate might concentrate all of his efforts in the biggest cities, or the biggest states. Why would that candidate care about what people in West Virginia, or Iowa, or Montana think?” And Jeff Greenfield, at Politico, writes that the Senate “protects minority interests from majority rule,” something “liberals weren’t always so fearful of.”

According to this argument, the Senate and Electoral College help address an issue related to what the political philosopher Thomas Christiano calls “the problem of persistent minorities.” If a stable bloc emerges which can win elections without needing to compete for members of a certain group, that certain group risks having its voice drowned out. This might seem unfair even when the majority makes otherwise fine decisions. If you and your two friends watch a movie every Saturday, voting on which movie to watch seems fair when a consensus can’t be reached. But if your friends like the same movies as one another, but different movies from you, and they outvote you every single time, that seems less fair. Of course, rural Republicans wouldn’t be permanently locked out of governance without the Senate or Electoral College, and so wouldn’t exactly be persistent minorities. Instead, the Republican party would change its platform to bring new voters into a coalition with these rural voters (and other Republicans) so the party could remain competitive. But the need to attract these new voters means that the rural voters’ interests would receive less priority.

Defenders of the status quo therefore endorse what I’ll call the Minoritarian Principle:

While One Person, One Vote might be good most of the time, we should sometimes depart from it by giving disproportionate power to votes from members of minority groups when this is necessary to protect their sufficiently important interests.

Majoritarianism is rule by the majority, so naturally, minoritarianism is rule by a minority. I’ve called the principle the Minoritarian Principle because it means that a minority of voters can sometimes get their way.

But we can now see the fatal flaw in the pro-status quo argument: no justification is given for applying the Minoritarian Principle only to rural voters. The interests of many different minority groups are threatened in the U.S., and prioritizing rural voters often means deprioritizing members of these other groups. For instance, since rural voters tend to be white, privileging their votes disadvantages people of color. David Leonhardt calculates that the Senate awards .35 seats per million white voters, but only .26 per million Black voters, .25 per million Asian voters, and .19 per million Hispanic voters. Meanwhile, Andrew Gelman and Piere Antoine-Kremp estimate that “whites have 16 percent more power than blacks once the Electoral College is taken into consideration, 28 percent more power than Latinos, and 57 percent more power than those who fall into the ‘other’ category.” This creates exactly the situation defenders of the status quo worry about: Republican politicians can often win elections with minimal support from racial minorities, as when Trump was elected despite getting only eight percent support among Black voters. An unusually candid statement of the racial implications of the status quo came in an interview with Maine’s former Republican governor Paul LePage. He began defending the Electoral College by saying it increases the power of small states like his, but quickly shifted to defending it on the grounds that it increases the power of white people.

Unless the interests of rural voters are at greater risk than the interests of racial minorities, favoring the former at the expense of the latter is unwarranted. But if anything, the interests of people of color are at greater risk. So the Minoritarian Principle really seems to support something like the opposite of the current system. Perhaps the votes of people of color could literally just count for more. Perhaps we could create special Senate seats to be selected by minority voters, mirroring New Zealand’s Māori electorates. Christiano considers “requiring that candidates for elective office receive quotas of votes” from different demographic groups. Many countries currently employ “reserved positions,” where offices or seats must be held by members of certain demographic groups. “Consociationalistsystems built around group power sharing of the sort found in Belgium, Switzerland, or (historically) the Netherlands might provide another source of ideas.

I’m not saying we should implement one of these alternative proposals. There are good reasons to favor One Person, One Vote, too, and maybe those should win. And implementing the alternative proposals is politically impossible anyway. This is the point instead: If we favor One Person, One Vote across the board, obviously we should oppose the Senate and Electoral College. But if, like their defenders, we instead accept the Minoritarian Principle, we should still oppose the Senate and Electoral College. These institutions have effects — like decreasing the power of people of color — which are the opposite of those a reasonable application of the Minoritarian Principle would aim for. So reforming or eliminating these institutions would also be an improvement by the lights of the Minoritarian Principle. So when defenders of the institutions invoke the Minoritarian Principle, this winds up being a red herring. Whether we accept the principle or not, we should oppose the Senate and Electoral College.