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Russia, Ukraine, and Digital Sanctions

image of Putin profile, origami style

Russian aggression towards Ukraine has prompted many responses across the world, with a number of countries imposing (or at least considering imposing) sanctions against Russia. In the U.S., Joe Biden recently announced a set of financial sanctions that would cut off Russian transactions with U.S. banks, and restrict Russian access to components used in high tech devices and weapons. In Canada, Justin Trudeau also announced various sanctions against Russia, and many Canadian liquor stores stopped selling Russian vodka. While some of these measures will likely be more effective than others – not having access to U.S. banks probably stings a bit more than losing the business of the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation – there is good reason for governments to impose sanctions as a way to attempt to deter further aggression from Russia.

It is debatable whether the imposition of sanctions by governments is enough (for example, providing aid to Ukraine in some form also seems like something that governments should do), but it certainly seems like something that they should do. If we accept the view that powerful governments have at least some moral obligation to help keep the peace, then sanctioning Russia is something such governments ought to do.

What about corporations? Do they have any such obligations? Companies are certainly within their rights to stop doing business with Russia, or to cut off services they would normally supply, if they see fit. But do the moral obligations that apply to governments apply to private businesses, as well?

Ukraine’s digital minister Mykhailo Fedorov may think that they do. He recently asked Apple CEO Tim Cook to stop supplying Apple products to Russia, and to cut off Russian access to the app store. “We need your support,” wrote Fedorov, “in 2022, modern technology is perhaps the best answer to the tanks, multiple rocket launchers … and missiles.” Fedorov asked Meta, Google, and Netflix to also stop providing services to Russia, and to ask that Google block YouTube channels that promote Russian propaganda.

It is not surprising why Fedorov singled out tech companies. It has been well-documented that Facebook and YouTube have been major sources of misinformation in the past, and the current conflict between Russian and Ukraine is no exception. There has been a lot said already about how tech companies have obligations to attempt to stem the flow of misinformation on their respective platforms, and in this sense, they clearly have obligations towards Ukraine to make sure that their inactions do not contribute to the proliferation of damaging information.

It is a separate question, though, as to whether a company like Apple ought to suspend its service in Russia as a form of sanction. We can consider arguments on either side.

Consider first an argument in favor: like a lot of other places in the world, many people in Russia rely on the services of companies like Apple, Meta, and Google in their daily lives, as do members of Russia’s government and military. Cutting Russia off from these services would then be disruptive in ways that may be comparable to the sanctions imposed by the governments of other countries (and in some cases could very well be more disruptive). If these companies are in a position to help Ukraine by imposing such digital sanctions, then we might think they ought to.

Indeed, this kind of obligation may stem from a more general obligation to help victims of unjust aggression. For instance, I may have some such obligation: given that I am a moderately well-off Westerner with an interest in global justice, we might think that I should (say) avoid buying Russian products and give money to charities that aid the people of Ukraine. If I were in a position to make a more significant difference – say, if I were the CEO of a large company popular in Russia – we might then think that I should do more, in a way that is proportional to the power and influence I have.

However, we could also think of arguments opposed to the idea that tech companies have obligations to impose digital sanctions. For instance, we might think that corporations are not political entities, and thus have no special obligations when it comes to matters of global politics. This is perhaps a simplistic view of the relationship between corporations and governments; regardless, we still might think that corporations simply aren’t the kinds of things that stand in relationship to governments. These private entities don’t (or shouldn’t) have similar responsibilities to impose sanctions or otherwise help keep the peace.

One might also worry about the effect digital sanctions might have on Russian civilians. For example, lack of access to tech could have collateral damage in the form of preventing groups of protestors from communicating with one another, or from helping debunk propaganda or other forms of misinformation. While many forms of sanctions have indirect impacts on civilians, digital sanctions have immediate and direct impacts that one might think should be avoided.

While some tech companies have already begun taking actions to address misinformation from Russia, whether Fedorov’s request will be granted by tech giants like Apple remains to be seen.

The Pugly Truth

photograph of bulldog skull evolutionin profile

Last month, the Oslo District Court issued a ruling effectively banning the breeding of British Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels in Norway. The verdict was the result of a case brought by the Animal Protection Norway (APN), who argued that such practices are in violation of the Norwegian Animal Welfare Act. But why might this be the case? And what does this mean for the morality of owning purebred dogs?

A long history of human-guided breeding has given rise to numerous critical health issues for purebred dogs, and it was these very issues that formed the foundation of the APN’s court case. British Bulldogs, for example, have been bred to develop wide skulls and short snouts – allegedly in order to provide them with a more expressive face, emulating that of a child. As a result, bulldogs have developed severe breathing problems. Bulldogs are therefore unable to properly regulate their temperature through panting and are highly susceptible to heatstroke. In fact, the heads of bulldogs have become so deformed that the breed is mostly incapable of reproducing without human intervention. This is because their enlarged skulls are no longer able to pass through the pelvic canal of the mother, and – for this reason – 95% of bulldogs have to be delivered via Caesarean section. Bulldogs also suffer from an array of other problems with their heart, eyes, skin, and hips – with bulldogs suffering from the highest rate of hip dysplasia of any breed. These health issues are so severe that most airlines now refuse to transport bulldogs and other brachycephalic (shortened head) breeds, for fear that these dogs will not survive a flight.

The overbreeding of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, on the other hand, has resulted in these dogs carrying more harmful genetic variants than any other breed. As a result, these dogs are at serious risk of developing allergies, dislocated knees, hip dysplasia, cataracts, and heart defects – including myxomatous mitral valve disease, a condition that leads to the degeneration of their heart valves.

Our obsession with breeds such as the British Bulldog and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is understandable. Years of intensive overbreeding has resulted in two varieties of dog that are, well, absolutely adorable. And the same goes for many other purebreds. When Men in Black was first released, the character of Frank filled me with a deep and abiding love for pugs. That love endured for many years, and developed into a resolute desire to own a pug of my own – at least, until I began to learn about the genetic tragedy of the breed. Like bulldogs, pugs suffer from a wealth of breathing and thermoregulation issues related to their shortened snouts. Their shallow eye sockets also make them highly susceptible to proptosis – a condition in which the dog’s eyeball is literally left dangling from its socket. Research now suggests that their deformed skulls may also be the cause of the many neurological issues that plague pugs: one third of the breed can’t even walk normally.

Given the horrendous health consequences of pure-breeding, the ruling by the Oslo District Court seems justified. It’s also the reason why – in 2009 – the British Kennel Club (whose aesthetic standards are largely responsible for breeders’ selection of certain traits) issued new regulations for British Bulldogs in an effort to encourage the breeding of healthier dogs. The American Kennel Club, on the other hand, has refused to make any such modifications to their standards.

While modified kennel standards and legal bans are important steps in breeding healthier, happier dogs, they’re not the only ways of effecting meaningful change. What, then, does morality require of us as individuals? Should those who own purebred dogs immediately give up their beloved pets? Clearly not. There’s also no reason to pass over that purebred pup you bonded with at your local shelter. Those animals that have already been bred – though potentially plagued by genetic issues – are deserving of dignity, kindness, and (most importantly) love. Instead, it would seem that our most important moral responsibility is to do all we can to minimize the number of dogs suffering from easily avoidable ailments by stemming the supply of new purebreds. And this is a surprisingly simple task to achieve. In a capitalist system such as ours, supply changes to meet demand. Thus, if we refuse to purchase purebred dogs, breeders will have little reason to continue to produce such varieties.

The only real benefit to be gained from breeds like the British Bulldog, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, or pug is aesthetic enjoyment. But given the enormous harm suffered by dogs belonging to these breeds – and the ready availability of much healthier alternatives for prospective dog owners – this isn’t enough to justify us in continuing to patronize breeders. Morality requires us to focus less on aesthetics, and more on the health – and, ultimately, happiness – of our most loyal companions.

What Does It Take to Make an Apology?

caricature of a resigned Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson recently apologized for attending a party at No 10 Downing Street in March 2020, just after a national lockdown had been ordered. His apology has been met with general outrage and a call for his resignation. Individuals respecting the lockdown measures couldn’t see their loved ones on their deathbeds, attend funerals, celebrate weddings, and more. For instance, the queen of England had to attend her own husband’s, the Duke of Edinburgh’s, funeral in relative isolation. As of the latest, the consensus is not a matter of whether Boris Johnson will resign, but when and how he will resign.

Unsurprisingly, most parties accuse Boris of delivering a weak apology. Worse, some accuse him of failing to apologize altogether. This raises the question, “What does it take to make an apology?” Boris Johnson’s apology provides a good case study of what does and does not qualify as an apology. In what follows, I will outline three conditions for making an apology and contrast this with the related concepts of excuse, justification, and explanation. Given the notion of apology I put forth, Boris Johnson fails to make a successful apology.

Let us stipulate that an apology consists of three things: the individual who apologizes must (i) take ownership of the action and the damaging effects, (ii) regard the action as bad, and (iii) be open to making amends or reconciling in some fashion. Consider a trivial case of apology (modeled on a favorite poem of mine). Juan and Sarah are work colleagues. Juan always places his snack of choice, some tangerines, in the work cooler. As it happens, one day Sarah eats Juan’s tangerines. Juan sees the tangerine peels in Sarah’s bin, so naturally addresses the issue. Upon being confronted, Sarah apologizes. She says, “I’m sorry, Juan. Those were your tangerines, and I ate them. I don’t want to take your food and treat you that way.”

While somewhat trivial, notice a couple of things about this scenario. First, Sarah owns up to the action. She doesn’t deny that she is the tangerine-eating-culprit — she takes responsibility for the action of eating Juan’s tangerines. Particularly, she takes responsibility for a wrong action and the effects of that wrong action. Next, Sarah is open to making amends. That is, she apologizes for the sake of reconciling. If this is not clear, simply consider the opposite: Sarah says, “I apologize,” and turns around in a huff for having been confronted. Like children on a playground who only verbally apologize, this would seem to only be half an apology (or no apology at all!). So, it seems like being open to amends is necessary for an apology. Of course, even if Sarah does successfully apologize, Juan can still refuse the apology. But this does not mean that Sarah has failed to apologize. Rather, it means that reconciliation has not occurred.

So, let us consider these three conditions as necessary and sufficient for an apology. You need them all for an apology to happen; and when you have them all, an apology happens.

Now, apologies are not usually as clean-cut as in the above example. Apologies are usually muddled with justifications and excuses. Imagine the same scenario where Sarah has eaten Juan’s tangerines. Excuses are frequent companions to apologies. Sarah could reply: “Oh goodness, I had no clue those were your tangerines in the cooler — sorry I ate them!” Excuses aim to deflect responsibility for the action in question. Sure, Sarah ate the tangerines. But she didn’t knowingly eat Juan’s tangerines from the cooler. That’s not the type of action that she is willing to own up to. Thus, when present, the excuse deflates the apology. Sometimes, excuses simply replace the apology. Sarah maintains, legitimately or not, that she should not and even cannot be held responsible for the action in question. When an excuse accompanies an apology, it at least deflates it, for it calls into question the first condition of taking responsibility for the action in question.

Justifications are also frequent companions or alternatives to apologies. Sarah could try to justify her action when Juan confronts her by saying, “Yeah, I ate it. But it wasn’t so bad after all — I was starving! Sorry, Juan.” Where excuses deny responsibility for the action in question, justification takes responsibility for it. Moreover, the person who offers a justification disowns the fact that the action was bad and thus deflects the blame. Perhaps the justification is legitimate, perhaps not.

Illegitimate justifications, as we know all too well, are a common way to deflect blame. When an illegitimate justification is present, it defeats the apology. The person who says ‘sorry’ at this point has simply not taken responsibility for the wrongness of the action and the bad effects.

Now, we don’t want to conflate justifications with explanations. To see the difference, imagine that Sarah says, “Sorry I ate your tangerines. I was hungry and not thinking of you — I regret doing that.” Similar to a justification, the explanation serves to provide context. Unlike a justification, the explanation does not seek to deflect blame. Explanation is a way of making amends and helping the offended person understand. The explanation aligns with the purpose of the apology, to take responsibility and make amends of some sort. When done correctly, explanations can go a long way in making an apology and the aspired reconciliation successful.

How does this help us analyze Boris Johnson’s apology? The presence of justifications or excuses calls the apology into question. Indeed, illegitimate justifications or excuses defeat the apology. Turning to his statement, the Prime Minister repeatedly and directly stated “I apologize.” He made note of his regret at the damage caused by his actions. He ended by encouraging the investigation, indicating his openness towards making another statement. We might be charitable and presume this means he is open to making amends. These all meet the conditions of an apology. So far, so good.

When taken as a whole, however, he made both excuses and justifications. Consider one of his excuses: he “believed implicitly that this was a work event.” Really? This classifies as an excuse. If we were to liberally elaborate, the above statement amounts to the following: “you are saying I attended a party and could blame me if this was the case. But that was not what I was doing! I attended a meeting. You can’t hold me responsible and blame me for that action.”

Additionally, the Prime Minister made a justification. He claimed it was “technically legal.” This classifies as a justification. Whether it was a party or work event, it was legal and he is not therefore blameworthy. In the justification, he takes responsibility but denies the action was bad.

I won’t get into the details of whether Boris Johnson offered any legitimate excuses or justifications. Neither have I commented on whether leaders have different kinds of responsibilities, or simply heightened responsibilities for the citizens they serve. But, as is clear from the tangerine-theft, the presence of any excuses and justifications at least deflates and calls the apology into question. And this is no different with Boris.

Kamila Valieva, Lia Thomas, and Fairness in Sports

So far, the biggest moment of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics has not been record-breaking stunts or underdog wins, but an issue that has been pervasive in the Olympics throughout the past decade: doping. The issue has become a major topic of conversation every Olympics, especially after the 2014 Winter games in Sochi, Russia, where a state-run doping scandal was taking place and only discovered a year later. While Russia is still technically banned from the Olympics, individual athletes from Russia have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2014. Now, Russia’s history with doping has once again become a focus, as have the lenient reactions of governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), after it was revealed that a top figure skater, Kamila Valieva, tested positive.

What made this news so controversial were two things: the timing and the consequences. Valieva’s sample was taken on December 25th, after she won the free skate in the Russian National Championships. However, the lab responsible for testing her sample had not reported the results until February 8th, after Valieva helped the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) win gold in the team skate and was the first female skater to land two quadruple jumps in the Olympics. The drug she tested positive for, Trimetazidine, is a heart medication that has helps athletes with their endurance, which would give her a significant advantage in figure skating competition. She was suspended and then quickly cleared by a Russian anti-doping organization. But the most shocking decision was the Court of Arbitration in Sports allowing her to compete in the individual free skate, an event that she was favored to win.

The decision to let Valieva compete has created just as much controversy as the original positive test. Former Olympic figure skater and now coach, Adam Rippon, has suggested that Russia’s original ban by the IOC was clearly not strict enough as their best athletes are continuing to test positive. Further, Rippon has also pointed out that Valieva is only fifteen, and her status as a minor means that it is her coach and guardians that bear the greatest responsibility. Given this, Valieva has generally been met with sympathetic responses as no one knows the extent to which she might be complicit. Would-be Olympian Shi’Carri Richardson, however, has pointed out the double standard at play – as she was banned from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics for testing positive for marijuana after she found out her mother died. Like Valieva, Richardson was expected to be a heavy favorite (in the 100-meter dash), but marijuana – while listed as a banned substance – is not a performance-enhancing drug. (Another difference, of course, is that Valieva is white, whereas Richardson is Black.)

While Valieva may deserve sympathy as a child, athletes expect that competitors will be held to the same standard when it comes to positive tests for banned substances – perhaps especially when competing at something as grand as the Olympics. The decision to allow Valieva to compete – even if disqualified from the medal ceremony – illustrates a certain acceptance among the top sports governing bodies of doping at the world’s largest stage for athletic performances. Skaters in the individual event must perform knowing that their biggest competition has a leg-up. And if Valieva is met with understanding and shown leniency, what would stop other athletes (or coaches) from expecting that their rule-breaking behavior might be similarly excused? The basis for athletic competition is the expectation of a level playing field, but complacency about doping threatens to undermine the integrity of athletic contests.

Valieva’s case is related to another controversy brewing in the sports world: transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. While public response to Valieva’s situation has been largely sympathetic and respectful, the same cannot quite be said of the treatment of Lia Thomas. In a somewhat similar case, a governing sports body – this time the NCAA – needed to determine quickly whether a University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) swimmer, Lia Thomas, would be able to compete at the conference championships in March. Recently, the NCAA had decided to no longer have a uniform policy for transgender athletes across all sports, but instead to allow individual sports governing bodies to have their own requirements. For Lia Thomas, this meant she would be disqualified from competing because the USA Swimming policy required trans athletes to undergo 36 months of hormone therapy and prove they do not have an unfair advantage from their sex assigned at birth. By the time of the conference championships Thomas would’ve been at 33 months of hormone therapy. Thomas’ absence would completely change the championships as she holds two of the top times in the nation.

What added to the controversy and sparked debate amongst women’s athletic communities was the reaction from sixteen of her teammates. The teammates, referring to themselves as biological women, released an anonymous letter pleading that UPenn or the Ivy League accept Thomas’s ban and not sue the NCAA. They justified their position by explaining how Thomas had taken away their chance to compete at the conference meet, in which only about half of the team makes the roster. In response, over 300 current and former competitive swimmers voiced their support for Thomas, as well as other trans and non-binary athletes in their sport. Crucially, they also highlighted the true issue of this situation, which is that while real problems that have been ongoing for decades in women’s sports, such as sexual abuse, unequal treatment between men’s and women’s athletics, and unfair pay, opponents have mistakenly decided to blame a transwoman for the downfall of fairness in women’s sports.

There has been a marked difference in the ways the sports world, particularly the women’s sports world, has reacted to these situations. Valieva clearly cheated; she tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug – whether she knowingly took the drug or was coerced by adults. Her continued competition in the Olympics has now taken away from every skater who worked their entire life in the hopes of one day making it there. It calls into question the integrity of not only the team and free skate competitions, but also the Games as a whole. Fellow competitors, commentators, and the general public seem upset, but also believe sympathy and respect are called for. Lia Thomas, meanwhile, was castigated by her own teammates and has faced a wave of backlash (often transphobic) over her supposed “biological” advantage.

The woman who helped to publish the letter by Thomas’s sixteen teammates is former Olympian, civil rights lawyer, and women’s rights advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar who published an editorial defending their position. In the editorial, Hogshead-Makar compares Thomas not only to her old rivals, the doping East German athletes from the 1980s, but also to Michael Phelps, a male swimmer, who ironically has his own biological advantages, yet is celebrated as a sports phenom. While Hogshead-Makar insists that her ultimate aim is to break down the inequalities between men’s and women’s sports, she can’t see that her own argument is inherently sexist – accepting a biologically advantaged male as exceptional, but a transwoman with over a year of hormone therapy as threatening.

Additionally, Hogshead-Makar demonstrates remarkable indifference in suggesting Thomas either compete in men’s swimming, something that would most likely cause some level of trauma from having to be defined under the wrong gender, or forfeit participation in official competition and simply swim in exhibition races. Indeed, Hogshead-Maker is adamant that women should not give up the gains they have fought for against men “no matter how real the harms suffered by transgender athletes.” While purporting to be a supporter of women’s sports and of Lia Thomas’s gender identity, Hogshead-Makar simply refuses to recognize Thomas as a woman. If she did, she would be embracing Thomas with open arms and recognizing a great athlete for what they are – someone who overcame unique and difficult barriers to fully realize themselves.

Welcoming transgender athletes into women’s sports – obviously with certain guidelines to ensure fairness – should be the goal of all women in women’s sports, as it is true they have fought hard (and continue to fight) for equal recognition with men’s sports. Welcoming more women and greater competition can only help further women’s sports in its mission of equality. In the end, the true threat to the integrity of sports lies not in the inclusion or exclusion of gender identities, but in complacency about doping.

Curriculum Transparency and Public Education

image of security camera in a classroom

House Bill 5722 is a new proposal stirring up controversy in Michigan’s state Senate. The bill, introduced by Republican state representatives, would require teachers at public schools across the state to submit lesson plans, assignments, class readings, quizzes, and all other class material to a public database, in the name of “curriculum transparency.” Districts that fail to comply with these rules would lose 5% of their total state funding. The bill aims to address the concerns of parents who worry that their kids are being taught radical political agendas or curricula that are in opposition to their personal values. “This is a perfect opportunity for the schools and parents to work together instead of creating this perception of ‘what are you trying to hide?’” said Rep. Gary Eisen, of St. Clair Township. Over a dozen states have proposed similar curriculum transparency bills. The immediate context for the sudden flood of interest in public school curriculum is fueled by the ongoing national conversation concerning “critical race theory,” a little-understood academic discipline that has become a looming fear in the minds of a sizeable percentage of Republican voters. Specifically, conservatives worry that public school curriculum is teaching “critical race theory” along with other “racially and politically divisive materials” such as the 1619 Project.

Unsurprisingly, the bill has received pushback from public school teachers, who emphasize the unrealistic burden that such “transparency” would place on them. Lesson plans that may, after decades of teaching the same topic, exist only in the minds of the teachers themselves, would need to be transcribed, organized, and filed, before being uploaded. In Indiana, a bill proposing such measures requires teachers to upload the entire year’s collection of curricula, lesson plans, and assignments before the first day of school. Changes to the schedule after upload are not allowed. Because teachers often need to change plans at the last minute, educators allege that this would cause the quality of public education to suffer greatly. Additionally, many worry about the repercussions of — and motivations behind — such unprecedented parental oversight of the minutiae of each day’s lessons. Of course, there are already many ways that parents can access the details of their children’s education; for example, parent-teacher meetings, opportunities to join the Parent Teacher Association, or simply contacting the educators directly. Requiring teachers to put all of their lesson plans online — in addition to bills proposed in multiple states that would see teachers penalized for teaching material that makes students feel “uncomfortable” — understandably has educators worried about their careers. Recently, the ACLU tweeted: “Curriculum transparency bills are just thinly veiled attempts at chilling teachers and students from learning and talking about race and gender in schools.”

Aside from the specific background conditions undergirding this new flush of interest in their children’s lesson plans, is there good reason to think that parents of children enrolled in public education have the right to virtually access everything their children are being taught in school? Parental rights are extensive, and for good reason. As the 20th century political philosopher John Rawls argued, maintaining a pluralistic society necessitates allowing children to be brought up under many different parenting styles, value systems, and worldviews, insofar as those views area “reasonable” — that is, able to coexist alongside a shared vision for a unified pluralist state. Only under very extreme conditions do parents typically lose custody of their children; even then, the usual goal of protective services is to place the children back with parents or extended family as soon as it is safe to do so. Yet, parental rights have limits. Parents cannot legally prevent their children from accessing preventative medical care, life-saving procedures, or primary education. In most states, even families who choose to homeschool are required to have their children take standardized tests, to make sure that they are getting an adequate education at home.

Perhaps part of the worry is what is included in an “adequate” education. For example, some people accept flat-earth theory, and reject the idea that the earth is globular. Further, a much larger subset of Americans do not believe in evolution by natural selection. As of 2019, around 40% of Americans rejected the idea that human beings have evolved over time, accepting instead a view that God created humans in roughly the same form as present-day hominids. This makes evolution, if not scientifically controversial, extremely socially controversial. And throughout the 20th century court battles raged regarding the ethics of teaching evolution in the public schools. How can we think about the ethics of teaching socially-controversial issues — including issues related to race and the interpretation of historical events — especially when little or no controversy exists among scholars in the respective fields? And to what extent should parents be allowed to influence the curriculum of the public schools their children attend?

The answer, it seems, will require first answering another question: what is the role and purpose of public education? The obvious response would seem to be that the education of all citizens is a public good that all American citizens benefit from. It is a public good because a country of educated citizens will tend to have lower poverty rates, higher rates of employment, better health outcomes, and more innovation. This public benefit legitimizes the taxes that all citizens pay toward the system, regardless of whether they have children attending. The 20th century American philosopher John Dewey went even further, arguing that public education was a necessary condition for a flourishing democracy:

[A] government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated. Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education.

In order to secure these benefits, however, it is necessary that school curricula not be at the mercy of individual districts. If it were, we could expect to see wildly different educational outcomes between districts, due to students learning different material — and this would undermine the general public good served by the public education system. Because different districts across different states will differ dramatically in terms of political and social values, one thing everyone ought to be able to agree on is that all public-school students should all learn approximately the same things in the same subject areas. There is legal precedent to prohibit any form of educational policy changes that could lead to wildly disunified outcomes. In the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, defendants of segregation argued for their position largely on the basis of parental choice: parents in a district should have some control over the way that district is run with respect to racial integration or segregation. The ruling in this case, which ultimately led to the desegregation of the public-school system, was based on the following line of reasoning: that leaving districts with the choice between segregation and integration would result in unequal educational outcomes across districts and states, and was therefore unviable as a public educational policy. If there is good reason to think that parental control over school curriculum would have similar results, then Brown provides a legal precedent for safeguarding individual districts from local efforts to make significant changes to the curriculum.

However, even the general consensus on the national benefit of a public education system appears to be waning. Bills across the nation are proposing states adopt a “voucher system” of school funding. In a voucher system, rather than each taxpayer paying a certain amount of tax dollars toward their public-school district, parents of children may instead use those dollars as a “voucher” that will follow their child/children into whatever form of schooling the parents decide on: public, charter, private, or homeschooling. In states where private school and homeschooling are very popular, such a distribution of tax dollars would leave the public-school system impoverished — likely beyond the ability to function, and certainly with far fewer resources than they had previously. Some states, like Indiana, already have a limited voucher system in place, which has seen districts such as Fort Wayne losing over $100,000 per year in annual government funding — and these numbers are rising exponentially. Indiana’s current voucher system is rather limited: capped at 7500 students, with earning limits on families who would like to take advantage of these benefits. Many bills currently sitting in state senates have no such restrictions. Until the nation can once again unite over the benefit and value of a national public education, arguments against maximal parental control may have no traction. A unified vision of the purpose and value of a public education system must therefore be urgently pursued.

The Democratic Limits of Public Trust in Science

photograph of Freedom Convoy trucks

It isn’t every day that Canada makes international headlines for civil unrest and disruptive protests. But the protests which began last month in Ottawa by the “Freedom Convoy” have inspired similar protests around the world and led to the Canadian government declaring a national emergency and seeking special powers to handle the crisis. But what exactly is the crisis that the nation faces? Is it a far-right, conspiratorial, anti-vaccination movement threatening to overthrow the government? Or is it the government’s infringement on rights in the name of “trusting the experts”?

It is easy to take the view that protests are wrong. First, we must acknowledge that the position that the truckers are taking in protesting the mandate is fairly silly. For starters, even if they were successful at getting the Canadian Federal Government to change its position, the United States also requires that truckers be vaccinated to cross the border, so this is a moot point. I also won’t defend the tactics used in the protests including the noise, blocking bridges, etc. However, several people in Canada have pinned part of the blame for the protests on the government, and Justin Trudeau in particular, for politicizing the issue of vaccines and creating a divisive political atmosphere.

First, it is worth noting that Canada has relied more on restrictive lockdown measures as of late compared to other countries, and much of this is driven by the need to keep hospitals from being overrun. However, this is owing to long-term systemic fragility in the healthcare sector, particularly a lack of ICU beds, prompting many – including one of Trudeau’s own MPs – to call for reform to healthcare funding to expand capacity instead of relying so much on lockdown measures. One would think that this would be a topic of national conversation with the public wondering why the government hasn’t done anything about this situation since the beginning of the pandemic. But instead, the Trudeau government has only chosen to focus on a policy of increasing vaccination rates, claiming that they are following “the best science” and “the best public health advice.”

Is there, however, a possibility that the government is hoping that enough people get vaccinated and with enough lockdown measures, they can avoid having the healthcare system collapse, expect the pandemic blows over, and escape without having to address such long-term problems? Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly casts any advice offered or decisions made the government in a very different light. Indeed, one of the problems with expert advice (as I’ve previously discussed here, here, and here) is that it is subject to inductive risk concerns and so the use of expert advice must be democratically-informed.

For example, if we look at a model used by Canada’s federal government, one will note how often its projections are based on different assumptions about what could happen. The model itself may be driven by a number of unstated assumptions which may or may not be reasonable. It is up to politicians to weigh the risks of getting it wrong, and not simply treat experts as if they are infallible. This is important because the value judgments inherent in risk assessment – about the reasonableness of our assumptions as well as the consequences of getting it wrong and potentially overrunning the healthcare system – are what ultimately will determine what restriction measures the government will enact. But this requires democratic debate and discussion. This is where failure of democratic leadership breeds long-term mistrust in expert advice.

It is reasonable to ask questions about what clear metrics a government might use before ending a lockdown, or to ask if there is strong evidence for the effectiveness of a vaccine mandate. But for the public, not all of whom enjoy the benefit of an education in science, it is not so clear what is and is not a reasonable question. The natural place for such a discussion would be the elected Parliament where representatives might press the government for answers. Unfortunately, defense of the protest in any form in Parliament is vilified, with the opposition being told they stand with “people who wave swastikas.” Prime Minister Trudeau has denounced the entire group as a “small fringe minority,” “Nazis,” with “unacceptable views.” However, some MPs have voiced concern about the tone and rhetoric involved in lumping everyone who has a doubt about the mandate or vaccine together.

This divisive attitude has been called out by one of Trudeau’s own MPs who said that people who question existing policies should not be demonized by their Prime Minister, noting “It’s becoming harder and harder to know when public health stops and where politics begins,” adding, “It’s time to stop dividing Canadians and pitting one part of the population against another.” He also called on the Federal government to establish clear and measurable targets.

Unfortunately, if you ask the federal government a direct question like “Is there a federal plan being discussed to ease out mandates?” you will be told that:

there have been moments throughout the pandemic where we have eased restrictions and those decisions have always been made guided by the best available advice that we’re getting from public health experts. And of course, going forward we will continue to listen to the advice that we get from our public health officials.

This is not democratic accountability (and it is not scientific accountability either). “We’re following the science” or “We’re following the experts” is not good enough. Anyone who actually understands the science will know that this is more a slogan than a meaningful claim.

There is also a bit of history at play. In 1970, Trudeau’s father Pierre invoked the War Measures Act during a crisis that resulted in the kidnapping and murder of a cabinet minister. It resulted in rounding up and arrest of hundreds of arrests without warrant or charge. This week the Prime Minister has invoked the successor to that legislation for the first time in Canadian history because…trucks. The police were having trouble moving the trucks because they couldn’t get tow trucks to help clear blocked border crossing. Now, while we can grant that the convoy has been a nuisance and has illegally blocked bridges, we’ve also seen the convoy complying with court-ordered injunctions on honking, we’ve also seen the convoy organizers opposing violence, with no major acts of violence taking place. While there was a rather odd proposal that the convoys could form a “coalition” with the parliamentary opposition to form a new government, I suspect that this is more owing to a failure to understand how Canada’s system of government works rather than a serious attempt to, as some Canadian politicians would claim “overthrow the government.”

The point is that this is an issue that has started with a government not being transparent and accountable, abusing the democratic process in the name of science, and taking advantage of the situation to demonize and delegitimize the opposition. It is in the face of this, and in the face of uncertainty about the intentions of the convoy, and after weeks of not acting sooner to ameliorate the situation, that the government claims that a situation has arisen that, according to the Emergencies Act, is a “threat to the security of Canada…that is so serious as to be a national emergency.” Not only is there room for serious doubt as to whether the convoy situation has reached such a level, but this is taking place during a context of high tension where the government and the media have demonstrated a willingness to overgeneralize and demonize a minority by lobbing as many poisoning the well fallacies as possible and misrepresenting the nature of science. The fact that in this political moment the government seeks greater power is a recipe for abuse of power.

In a democracy, where not everyone enjoys the chance to understand what a model is, how they are made, or how reliable (and unreliable) they can be, citizens have a right to know more about how their government is making use of expert advice in limiting individual freedom. The politicization of the issue using the rhetoric of “following the science,” as well as the government’s slow response and opaque reasoning have only served to make it more difficult for the public to understand the nature of the problem we face. Our public discourse has been stunted by transforming our policy conversations into a narrow one about vaccination and the risk posed by the “alt right.” But there is a much bigger, much more real problem here: the call to “trust the experts” can be used just as easily as a rallying call for rationality as it can be a political tool to demonizing entire groups of people to justify taking away their rights.

The Nomination of an African American Woman to SCOTUS Is More Than a Promise

photograph of Supreme Court facade "equal justice under law"

Now that Justice Breyer has announced his retirement, President Biden has decided to fulfill his promise to nominate an African American woman for the Supreme Court of the U.S. (a.k.a. SCOTUS). Many Republicans and conservatives have criticized his decision, offering one or more of the following reasons. For example, libertarian scholar Ilya Shapiro contends that the president is not committed to nominating the “objectively best person” for the job but rather a less qualified African American woman. Others criticize the president’s decision by focusing on a poll indicating that about 76% of Americans wish the president considers “all possible nominees,” and only 23% prefer that he follows through on his promise. Still, others, be they liberal or conservative, might claim that by committing himself to nominating an African American woman, he is discriminating against better qualified candidates.

I will argue that President Biden has not only the right to nominate an African American woman for SCOTUS, but, if he chooses a suitable candidate, he will be doing a great service to our country. The appointment of an African American woman to SCOTUS will offer a neglected but important perspective to help our nation grapple with present and forthcoming challenging decisions. Since Supreme Court Justices address highly controversial and politically sensitive issues that affect everyone, I maintain that a suitable candidate must possess, above all, moral integrity and good judgment for doing the job right.

Unlike our elected officials whose moral integrity, while desirable, is not necessary for performing well in office, we expect Supreme Court Justices to transcend their personal biases and prejudices in rendering impartial and fair decisions. Regrettably, oftentimes they fail to do so. Despite these failures, the justices abhor being perceived as politicians because presumably they do not aim at promoting policy outcomes to benefit most citizens or the interests of some. Instead, they justify their decisions by recognizing people’s political rights as found in the letter and/or the spirit of the constitutional text.

How can the president, his advisers and the Senate ascertain whether a nominee possesses moral integrity and good judgment? If the nominee be a judge, which in fact she need not be, those doing the vetting can look into her past judicial record. Also, they might go about querying those who have known the nominee in her different social roles to ascertain her moral character. Given the polarized nature of the Senate, lawmakers – especially Republicans – will try to find fault with a candidate’s moral standing, question her judicial decisions, and scrutinize her judicial philosophy. Despite its shortcomings, I can think of no better approach because, like our adversarial legal system, more often than not it works. For some, such a partisan and inquisitorial approach might not live up to their ideal for selecting “the objectively best candidate,” but we are not living in an ideal republic. We are living in an imperfect, but still perfectible democracy.

Some insist on what they conceive of as “the objectively best Supreme Court candidate.” Their conception, however, is just a sham. There are only better or worse candidates. In what sense could we claim that a person is a better candidate than another? In the sense of someone having a superior educational pedigree, for example, by having graduated summa cum laude from a prestigious law school. Or she might have clerked for a reputable judge. Or she is a prolific legal scholar. Or she possesses an envious intellectual IQ. But “better” could also mean having an exceptional emotional intelligence evidenced by exercising good judgment in her legal decisions and/or in her legal scholarship. Or she might have shown exemplary moral integrity in her different roles in society. Or she has demonstrated commitment to living up to the ideals expressed not only in the Constitution but also in the Declaration of Independence to make this a better world for all.

Of course, some might argue that the above is a false dilemma. The president could nominate a person who meets all of the already-mentioned conditions: better credentials, exceptional moral judgment, and integrity. Perhaps, but our moral judgments and integrity are conditioned, in part, by who we are and by our lived experiences. And the unique voice of African American women has been conspicuously absent from SCOTUS.

Suppose that we need to select between two candidates for SCOTUS. One has an extraordinary intellectual IQ with an exceptional educational pedigree. However, one candidate has shown substantive moral failures, such as having engaged in ubiquitous plagiarism while in law school, or having expressed racist, misogynist, or xenophobic views, or having supported special interest groups at the expense of the greater good. The other candidate has an average intellectual IQ with a solid, but not necessarily extraordinary educational pedigree. Yet she is known for having impeccable moral integrity and good judgment in her public and private life. Whom should we choose for SCOTUS? I would choose the latter because extraordinary intellectual virtues do not guarantee having moral integrity and sound moral judgment.

Next, I argue that those who prefer that the president listens to how most Americans feel about considering “all possible nominees” rather than an African American woman are not offering a compelling argument. First, they could be mistaken about their beliefs, or they might be biased against selecting an African American woman. The president’s advisers and members of the Senate are in a better position to determine who the suitable candidate would be for the greater good of the nation. Since the president has the right to nominate any candidate for SCOTUS that he thinks would be best for all, he can reasonably use race and gender, among other criteria, to narrow the pool of suitable candidates. He can justifiably do so by offering the following two reasons. He might argue that by selecting an African American woman for SCOTUS he is remedying past wrongdoings, and that by having a diverse composition of SCOTUS that mirrors our cultural milieu he is promoting the greater good of an inclusive society. 

To those who argue that, by having made such a promise, the president is politicizing and discriminating against other better qualified candidates, I will offer the following two responses. First, nominating a Supreme Court candidate has always been political. And second, in approving any nominee, one would be discriminating against other potential nominees who were not considered or selected. Discrimination is unavoidable. The issue is whether such a discrimination is justified for our greater good. Part of the greater good is to try to correct past injustices against members of excluded groups, such as African American women, who have been substantively harmed. The president and members of the Senate have not only the legal right to try to overcome past wrongs against any unfairly treated groups but, more importantly, they have the moral duty to do so. 

Lastly, one would be ill-informed to suggest that there is an insufficiently large pool of African American women from which to choose a suitable candidate for SCOTUS. I have reason to believe that such a pool exists. Also, I am sure that there are other potentially well deserving nominees who could represent the rich and diverse cultural experience of our nation, such as Native or Asian Americans, Latinx, or members of the LGTBQ+ community, to mention only a few.

An African American woman will bring a unique experience to SCOTUS to address many of our pressing legal and political issues for generations to come. To those who are skeptical about considering race or gender for membership in SCOTUS I can only say that, given our racist and misogynistic history, race and gender have mattered for the wrong reasons in the past. I can only hope that both might matter for the right reasons nowadays: to bring an important and neglected voice to SCOTUS for the benefit of all. Even if we were to accept that our Constitution is race- and gender-blind, those who have the power to interpret it are not.

Lia Thomas, Fairness in Sport, and Honest Ethical Debate in a World of Bad Faith

photograph of swimming lanes from underwater

In the past few months, women’s collegiate swimming has become the unlikely focus of a political firestorm around transgender rights and fairness in sports. At the very center of the storm is Lia Thomas, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who competed successfully on the men’s team before transitioning to female and joining UPenn’s women’s team this year.

Thomas’s participation in women’s swimming began to stir controversy at the end of 2021 when she posted top times in distance free-style events, including a 200 free performance that was quicker than the NCAA gold-medal time the year before. Her times in these and other events are significantly slower than before her transition — apparently the result of compliance with the NCAA’s requirement that transwomen take testosterone-suppressing drugs for twelve months before competing — but they are still championship quality. In early December, some parents of Thomas’s teammates penned a letter to the NCAA arguing that Thomas should not be allowed to compete. Right-wing media outlets like the Daily Mail, the New York Post, and Fox News smelled blood in the water and went after Thomas without mercy, smearing her character and decrying the unfairness of allowing her to swim. This comes as GOP-dominated legislatures in many states are pushing to pass bills banning transgender children from using the bathrooms of their choice or participating in the sports with others of their own gender. Last month, the NCAA responded to the controversy by dropping its rules on transgender participation and passing the buck to the national governing bodies in all sports. (On February 10, the NCAA announced that it would not adopt new, more stringent USA Swimming requirements for the 2022 season).

The Thomas case has divided the swimming world and even, to some extent, the LGBTQ community. Iconic Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps and Nancy Hogshead-Makar questioned whether Thomas should compete on a women’s team, but Brooke Forde, a top NCAA female swimmer, stated that because “treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be,” she has “no problem” competing against Thomas. GLAAD, an organization that monitors coverage of LGBTQ people in the media, lambasted the negative coverage of Thomas and said that “everyone involved in sports should be speaking up for Lia.” Meanwhile, Martina Navratolina, a legendary tennis player and champion of LGBTQ rights, has cast doubt on the fairness of letting Thomas compete.

Even the act of publicly staking out a position on this issue is fraught with ethical peril. Do right-wing media outlets and GOP politicians really care about the fairness of NCAA women’s sports competitions? It seems doubtful. The Thomas story is catnip for them because they see in it another potential wedge issue in the interminable culture wars. That the fear-mongering and bigotry on the right dominate the discourse on this subject means that even the public expression of uncertainty about the fairness of allowing Thomas to compete can seem like a gift to these malign actors. It was surely useful for the right that Hogshead-Makar published her column about Thomas in the Daily Mail: it gave its bigotry a veneer of respectability based upon her expertise on the subject of women’s swimming.

Of course, the ethical dangers of publicly speaking about this issue are less severe in my case, since my contributions to the public debate have vanishingly little influence. Still, I want to begin my discussion by stating what I take to be an obvious ethical proposition: there are no reasonable moral objections to the desires or self-conceptions of transgender people as such, or to the realization of those desires and self-conceptions. I have encountered no reasonable case for the claim that wanting to present as another gender or have the secondary sexual characteristics of another sex is bad in any sense. Given this, the moral presumption in all areas of life should be in favor of inclusivity — of allowing transgender people to participate in whatever practices or activities they wish, and on their own terms.

Nevertheless, it does not follow from this that there cannot be ethical problems associated with inclusivity in particular areas of life. Sports, or perhaps just some sports, may be one of those areas. That is because it appears that men have (on average) certain physical “advantages” over women, and sport — or at least some sports — is one of the few areas in life where that matters. For example, the average differential in the men’s and women’s ‘A’ standard times for NCAA championship qualifications is 11.41%, meaning that on average, women’s times are 11.41% slower than men’s times. While in the 2004 Olympics Michael Phelps held a mere .08% time advantage against his teammate Ryan Crocker, he held a 12.62% advantage over the women’s gold medalist.

To say that biological males have physical advantages over biological females is, of course, a gross simplification. For one thing, it is by now widely recognized that determining biological sex is itself a philosophically and scientifically complex issue. It appears that the physical advantages referenced above are more directly tied to the lasting effects of typical “male” puberty, not the chromosomal makeup of an athlete, their genitalia, or the type of gamete they produce. For example, people with Klinefelter syndrome — a genetic condition that results when boys are born with an extra X chromosome — have male genitalia, and some produce sperm. But some of these individuals produce lower amounts of testosterone and have reduced muscle mass. Similarly, South African runner Caster Semenya, who was assigned female at birth and identifies as female, has XY chromosomes and naturally elevated testosterone levels. In 2019, new rules were instituted to keep women like Semenya from participating in certain events unless they take medication to lower their testosterone levels. Yet it’s far from clear how significant testosterone levels are to elite athletic performance.

Despite these complications, it seems fairly clear that it makes moral sense for women and men to compete separately in at least some sports, and that secondary sexual characteristics are a decent rule of thumb — but only that — for determining who “women” and “men” are for the purposes of such competitions. One important purpose of sports competitions is to celebrate and reward human effort and skill — the incredible discipline, determination, and grit that is required to achieve in athletics at a high level, along with the physical prowess that channels that effort into astounding physical feats. Therefore, it would be unfair if women were never rewarded or celebrated for their effort and skill because they were overshadowed by male performances that are due to innate advantages — advantages that in no way reflect superior effort or skill. By separating men and women into competitive classes, we make possible public appreciation of the fact that the best male and female athletic performances are equally amazing efforts and reflect equally amazing skills. The same is true, for example, for weight classes in boxing: the bantamweight’s skill and effort may be equal to the heavyweight’s, but if they competed against each other the bantamweight would lose every time, and would not be properly celebrated or rewarded for his or her effort and skill.

If this is correct, however, then it is clear that allowing people who possess the innate advantages that flow from male puberty to compete against cisgender women may raise real issues of fairness by depriving those who do not have these advantages of public appreciation of their efforts and skills, even though they are no less substantial.  

But in order to get to the conclusion that transwomen should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports from these premises, we must make three further moves — moves that I am not confident we can or ought to make. First, we must define the meaning and parameters of “innate advantage.” This is at best an extremely difficult task for both conceptual and empirical reasons. For example, we must determine when the difference in an athlete’s performance relative to other athletes’ performances is the result of acceptable physical variation, and when it is the result of unacceptable innate advantage. Second, we have to posit that no amount of hormone therapy can eliminate transwomen athletes’ innate advantages. This is an empirical issue that can only be determined with solid scientific investigation, something that is woefully lacking in this area. Finally, we have to argue that transwomen athletes’ claims to inclusion are morally outweighed by the fairness issues discussed above. This is not self-evidently true, as Brooke Forde’s statement suggests.

For these reasons, I think it is far too early in the day to claim with much confidence either that transwomen should be banned from women’s sport, or that their inclusion in women’s sport obviously raises no fairness issues. There are potential fairness issues that deserve serious consideration, not least because those fairness claims are being made by cisgender women, who have had to fight hard to participate in sports on an equal footing with men. Indeed, that fight is not yet over. But this much is clear: In addition to causing immense harm to individual athletes and perpetuating bigotry against transgender people, demonizing transwomen athletes is not the way to arrive at a just resolution of these issues. The only way forward is honest, good faith deliberation in which all stakeholders are treated with respect. Unfortunately, there are powerful people who would like nothing more than to make it impossible for such deliberation to occur. But this has always been the case; and yet, somehow, progress does happen.

Taking Pleasure at the Ultimate Self-Own?

photograph of Herman Cain

Does Reddit.com’s r/HermanCainAward wrongfully celebrate COVID-19 deaths? To some, the subreddit is a brutal, yet necessary look at the toll of vaccine misinformation and the deaths that follow. To others, it is a cesspit of schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the pain of others) that has few, if any, redeeming qualities.

The description of the popular forum reads: “Nominees have made public declaration of their anti-mask, anti-vax, or COVID-hoax views, followed by admission to hospital for COVID. The Award is granted upon the nominee’s release from their Earthly shackles.”

An average post contains multiple screenshots of social media posts made by someone who expresses anti-vax views followed by screenshots of friends or family members reporting on the person’s sickness with COVID and, often, subsequent death. The victim’s social media posts are usually right-wing and often feature conspiracy theories as well as a set of common memes.

Outside of the nominations, one can find community support posts as well as “IPAs” or “Immunized to Prevent Award” posts, in which users report getting vaccinated after witnessing the horror presented in the forum. There are also “Redemption Awards” for those who change their minds about the vaccine, often as they are dying. (Last fall, the subreddit changed its rules to require that all names and faces of non-public figures be redacted.)

The Herman Cain Award is named after Herman Cain, a Black Republican who ran for president in 2012 and co-chaired “Black Voices for Trump” in the recent election cycle. Cain, who had prior health issues, opposed mask mandates and attended a Trump rally in Tulsa on June 20, 2020, where he was photographed not wearing a mask in a crowd of people not wearing masks. Shortly after, Cain tested positive for COVID and was hospitalized. Cain died from COVID six weeks later at 74 years of age.

To gain a better understanding of the rich, ethical dimensions the subreddit presents, there are a few questions we should ask: What is the narrative of HCA posts, and what feelings do these narratives engender? Do HCA posts, taken as a whole, accurately reflect the world around us?

Let’s start with the narratives. Perhaps the most obvious one is a narrative of righteous comeuppance. HCA nominees and winners have endangered not only themselves but also others, and they have reaped the consequences of their actions. This seems to be the primary lens of HCA viewers, who often make posts venting about the harms of anti-vax sentiments and actions.

This narrative tends to produce a sense of righteousness and stability, along with reassurance of one’s experience of the world and the moral responsibility that nominees bear. This sentiment acts as a counter to gaslighting resulting from widespread denial of the reality of the pandemic, perhaps expressed by close friends and family.

The second narrative lens appropriate for HCA content is tragedy. This is not necessarily distinct from the first lens, but it emphasizes more strongly the unnecessary suffering caused by the pandemic and our collective response to it. This lens, perhaps more than the first, encourages us to see HCA nominees as persons whose lives have value.

Pity might be too much to expect, given that the nominees are facing the consequences of their own actions, but the tragic reading does produce genuine horror at the suffering that could have been prevented. At best, this horror keeps us alive to the value of the lives lost. At worst, it devolves into a numbed-out nihilism, as we can no longer bear the burden of moral harms witnessed. It’s very easy to doom-scroll through r/HCA posts and lose hope at the possibility of change.

The third narrative is less noble than the first two. This is the narrative of the self-own — with motives that are tribal, petty, and wishing ill upon those who purport to make the pandemic worse. It is a narrative we might easily slip into from the first. This variant cares less about what is fair or appropriate and more about being right or superior. We might be especially worried about this, as the subreddit feeds off of other polarized dynamics that arise from tribal divides on the left/right spectrum. This, I believe, is the narrative that has primarily concerned those who have written against r/HermanCainAward, contending that it produces schadenfreude.

But what is troubling here is not merely pleasure in the pain of others but something stronger: pleasure in the death of others (and if not death, then extreme physical distress). Is it ever permissible to take pleasure in the death or pain of others? It seems acceptable to take comfort in knowing someone can no longer do any harm, but a preventable death is a bad thing that we should never see as good.

If we take pleasure in the deaths of others, we must either take up some view on which their death is deserved and proportional to their crimes or else discount the value of that person’s life. Neither is an attractive option. Even if nominees have caused the deaths of others by spreading the virus, it is a strong view to claim that their own deaths are deserved because of their actions. And assuming that their deaths were deserved, it still might seem unsavory to take pleasure in their punishment. But the predominant kind of gratification appears to fall into the category of feeling somehow superior to those who are dying. Self-satisfaction at the downfall of others is rather ugly.

These critiques do not rule out righteous anger or the recognition that r/HCA nominees have flouted moral requirements. But they do require that we not reduce them to faceless, nameless monsters that lose their humanity when relegated to a series of memes. The Reddit.com rule changes actively made this aspect worse, even if they helped to prevent doxing.

Does r/HCA currently represent the reality of vaccine denial? The answer seems to be no. The posts that receive attention on r/HCA are for those who are hospitalized and sometimes die from the virus, but there are other unvaccinated individuals who have relatively mundane experiences of the virus. Yes, the unvaccinated are significantly more likely to die, but r/HCA displays the same kind of data skewing as the programming on The Weather Channel — the most extreme cases are given the most attention.

Is there some version of r/HCA that could preserve its prosocial functions and avoid its morally problematic elements? Perhaps, but it would look drastically different from the current subreddit. First, the subreddit would need to include more representative individual stories that capture the variety of experiences of those living through a pandemic. Second, the people featured would need to be more humanized, with more details about their lives included beyond their online, meme-sharing activities. Third, the community should be reworked so it is not constructed in an us-vs.-them dichotomy, where pro-vaxxers are unequivocally the good guys and anti-vaxxers are unequivocally the bad guys.

Would the subreddit be as popular if it were reconstructed in that way? Probably not. But we might start to see each other as human again.

Academic Freedom and the Kershnar Case: A Partial Dissent

photograph of pole vault crossbar

American appellate court opinions often include one or more concurrences, where judges register their agreement with the majority or plurality’s decision but disagree in part or in whole with its reasoning. Judges are also free to concur with parts of the majority or plurality’s decision, but dissent to other parts. When this happens, it can be pretty unclear where the judge stands with respect to the majority or plurality opinion. As I read Rachel Robison-Greene’s excellent column about the Stephen Kershnar controversy, I felt something like this complicated patchwork of concurrence and dissent thread together in my mind. The following is an attempt to articulate these thoughts.

To quickly recap the controversy, late last month Kershnar, a philosophy professor at SUNY Fredonia, was interviewed for “Brain in a Vat,” a philosophy-themed podcast. In the interview, Kershnar claimed that adults having sex with children is not morally wrong. The argument he offered for this startling claim was fairly weak, as Robison-Greene shows in her column. Unfortunately, the interview has been removed from YouTube, which makes it difficult for people who haven’t watched it to evaluate the argument for themselves. In any case, clips of the interview went viral, and in response to the controversy, SUNY Fredonia barred Kershnar from campus or from contacting students pending the results of a formal investigation. Free speech advocacy organizations and not a few prominent academics have since protested SUNY Fredonia’s move on the grounds that it violates its own commitment to academic freedom, as well as First Amendment protections that apply to Kershnar as a state government employee.

Robison-Greene provides a clear summary of the academic freedom argument against sanctioning Kershnar, but I want to draw out a few strands that deserve closer attention. If society is actually committed to free inquiry in universities, it must be willing to tolerate academics questioning even its firmest convictions. Indeed, the case for academic freedom is arguably strongest with respect to those areas in which one viewpoint is overwhelmingly dominant, if not universal. It is here that a particular viewpoint comes to seem like the only possible viewpoint — where belief, claiming the mantle of self-evidence, petrifies into dogma. Examples from history are legion: the belief in the unsuitability of women for public life, or in the immorality of homosexuality.

It might be replied that surely, we know that pedophilic sex is wrong, just as we know that slavery is wrong. And even if we don’t know that these claims are true — and especially if, as some philosophers argue, these claims are not knowable, strictly speaking —why allow them to be publicly questioned given all of the deleterious effects that could result, as Robison-Greene plausibly argues? Here, I think, we come to the nub of the issue. The question is this: are the net benefits of allowing academics to freely inquire into the merits of any socially dominant opinion greater than the net benefits of requiring that someone — perhaps the academic herself, her academic department, or school administration officials — weigh up the costs and benefits of each line of inquiry ex ante before allowing it to proceed?

This is not an easy question to answer. Complicating matters is that some of the goods that can be obtained by free inquiry are arguably different in kind from those that can be obtained through censorship. But we can make a few general observations. First, it is very hard to know, ex ante, what the value of a line of inquiry is. It seems probable to me that questioning the moral wrongness of adult sex with children is, on net, a valueless or disvaluable line of inquiry. But my confidence that this is the case is too low to warrant quashing it ex ante. There are simply too many past examples of lines of inquiry that have seemed valueless or disvaluable ex ante to most people, but that have turned out to be enormously beneficial both epistemically and in terms of human welfare. Where the future is concerned, experience always seems to counsel humility.

Even if we were perfectly rational, the limitations on our knowledge would furnish a reason not to attempt to evaluate lines of inquiry ex ante. But we are not perfectly rational — far from it. In general, the more firmly held a belief is, the less disposed the believer is to entertain evidence that points to its falsity. This means that we are likely to systematically underrate the value of lines of inquiry that could threaten our deepest convictions. Thus, our knowledge of our own biases should make us even more skeptical of the possibility of accurately evaluating lines of inquiry ex ante. 

The argument so far assumes that academic censors would act in good faith — that they would not use their authority to advance their own political agendas by, for example, interpreting the rules in such a way that lines of inquiry they disfavor for political reasons would be proscribed. This is far from clear. Moreover, given the inherent unknowability of the future value of lines of inquiry, empowering people to make decisions about which ones ought to be allowed based on a prospective cost-benefit analysis seems particularly likely to lead to abuses.

There is also the problem of the so-called “Streisand Effect”: in liberal democracies with robust civil societies, attempts to censor opinions actually tend to amplify them. The vast majority of “Brain in a Vat” episodes have view counts in the hundreds. Now, thanks in part to SUNY Fredonia’s attempt to punish Kershnar, his ideas have been discussed in dozens of news articles and blog posts, and a far larger number of tweets. It is likely that had the podcast dropped without comment, thousands who now know about Kershnar’s views would have never heard of him. Authoritarian governments with much greater control over the production and distribution of information might be able to censor successfully, but it is doubtful that in the United States, depriving someone like Kershnar of his platform will make his ideas disappear. Censorship via de-platforming might not even be a viable strategy for quashing objectionable claims.

Robison-Greene writes that “the existence of so much support for [Kershnar’s] case by so many (mostly powerful male) [academics] is likely to make victims of childhood sexual assault feel unsupported and potentially unsafe.” This might be true, but I think it’s worth interrogating why. If victims feel less supported when other academics support Kershnar, it must be either because they think (a) that such support is tantamount to approval for Kershnar’s ideas or (b) that pedophiles view such support as tantamount to approval for Kershnar’s ideas, and the consequence of their viewing it this way is that they will be emboldened to satisfy their sexual desires. Either way, the key idea here is that opposition to punishing Kershnar for his ideas implies support for his ideas. There is, indeed, something highly counterintuitive about the idea of hating what Kershnar says but fighting for his right to say it; it produces the same dissonant sensation as hating the sin and loving the sinner, or appreciating the artistic genius of a moral monster. Human beings have a well-documented aversion to ambivalence; academic freedom and similar rights require us to be ambivalent. If society had a stronger commitment to free thought and free speech, it might be easier for people to accept that supporting a speaker’s right to speak does not imply approval of his ideas.

Robison-Greene reminds us that speech can do real harm, in this case by potentially “empower[ing] [pedophiles] in their conviction that their behavior isn’t actually morally wrong, it’s just commonly viewed that way by society.” Too often, free speech advocates seem to deny that speech harms at all. Given that most of them also point to the U.S. Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence as a model for how to draw the boundaries of free speech rights, this is somewhat ironic. Even as it strengthened protections for speakers over the course of the last century, the Supreme Court never denied that speech can do serious harm. For example, if a state makes speakers potentially liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress because of what they say, that is fully compatible with the First Amendment. The Court has also held that the First Amendment does not bar liability for defamation. In carving out these exceptions from First Amendment protection, the Court tacitly acknowledged that speech can cause profound emotional and reputational damage.

At the same time, however, it’s important to recognize that when people exercise any of their important individual rights, harm to others frequently results. For example, criminal defendants have constitutional rights that, by making it harder for prosecutors to secure convictions, often harm crime victims. Unlike the citizens of some authoritarian states, Americans are free to move about the country and travel abroad. But this freedom comes at a cost: tens of thousands die on the roads every year, and travel produces substantial greenhouse gas emissions. Parents have extensive rights over their children, and this can cause enormous harm even when parents do not transgress the bounds of law.

Thus, a successful argument for constraining the right to freely inquire — incidentally, the right that SUNY Fredonia guarantees for all of its professors — must do more than show that exercising that right can cause harm. It must show, at minimum, that a policy of constraint both (a) is practically feasible and (b) would produce outcomes that are, on net, better than those that issue from permitting truly free inquiry. I think there are serious reasons to doubt both. That is why, although I agree in some sense with Robison-Greene that this is an “unfortunate case,” at the same time, the fact that our society supports someone who questions its deepest moral convictions is a profound collective achievement. And in the end, I do not think that cases like this pose a serious ethical challenge to our society’s commitment to academic freedom.

In Defense of Motions and Gestures

photograph of heart tattoo being done

Behold. One day of the year. They all grin and greet each other when every other day they walk by with their faces in their collars. You know, it makes me very sad to see all the lies that come as surely as the snow at this time of year. How many “Merry Christmases” are meant and how many are lies? To pretend on one day of the year that the human beast is not the human beast. That it is possible we can all be transformed. But if it were so… if it were possible for so many mortals to look at the calendar and transform from wolf to lamb, then why not every day? Instead of one day good, the rest bad, why not have everyone grinning at each other all year and have one day in the year when we’re all beasts and we pass each other by? Why not turn it around?                             

-Scrooge from Steven Knight’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol

Forgive me. I promise I know which holiday we’re celebrating and what month it reads on the calendar. It’s just that this very same “Humbug!” sentiment has been steadily creeping further and further into winter and appears dead set on choking out hope, smothering all joy, sapping the color from the world, and turning everything a pallid, lifeless gray. (Or maybe that’s just COVID and the inability to taste or smell.)

Regardless, I refuse to accept that it’s only rubes and suckers naive enough to willingly celebrate the occasion. I don’t mean to be an apologist for the harm the commercialization and serialization of Valentine’s Day brings. There are a great many reasons to loathe this Hallmark Holiday (as our own Madalyn Sailors has just pointed out). But at least some of the animus feels undeserved, misdirected, and ill-conceived. Surely a bit of heart is in the right place.

No small part of the hate aimed at this day of love seems to be the product of deep and intractable cynicism – what the School of Life paints as “a near-hysterical fragility around the idea of expecting anything which turns out to be less impressive than they’d hoped.” Having been chronically underwhelmed, we’ve hardened our hearts to the torment of eager anticipation consummated by utter disappointment. Once bitten, twice shy. We won’t get fooled again.

Now, hard-won experience grants us the power to see past the ruse. Aren’t we all just frauds and phonies for confining to a single day all love’s labors – a single day to declare our undying adoration, pledge our unwavering fidelity, and stage the grandest of grand gestures – only to wait until this precise moment next year to enact the exact pantomime all over again? Are we not simply admitting that things could be different if we could just find our resolve a dozen more times each year? Does this day not make fools and liars of us all?

If right, upstanding, moral action is to be found in moderation between extremes – neither cowardly nor capricious, neither despondent nor devout, neither guarded nor gullible – then we should resist the allure of this dead-eyed cynicism that hollows out sentiment and replaces passion and optimism with contempt and scorn. Mind the golden mean.

What’s more, we have plenty of good old selfish reasons for resisting this siren song of sour grapes. It will come as no great surprise to anyone that thinking the worst of others proves detrimental to one’s health. As Isaac Asimov cautioned, these psychological defenses pose a serious threat to our mental well-being:

To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good even if they tend to be bad, because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointments. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable of enjoying the good things.

It all comes down to a habit of mind; perception is reality. By deadening our insides and numbing ourselves to the inevitable injustices this world will bring, we insulate ourselves from hurt and disappointment. But we also forgo the experience of hope and the opportunity to dream. Our coping mechanism becomes all-encompassing.

So, act as if. Mark a big, bright ‘X’ on your calendar. Make the space. Find the time. Schedule it. Perform it. Embrace the ritual. Because making the effort matters, even if it’s forced. At the very least, you owe it to yourself. And who knows, it’s always possible people might surprise you.

Breaking Up With Valentine’s Day

photograph of heart graffiti over crack in wall

At first blush, Valentine’s Day seems a harmless celebration: a quaint, centuries-long tradition promoting love and romance between couples. But a closer look beneath that thin veneer reveals significant blemishes. Combined with modern-day consumerism, Valentine’s Day becomes a trial for single people and a farce for couples. All the imagery of candle-lit meals shared between lovers staring longingly in each others’ eyes excludes many. Truthfully, everyone pays more attention to the holiday’s customs than the intentions behind them.

There may not be one perfect representation of love, and that is precisely the problem with Valentine’s Day: it portrays only one view. The reality is not everyone can be (or wants to be) in a romantic relationship. Singles often feel frustrated on Valentine’s Day because they fail to meet relentless societal expectations: fall in love, plan a wedding, pick out baby names. This narrow interpretation of love limits Valentine’s Day to a particular set of checkboxes that only fit some people. (If being on one’s own was considered a good choice, surely we’d be celebrating “Single’s Day.”) But Valentine’s Day presents a meaningful opportunity to platonically connect with a friend, relative, or other loved one. It’s wrong to assume that romance should always be celebrated and that singleness should always be pitied. Ultimately, Valentine’s Day cannot speak for a broad population which varies in preference, relationship status, and long-term plans for their romantic lives.

If someone celebrates love and romance on Valentine’s Day, they should do so authentically. While it may feel right to put together an impressive display, it is important to remember why we do it: is it truly because you know this person will value it, or because you value your effort in giving the “right” gift? Tradition and representation often form the image we have in our heads. Don’t settle for the stereotypical gifts – the flowers, the chocolates, the hearts, the stuffed animals – just because we’ve been taught to do so. We have to stop placing the Hallmark rituals above the genuine interests of the person we seek to connect with.

These normalized ideas about how the holiday’s celebration come at a young age, when schools hold annual Valentine’s Day parties that communicate (intentionally and unintentionally) the celebration’s supposed importance. Again, this seemingly harmless tradition puts lasting thoughts in our heads about what love and romance are supposed to look like. Our infatuation with the holiday fuels false expectations that can frustrate and disappoint partners. The pressure and strain are real. But it’s inauthentic to measure the value of a relationship based on the material goods exchanged. And often, companies feed into the consumerism that upholds Valentine’s Day standards. Companies benefit, while couples miss out on a valuable opportunity to share sincere gifts. Ironically, Valentine’s Day cheapens the love it is supposed to value.

In order to promote genuine connection, Valentine’s Day must make room for everyone’s unique interests and desires. It should be inclusive of everyone: couples who celebrate, couples who don’t, and singles. Further, if a couple chooses to celebrate, each person should share their preferences with their partner. If we fall back on the idea of what celebrations like Valentine’s Day are supposed to entail, couples will lose out on the possibility of genuine connection. No one should assume what their partner will appreciate; to know that takes a certain depth and attention in a relationship. The consumerism in this holiday will only encourage couples to skip this crucial aspect of their partnership. If couples celebrate the love they share and ironically do so at a cost to their relationship, perhaps we should forego the holiday altogether.

Rise of the Human-Animal Hybrids: The Ethics of Xenotransplantation

black-and-white photograph of pig in a cage

On January 7th, 2022 David Bennett was implanted with a pig heart. His doctor was not Moreau, but rather Muhammad Mohiuddin, a surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center and expert in xenotransplantation – the implantation of animal organs into humans.

While pig parts have been used medically for decades, such as the use of pig heart valves as replacement valves, the implantation of a whole organ is an incredible clinical achievement. The donor animal is genetically modified and raised in careful conditions to minimize the chance of pathogen transmission and rejection, that is, the human immune system attacking the heart as foreign tissue. Whole organ xenotransplants been performed before, but without effective technology to prevent rejection, results have been bleak.

The life-saving surgery was done under special FDA authorization given the lack of other options. How Bennett will fare long-term remains unclear, and like most transplant patients he will need to take immunosuppressant drugs even with the genetic modifications done to the pig. Transplant patients are followed for both physical and psychological concerns, as the feeling of becoming hybrid or chimera, or taking up aspects of the donor, is well established, and may be especially acute in xenotransplantation. (Regardless of the physiological legitimacy of this feeling.)

The organ donor list is long in America, and the supply of organs short. Xenotransplantation represents a potential lifeline for thousands of patients in need. Nonetheless, as amazing as new xenotransplantation technology is, it comes with longstanding ethical concerns.

Modern medicine heavily instrumentalizes animals, their bodies becoming objects of research and testing, and now harvested for organs. From an animal welfare perspective, xenotransplantation is clearly not good for the pigs – although perhaps not any worse than factory farming. Xenotransplantation research also involves extensive use of non-human primates, especially baboons, as they are considered the best animal model to test the viability of cross-species transplants for humans.

Beyond animals, xenotransplantation research makes use of brain-dead humans as test subjects. Death is a tricky designation, and some people, while deemed dead from the perspective of brain death, are nonetheless biologically stable enough to support a transplant for some period of time. In September of 2021, for example, a genetically modified pig kidney was attached to a brain-dead woman and supported for 54 hours. The idea is that data like this is of more relevance to human recipients than that from baboon trials, although the condition of the test subjects renders it all but impossible to do longer term studies. Such research practices invoke complex questions about human subjects, and the status of brain death. The very idea that the body is declared dead, yet somehow alive enough to test organ transplantation, challenges our intuitions. And for communities for whom the body or the breath are more important in the designation of life and death, brain death is a thin justification for such research.

These research practices may be defensible, but they should be done carefully, with attention to the animal welfare implications, the alternatives, and the expected benefits of xenotransplantation. This ethical question is made more complicated by the empirical fuzziness, for we do not yet know what the clinical payoff might be.

The more sensational ethical concerns of xenotransplantation research come from the ick factor. One can all too easily imagine Jeff Goldblum informing Dr. Mohiuddin that he is playing God, and that humans should stay well away from the creation of chimeras.

From a scientific perspective, this is tricky. Humans are never pure. Not only are humans, like all organisms, a cobbled together pile of old parts assembled by evolution, but even during the course of our life we are a blend of different species. Just ask the 100 trillion bacteria living inside your gut.

Nonetheless, this is all at least “natural,” whereas xenotransplantation most certainly involves some kind of additional level of “unnatural” intervention. There are two ways, I believe, we can make this concern more precise.

The first involves an express embrace of the sacred or the natural. For example, a Christian theological perspective in which the body is explicitly treated as sacred, may provide clear grounds for ethical objection to xenotransplantation. This may be an even greater concern in Jewish and Muslim communities with their specific injunctions against the eating of pork, although some Jewish and Muslim religious authorities have been open to uses of porcine parts when clinically necessary.

The limitation of this approach is that it argues against xenotransplantation based on the acceptance of specific religious or spiritual premises, or ontological claims, about what is natural, as opposed to general ethical principles.

The second characterization of the concern is about the implied values. Xenotransplantation embraces a conception of medicine such that all research and interventions are okay as long as they are ultimately in service of prolonging life. A more humble ethical framework, one that is more accepting of death, may not value xenotransplantation to the same extent. The Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel has developed a perspective of giftedness regarding intervention. His idea is that we should not strive for mastery of every aspect of our biology, but should be open to the arbitrariness of life as something which makes it worth valuing. Sandel, to be clear, is not against healing, and believes that healing disease helps our natural capacities flourish. But where we draw the line is fuzzy, and one possible objection to xenotransplantation is that it fails to appropriately acknowledge the messiness of life and the ways to cope with that, and instead is highly technocratic, seeking mastery and intervention. (At the expense of animal life.)

Finally, xenotransplantation is new, expensive, and technologically demanding, and ethical issues will no doubt arise in the specifics of implementation. How should it be handled with insurance? How should patenting work? Who deserves access to these organs? For instance, concerns have been raised about Bennett who was guilty of a 1988 stabbing. Organ donation in the United States is administered by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) and policies are in place to facilitate the equitable distribution of organs. Although even these are imperfect, and wealthier, better-connected patients can use strategies like signing up at multiple transplant centers to receive organs faster. How whole organ xenotransplantation will fit into the existing scheme is not yet clear, but should be done in a way that preserves as far as possible equity of organ donation.

Personally, I worry an overly restrictive ethical response would be premature, as we are still in the research stage with xenotransplantation and therefore have an unclear decision to make from an outcome perspective. David Bennett’s case may be important for public perception, but as a single instance, it is limited in how scientifically informative it can be. Nonetheless, we should continue a parallel conversation about animal welfare, research ethics, and highly interventionist medicine. And above all, we should avoid celebrating a medical marvel as an ethical one without careful reflection.

 

Note: David Bennett died March 8th, 2022, two months after the procedure.

What If You Aren’t Sure What’s Moral?

photograph of a fork in the path

Today, I woke up in a soft bed in a heated apartment. I got up and made full use of the miracle of indoor plumbing before moving on to breakfast. Pouring myself a bowl of vitamin-enriched cereal and milk (previously delivered to my doorstep) I had to admit it: modern life is good.

Opening up my laptop, my gratitude for modernity diminished as quickly as my browser tabs multiplied. Our phones and laptops are not just tools. They are portals to another world — a relentless world of news, opinion, and entertainment. We’re living through the age of information overload. On average, we now consume 174 newspapers worth of information each day. “I’ve processed more information in the last 48 hours than a medieval peasant would in a lifetime,” reads a well-liked tweet.

And yet, amid this tsunami of information, we seem to have less certainty than ever. Controversy and discord reign. There is little agreement about basic facts, let alone about what is to be done. Is it time to lift COVID-19 restrictions yet? Is American democracy at risk of failure? Are plastics killing us? Should we allow genetically modified foods? Will climate change be simply bad or disastrous? I have my opinions, and I’m sure you have yours, but do any of us know the answers to any of these questions with certainty?

As well as uncertainty about the facts, we continually find ourselves facing moral uncertainty. Moral theories and views divide both public and philosophical opinions. They defy consensus. Is euthanasia morally permissible? Is abortion? Eating meat? Amid our unprecedented access to a wide range of moral arguments and views, all competing for our allegiance, we are left to come to our own moral conclusions. If we are being brutally honest with ourselves, we probably aren’t absolutely certain about all of our moral views.

In these conditions, moral uncertainty is the norm. But, as the Samuel Beckett line goes, “You must go on.” Even if you don’t know for sure what the right moral view is, reality refuses to stop the clock to let you figure it out. You have to act one way or another, despite your moral uncertainty. Being uncertain doesn’t take you off the hook of moral responsibility. Neither does refusal to act. As climate change illustrates, refraining from taking decisions can be just as disastrous as making the wrong decisions.

So, how can you go on under these conditions of moral uncertainty? Let’s take a concrete example. What if you think eating meat is morally permissible, but you’re not totally sure? If you’re willing to admit there’s some chance you could be wrong about the morality of vegetarianism, what should you do? Keep eating meat? Or give it up?

The philosopher William MacAskill argues that if you are morally uncertain about vegetarianism, you should give up eating meat. In fact, even if you think there’s only a 10% chance that vegetarianism is the right moral view, you should still give up meat.

MacAskill thinks there’s an asymmetry in the moral risks you’re running. “If you eat veggie and eating meat is permissible, well, you’ve only lost out on a bit of pleasure,” says MacAskill, “But if you eat meat and eating meat is impermissible, you’ve done something very wrong.” Maybe you should give up a bit of pleasure to avoid the risk of doing something really morally terrible, even if the probability that you would be doing something really morally terrible is relatively low. “The morally safe option,” claims MacAskill, “is to eat vegetarian.”

We can apply MacAskill’s approach to other problems where we face moral uncertainty. Peter Singer famously argued that failing to donate money to help alleviate suffering in the developing world is just as morally wrong as letting a child drown in front of you. Most of us seem to think that Singer’s moral claims are too strong; we don’t think we are morally obligated to donate to charities, even if we think it is morally good – beyond what we are obligated to do – to donate. However, it seems at least possible that Singer is right. If he is right, then not giving any money would be very wrong, as wrong as letting a child drown. But if Singer is wrong, then all I’d lose by donating is a bit of money. Given the moral risk, the appropriate choice seems to be to donate some money to charity.

These two cases might make MacAskill’s approach look appealing. But it can also get strange. Imagine you really want to have a child. You are near-certain that having a child is morally permissible. In fact, you think having a child, bringing a happy person into the world, would be a serious moral good. You also think there’s a tiny (less than one percent) chance that anti-natalism is true. According to the version of anti-natalism you’re considering, by having a child you’re doing something morally terrible — bringing into existence a chain of human suffering that will continue for millennia. If anti-natalism says that having a child is morally wrong enough, then it would be less morally risky for you to simply not have a child. But should you really not have a child in such a case? Even though you believe with near-certainty that doing so would be a morally good thing? That seems like a strange conclusion.

The ethicists Johan Gustafsson and Olle Torpman give an alternative framework for thinking about how we should act under moral uncertainty. When we think of good, moral people, we generally think they are conscientious; they are typically true to what they believe is right. To put it another way, we think that a moral, conscientious person won’t do what they sincerely believe to be wrong. In the child example, your sincere, near-certain belief is that it is permissible, perhaps even a good thing, to have a child. MacAskill’s approach to dealing with moral uncertainty seems to say you ought not to have a child. But how can a moral theory that you don’t believe in matter more than the one you do believe in? For these reasons, Gustafsson and Torpman propose a much simpler approach: act in accordance with the moral view that you are most confident in. In this case, that would mean you should have the child that you want.

This simpler approach to dealing with moral uncertainty might seem straightforward and convincing. But I invite the reader to go back and apply Gustafsson and Torpman’s approach to the two cases discussed earlier, of charity and vegetarianism. Arguably, their approach gives less convincing advice in these cases.

How we should act given moral uncertainty is an important question for the discordant moment in which we are living. Whether we have the correct answer to this question remains far from clear.

Testing the Limits of Academic Freedom

photograph of SUNY Fredonia sign at dusk

On January 30th, 2022, SUNY Fredonia professor Stephen Kershnar was interviewed for the podcast “Brain in a Vat” in an episode titled “Sexual Taboos.” In the interview, Kershnar claimed that adult sex with children is not morally wrong. When asked about the cutoff point for when adult sex with a child becomes impermissible, Kershnar did not concede that such activity was wrong even with a child as young as one year old. He responded to the question by saying, “The notion that it’s wrong, even with a one-year-old, is not quite obvious to me.” The argument that he articulated in the interview is that we let children make all sorts of decisions for themselves: they decide what to wear in the morning, what to eat for breakfast, etc. We don’t challenge their ability to give free and informed consent to those things. He argues that sex is no different and claims that there isn’t anything significant about sex that changes the standards for what counts as giving consent. Therefore, if a child seems to be a willing participant to a sex act with an adult, it is not morally wrong for the adult to engage in a sex act with the child.

A short clip from the video circulated on social media and the content of the interview soon got back to administrators at SUNY Fredonia. Kershnar was reassigned pending an investigation of the case. As part of an official statement, the President of SUNY Fredonia said the following,

SUNY Fredonia is aware of a video posted online involving one of its professors. The views expressed by the professor are reprehensible and do not represent the values of SUNY Fredonia in any way, shape or form. They are solely the professor’s views. The matter is being reviewed.

In response to the news that action might be taken against Kershnar, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) crafted an open letter in defense of Kershnar’s academic freedom. At the time of this writing, the letter has 115 signatories. A significant majority of the signatories are male and include such powerful and prominent figures as Peter Singer, Alex Byrne, and Brian Leiter.

The main argument in support of Kershnar is that the tenure system protects academic freedom, and such freedom is crucial to the functioning of democracy as well as to the give-and-take of reasons and evidence that knowledge attainment requires. The system depends on the broadly liberal idea that bad arguments and ideas are best addressed in open conflict with the articulation of other, more compelling arguments and ideas. It is only when people are free to express all ideas openly and without fear of reprisal that we can understand, as individuals and as communities of knowers, which conclusions the evidence or argument supports.

Those defending Kershnar’s speech may well find it repugnant, but may defend it as a matter of procedure, not of substance. We have a history of harshly punishing people with ideas that diverge from the mainstream. On many occasions, those ideas have turned out to be accurate (or at least more accurate than the views that preceded them). Once we start picking and choosing the thought expressions that will be cause for punishment, the domain of the exchange of ideas falls under the control of whoever is in charge of the punishment. Everything may seem fine when one is in agreement with punishment norms, but winds shift, and one day it is likely that the norms will be controlled by very different people with very different values.

The current political context only makes defense of academic freedom more urgent. For example, seven states currently have laws on the books banning teaching Critical Race Theory in local schools. In an additional sixteen states, similar laws are working their way through the legislature. New waves of book bans are surging through the country. Many states are considering legislation designed to hold public school teachers and their lesson plans up to unprecedented levels of scrutiny, up to and including laws that require video cameras in the classroom and laws that allow for parents to sue teachers if they dislike the material teachers are presenting in their classrooms. At a time when education is under attack and the country is grappling with rampant anti-intellectualism, we can’t afford to whittle academic freedom away. Academic freedom is a bulwark against fascism.

Regardless of whether one finds the arguments for academic freedom compelling, it is clear that there are also strong arguments on the other side of the case. The first argument acknowledges the fact that academic freedom is under attack but raises a concern for how protecting Kershnar in this case might potentially make things much worse. Many states have significantly weakened the tenure system by making it easier to fire tenured professors and giving the power to do so to entities outside of the academic community. Some states are pursuing getting rid of tenure altogether. The tenure system is supposed to protect the free exchange of ideas, which sounds like a lofty goal until it is used as a justification to argue for the permissibility of child rape. When administrators defend even a case such as this on the grounds of academic freedom, it might weaken support for the whole concept among the population in general and may make getting rid of tenure politically easier for lawmakers who were already inclined in that direction. Contributing to the firepower in this regard is the fact that Kershnar seems to have made his career as a sophist, engaging in the kinds of pursuits — attempting to make the weaker argument the stronger — against which Socrates frequently and famously argued. People may simply fail to see the value of a system that protects such activity.

Second, the arguments that Kershnar is making in the podcast aren’t just bad arguments, they’re bad arguments in support of a repugnant and potentially dangerous conclusion. If people accept the conclusion on the basis of the arguments and were already inclined toward pedophilia to begin with, Kershnar’s claims may serve to empower them in their conviction that their behavior isn’t actually morally wrong, it’s just commonly viewed that way by society. This could potentially increase the number of children who are victims of sexual abuse.

Third, Kershnar’s argument, and the existence of so much support for his case by so many (mostly powerful male) signatories, is likely to make victims of childhood sexual assault feel unsupported and potentially unsafe. Beyond a doubt, some people who feel this way will be students and colleagues of Kershnar. The situation may create a toxic work environment for colleagues and a distracting and challenging learning environment for students. A significant number of people who feel uncomfortable in this environment will be women, since 1 in 9 women are victims of sexual abuse as children. The number of men who report being victims of sexual abuse as children is 1 in 53. There are reporting challenges here, but there is a legitimate concern that the circumstances created by Kershnar’s comments will be extremely uncomfortable for many female students and faculty members in particular. In the podcast, Kershnar explicitly challenges the idea that the risk of doing serious long term psychological harm is significant enough to make sex with children wrong. Students and colleagues will both feel misunderstood and be misunderstood, since Kershnar undermines the significant damage sexual abuse can do to a person’s life and well-being. All this is occurring in an environment which gave rise to the MeToo movement in response to concerns that sexual misconduct was not being taken seriously.

There are other cases with a similar distasteful flavor. In 2019, Indiana University Bloomington economics professor David Rasmussen was subjected to similar scrutiny for publicly arguing that women are destroying academia both in the capacity of students and professors. He argued that geniuses are overwhelmingly male, and that the production of geniuses is stifled as a result of women on campus. Some argue that cases like Kershnar’s and Rasmussen’s are ripe for critique as demonstrations of the shortcomings of Enlightenment Liberalism. A society that highly prizes individualistic values such as free speech and academic freedom above all others often does so at the expense of the well-being of traditionally oppressed groups like women and people of color. People frequently use their freedom of expression not only to make unconscionable generalizations about members of such groups, but also to advocate for policies that do active and substantive harm. The most vulnerable are left unprotected.

In the end, this is an unfortunate case with no easy answers.

Brian Flores, Equal Opportunity, and Affirmative Action

photograph of NFL emblem on football

We need to talk about Brian Flores’s lawsuit – the ex-Miami Dolphins head coach alleging racial discrimination and, once again, highlighting the lack of diversity in owners’ boxes and front offices around the league. But this isn’t a story about the NFL. It isn’t even about sports. Instead, this is a story about affirmative action; it’s a story about the relationship between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, between fairness and equity.

The NFL has a problem (okay, the NFL has a few problems). One of the most obvious ways to see this is in representation. African Americans make up 70% of the NFL’s player base, but there is only one Black head coach working in the league today. (And there are even fewer Black owners.) While any result that fails to produce absolute statistical proportionality need not suggest nefarious intent, the degree to which these figures diverge warrants at least a raised eyebrow. It’s difficult to explain why so few Black players make the transition from the field to the front office. You’d think that at least some of the skills that made for a stand-out player might also translate to their proficiency with X’s and O’s. More generally, you’d expect that the same interest and commitment that leads so many African Americans to play the game at a professional level would produce a corresponding number of others deeply invested in coaching or managing.

Enter: the Rooney Rule. In an attempt to shake up this monochrome landscape, league officials implemented a policy requiring teams to interview at least one (now two) minority candidates for any head coaching vacancy (now coordinator positions as well). The hope was that by guaranteeing that a more diverse pool of finalists gets the opportunity to make their pitch, diversity in the coaching ranks would soon follow. It was assumed that all these candidates needed was to be given the chance to change hearts and minds in person. At long last, progress might finally be made in erasing the vast differences in the way white and non-white coaches have historically been evaluated.

The details of Flores’ lawsuit confirm that no such revolution has come to pass. Owners and general managers treat the Rooney Rule as a mere formality – another hoop that must be jumped, another box that must be ticked. The organizations identified in Flores’s suit scheduled a sit-down as formally required, but apparently couldn’t bring themselves to take him or the interview seriously. The results of their deliberations had been decided long before Flores walked into the room. These executives were playacting, but couldn’t even be bothered to try to disguise it. That said, Flores’s allegations aren’t about a failure of etiquette or good manners, they concern a league that still refuses to acknowledge even the appearance of racial bias, let alone the existence of an actual, pervasive problem. It seems the Rooney Rule may have been doomed from the start; as it turns out, the problem runs much deeper than simply putting a face with a name.

So who – if anyone – might be to blame for the NFL’s present predicament?

A not insignificant number of folks will answer: no one. Brian Flores isn’t owed a head coaching gig. These organizations are free to hire whomever they so choose. Head coaches represent a significant investment of time and resources, and it would be absurd for anyone to dictate to NFL teams who is and is not the most qualified person for the job. Jim Trotter, for example, recently recounted his interchange with an owner who suggested that anybody griping about the lack of representation in the NFL “should go buy their own team and hire who they want to hire.”

Others, meanwhile, will be inclined to point to race-conscious policies (like the Rooney Rule) as the guilty party. To these voices, it seems completely wrong-headed to pick some number out of thin air and then complain when we fail to reach that arbitrary diversity benchmark. Looking at race is precisely what got us into this mess, so surely it’s absolute folly to think that intentionally putting our thumb on the scale could get us out of it.

What’s worse, mandating that teams do their due diligence – and, more specifically, demanding that due diligence take the particular form of race-conscious interviewing practices – reduces people of color to tokens. It’s no wonder Flores reports feeling embarrassed – these folks will say – the Rooney Rule set him up, time and time again, to be treated as nothing more than a courtesy invite. Flores was required to go on performing while everyone else in the room was in on the joke. And we should expect none of that behavior to change, they’ll say, if we continue to force hiring committees to go through the motions when they’ve already made up their minds.

This, critics will tell you, is precisely the trouble with initiatives so enamored with equality of outcome – or equity – where an attempt is made to jerry-rig some result built to suit our preferred optics (say, having management roles more accurately reflect teams’ composition). We shouldn’t focus all our attention on meticulously shaping some preferred result; we can’t elevate some and demote others all according to irrelevant and impersonal considerations based in appearances. Any such effort refuses to appreciate the role of individual choice – of freedom, responsibility, and merit. (Owners don’t want to be told how they have to go about picking a winner, they know exactly what winners look like.) As long as we can maintain the right conditions – a level playing field of equal opportunity where everyone receives a fair shake – then we have no cause to wring our hands over the (mis)perception of unequal outcomes. There’s no need to invoke the dreaded language of “quotas,” there’s no cause for infringing on the people in charge’s freedom to choose. You simply call the game, deal the cards, and let the chips fall where they may.

Brian Flores’s lawsuit, however, insists that the deck is stacked against him and others like him. Indeed, Flores’s claim is that equality of opportunity does not exist. He’s alleging that he’s been passed over in the coaching carousel specifically because he is Black. Flores supports these claims with his personal experience of sham interviews and by pointing to a double standard evidenced by the accelerated rise of white coaches in comparison to their more accomplished Black counterparts. In essence, Flores argues these experiences and findings (as well as the individual accounts of some 40 other Black coaches, coordinators, and managers) all indicate racial discrimination is an all-too-real force in the NFL. Without an intentional and forceful intervention, business as usual will continue.

Given this fresh round of accusations, the NFL can’t continue to take a hands-off approach to the problem of representation; it clearly isn’t going to work itself out. Even the meager measures the league put in place to support equal opportunity are not being followed. The Rooney Rule has no teeth and seems to have resulted in no tangible gains. In the end, the policy relies on honorable intentions, personal commitments, and good-faith efforts. As Stephen Holder of The Athletic writes,

We just have to come to terms with an undeniable and inconvenient truth: You can encourage and even incentivize people to do the right thing. But what you cannot do is make them want to do the right thing.

The only way things change is if the people in power take the policy seriously, and it’s not clear that the appropriate carrots or sticks exist for encouraging teams to comply with the letter of the law – let alone embrace its spirit. Achieving the desired result demands an alternative approach. At some point outcomes have to matter.

So, where does that leave us? What have we learned? Where do we go from here? It’s difficult to know how to go about balancing two competing convictions: 1) focusing solely on equality of outcomes disrespects individuality 2) relying solely on equality of opportunity assumes an unbiased system. Or, perhaps more pointedly: 1) it’s wrong to reduce people solely to their various group identities, but 2) it’s also wrong to fail to appreciate the way people, organizations, institutions reduce people solely to their various group identities.

There is no obvious way to bridge the chasm between these two commitments. But maybe we could start by acknowledging that it isn’t hopelessly reductive to think that it might be best if, for instance, the next Supreme Court Justice wasn’t another white man; to think that no single group identity is so inherently qualified as to explain an absolute stranglehold on the positions of power and privilege; to think that for only the eighth time in 230+ years it might be best to break with tradition. Because, if the Rooney Rule has taught us anything, it’s that if you don’t ever actually commit to change, it doesn’t ever actually happen.

The Death of Roe v. Wade: What Lies Ahead?

image of US map with flag and constitution superimposed

The pro-life movement appears to be on the cusp of winning its crowning triumph — the overturning of the constitutional abortion regime established by two Supreme Court cases, Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. In oral argument last December for the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, involving a constitutional challenge against a Mississippi law banning abortion after fifteen weeks, all of the Court’s conservative wing — with the possible exception of Chief Justice Roberts — appeared ready and willing to abandon fifty years of precedent and declare, in Justice Kavanaugh’s words, that the “Constitution is silent and, therefore, neutral on the question of abortion.” Thus, it seems appropriate to consider now how the legal landscape might shift in response to this momentous development.

In what seemed like an attempt to mollify coastal liberals, during oral argument for Dobbs Justice Kavanaugh and Mississippi’s Solicitor General, Scott Stewart, speculated as to the relatively limited fallout we might expect. Seeking to paint a rosy picture of what the future might hold, Kavanaugh asked Stewart whether, if Mississippi prevailed, a “majority of states still could or… presumably would continue to freely allow abortion.” Stewart answered that this outcome was “consistent with our view.” Earlier in the argument, Stewart suggested that a ruling in Mississippi’s favor would serve the “many people [who] vocally just really want[] to…decide [the abortion question] locally….”

But Kavanaugh and Stewart’s implication that pro-choice states could simply continue to permit abortion after the Court upholds Mississippi’s law is somewhat disingenuous. Many liberals and conservatives seem to think that if Roe is overturned, the question of abortion’s legality would automatically vest in the states. This is far from clear. Congress could, if it wished, pass legislation under the Commerce Clause that either prohibited or permitted abortion nationwide, thereby preempting state law. (The Commerce Clause is the most likely constitutional “hook” here because abortions are services sold in interstate commerce). This possibility means that the oft-repeated claim that returning abortion to the states by overturning Roe will lessen the national-level rancor surrounding abortion rests on a false premise.

When Roe was decided in 1973, thirty-one states forbade abortion in all circumstances except to save the life of the mother. Some of these states never repealed their pre-Roe abortion statutes. When the Supreme Court declares a state law unconstitutional, it is not automatically repealed; without legislative action, it stays on the statute books, unenforceable but still a part of the state’s legal code. If Roe is overturned, these “dormant” statutes could easily spring back to life. Thus, a pro-life ruling might not endanger abortion access only in states that, like Mississippi or Texas, passed anti-abortion statutes after 1973 in anticipation of the eventual overturning of Roe. Moreover, although the issue is not definitively settled, recent Court precedent suggests that its decisions about federal law have “full retroactive effect,” at least in civil cases. This raises the possibility that if a plaintiff sues an abortion doctor for conduct that took place before Roe was overturned pursuant to state law, the defendant might not be able to defend herself by claiming that her behavior was constitutionally protected at the time.

One particularly interesting exchange in the Dobbs oral argument concerned the possible effect of overturning Roe on other seminal cases involving reproductive and sexual rights, such as Griswold v. Connecticut — which declared that the right of married couples to buy and use contraceptives is protected by the constitution — or Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down bans on homosexual intimacy and same-sex marriage, respectively. Justice Barrett asked Solicitor General Stewart whether a decision in Mississippi’s favor would have adverse effects on these other decisions. Stewart replied that two features distinguish them from Roe: “Negative stare decisis considerations,” and that none of those other decisions “involve the purposeful termination of human life.” In saying this, Stewart was suggesting two lines of reasoning that the Court’s conservative majority could use to overrule Roe: that Roe doesn’t have the same precedential weight as other “watershed” decisions like Brown v. Board of Education because key elements of Roe were abandoned in Casey, and that states have a compelling interest in fetal life.

However, in a later colloquy between Stewart and Justice Sotomayor in which the latter noted that all of these decisions rested on “substantive due process,” Stewart denied that Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell were vulnerable on the grounds that Mississippi is “quite comfortable with Washington v. Glucksberg and how it analyzes substantive due process.” By “substantive due process,” Sotomayor and Stewart were referring to a Supreme Court doctrine according to which the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects certain substantive rights, such as privacy or autonomy, and not merely procedural rights to judicial process when the government deprives persons of life, liberty, or property. In Roe, the Court held that the Due Process Clause guarantees a right of privacy that includes the right to abortion. The rationales for Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell all relied to one extent or another on the substantive due process doctrine. Nevertheless, the very idea of substantive due process is something of a bugbear among conservative lawyers and legal scholars, including some Supreme Court Justices. Thus, Sotomayor was pointing out to Stewart that should the Court overturn Roe by rejecting substantive due process, the other decisions on sexual and reproductive rights could easily fall with it.

Stewart’s reply was to point to the Glucksberg case, decided twenty-five years after Roe, in which the Court held that only rights that are “deeply rooted in the nation’s history” are protected by the Due Process Clause. Stewart was in essence saying that Mississippi was not arguing for abandoning substantive due process, so long as the Court adheres to the Glucksberg standard. By that standard, according to Stewart, abortion rights are not among the rights protected by substantive due process, since abortion rights do not have deep roots in America’s history. The obvious problem with this reply is that rights to birth control, homosexual sex, or same-sex marriage are also not deeply rooted in the nation’s history — a point that Sotomayor began to articulate before being interrupted and sidetracked by Stewart.

This discussion has ventured into the constitutional weeds in order to illustrate the point that the ramifications of the Court’s ruling in Dobbs will crucially depend upon the precise nature of the reasoning it uses to support it. If the Court decides to overrule Roe on the narrow ground that the state has a compelling interest in fetal life, then other substantive due process rights may survive. But if the Court uses Dobbs as an opportunity to affirm and apply the Glucksberg standard, or even to call the doctrine of substantive due process into question, then these other decisions may be left vulnerable to challenge. In general, the Court likes to decide issues on the narrowest grounds possible, but there are exceptions to this rule. Moreover, as I mentioned, there are a number of Justices who are openly hostile to substantive due process as a whole. In that context, a Glucksberg-based decision that preserves substantive due process but potentially affects a host of other important cases might appear to some Justices like a reasonable middle ground. We can only speculate.

The ramifications of Roe’s death are unpredictable. In this column, I have emphasized some possible consequences that add up to a darker picture of life after Roe than even many left-leaning commentators predict. However, there are other possible effects that may be less desirable to the pro-life side. Although studies suggest that overturning Roe will, in the short term, appreciably depress abortion rates — mainly by increasing travel distances between pregnant women and abortion providers — the longer-term effects are less clear. In the years leading up to Roe, many states were liberalizing their abortion laws. As millions of women find themselves wholly cut off from access to safe abortion services, that trend may continue if Congress does not act. In the fullness of time, it is quite possible that the pro-life side will find the death of Roe a Pyrrhic victory.

The Heartless Matter of Organ Transplantation and COVID Vaccination

photograph of surgery

Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital has removed one of its patients from its transplant list because he refuses to get the COVID-19 vaccination. 31-year-old DJ Ferguson, who suffers from a hereditary heart issue that causes his lungs to fill with blood and fluid, had previously been prioritized for a life-saving heart transplant. However, according to his family, he has been removed from the transplant list due to his vaccine hesitancy. DJ’s father, David Ferguson, said, “[i]t’s kind of against his basic principles; he doesn’t believe in it. It’s a policy they are enforcing and so because he won’t get the shot, they took him off the list [for] a heart transplant.” DJ’s family are currently considering moving him to another facility but are unsure whether he would survive the trip.

The fair distribution of scarce resources has been an issue throughout the pandemic. For example, in its early days, there was considerable discussion about distributing life-saving ventilators when the number of people needing them outstripped hospital reserves. States such as Alabama, Kansas, and Tennessee all produced guidance recommending, suggesting, or explicitly stating that a patient’s disability status could be considered a reason to withhold — or even withdraw — ventilation. In other words, they deprioritized the disabled in favor of the non-disabled. This problem has, to a degree, eased with the development of effective vaccines and the production of more ventilators.

However, unlike ventilators, we cannot simply manufacture more bodily organs, such as hearts (at least, not yet). The supply of hearts is dictated by how many people donate them. Unlike other donatable organs, like kidneys or livers, donating a heart isn’t something one can do as a kind act during their lifetime. If you’re donating your heart, you’re already dead. As such, hearts are incredibly precious resources. They possess value born from the life that the donor no longer lives and the organ’s potential for its recipient – heart transplantation both takes and awards life.

Because someone must die for a transplantable heart to be made available, there is rightfully an ethical imperative to ensure that the ‘right’ person receives the organ. Giving such a vital and scarce resource to someone who would treat it improperly squanders its potential and disrespects the person who donated the organ. Turk, from the sitcom “Scrubs,” summarizes this well when he refuses to perform surgery on another character’s longtime patient when he finds out that the person has continued to drink, saying:

Dr. Cox, I know it’s really hard on you medical guys, because you spend most of your time with your patients and you get emotionally attached. But as a surgeon, the person I’m closest to is the guy who’s giving us the liver, because it’s a gift, and I think it’s important that it goes to the person that’s proven they’re up to the responsibility.

While the phrase ‘responsibility’ clouds the water here somewhat, the general message remains the same: some people are more deserving of organs than others. While we may wish to save everyone, this isn’t possible given the global shortage of organs. Roughly 17 people die each day because of a lack of organs in the U.S. alone. So for each person who receives an organ, there are numerous others deemed less worthy who must miss out.

In “Scrubs,” it comes down to a matter of responsibility and the ability of potential recipients to demonstrate they will treat the organ with the regard it demands. In a sense, they have to earn that organ. In DJ Ferguson’s case, the point of contention is slightly different. As Arthur Caplan, Head of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, states, “Organs are scarce, we are not going to distribute them to someone who has a poor chance of living when others who are vaccinated have a better chance post-surgery of surviving.” So, the concern here isn’t whether Ferguson’s shown he is responsible enough (although you could make a case that his actions demonstrate he isn’t). Instead, it is simply a matter of maximizing outcomes and minimizing risks. Being vaccinated against COVID-19 means you’re less likely to die from the disease, and a reduction in this risk improves the chances of getting the best ‘value-for-money’.

Pinning so much on the vaccination status of a potential organ receipt might strike some as odd. After all, there are countless ways to act that might jeopardize an organ’s recipient but which would seem unreasonable to use as exclusion criteria (denying a transplant to someone who enjoys extreme sports, for example). However, it is essential to remember that individuals are at substantial risk from infections post-transplantation as their immune systems are compromised. This is because the body’s immune system sees donated organs as a foreign entity that must be destroyed, causing organ rejection. To help prevent this, organ recipients take drugs to suppress their immune systems. While allowing successful organ implantation, it means that the recipient is at greater risk from infections. Even something as innocuous as a cold can be fatal, and the same goes for COVID-19. With this increased risk comes an accompanying increase in the threat posed to the positive outcome of transplantation. Therefore, a vaccinated person is a much less risky investment than a non-vaccinated person. Given our interest in maximizing the benefits someone will receive from a donated organ, it seems reasonable (even prudent) to make vaccination a requirement for anyone to receive an organ.

David Ferguson has said his son “is fighting pretty damn courageously, and he has integrity and principles he really believes in, and that makes me respect him all the more… It’s his body. It’s his choice.” David may be right. His son may indeed be acting bravely by exercising his right to bodily autonomy in a dire situation, which might make him deserving of respect. But this does little to change the fact that, when deciding who should receive a heart transplant, DJ is a risky investment. If we’re concerned with making sure that the consequences of a transplant are as positive as possible — “positive” meaning conferring the most amount of life — a person’s choice to be unvaccinated must be taken into consideration.

Virtually Inhumane: Is It Wrong to Speak Cruelly to Chatbots?

photograph of middle school boy using computer

Smartphone app trends tend to be ephemeral, but one new app is making quite a few headlines. Replika, the app that promises you an AI “assistant,” gives users the option of creating all different sorts of artificially-intelligent companions. For example, a user might want an AI “friend,” or, for a mere $40 per year, they can upgrade to a “romantic partner,” a “mentor,” or a “see how it goes” relationship where anything could happen. The “friend” option is the only kind of AI the user can create and interact with for free, and this kind of relationship has strict barriers. For example, any discussions that skew toward the sexual will be immediately shut down, with users being informed that the conversation is “not available for your current relationship status.” In other words: you have to pay for that.

A recent news story concerning Replika AI chatbots discusses a disturbing trend: male app users are paying for a “romantic relationship” on Replika, and then displaying verbally and emotionally abusive behavior toward their AI partner. This behavior is further encouraged by a community of men presumably engaging in the same hobby, who gather on Reddit to post screenshots of their abusive messages and to mock the responses of the chatbot.

While the app creators find the responses of these users alarming, one thing they are not concerned about is the effect of the AI itself: “Chatbots don’t really have motives and intentions and are not autonomous or sentient. While they might give people the impression that they are human, it’s important to keep in mind that they are not.” The article’s author emphasizes, “as real as a chatbot may feel, nothing you do can actually ‘harm’ them.” Given these educated assumptions about the non-sentience of the Replika AI, are these men actually doing anything morally wrong by writing cruel and demeaning messages? If the messages are not being received by a sentient being, is this behavior akin to shouting insults into the void? And, if so, is it really that immoral?

From a Kantian perspective, the answer may seem to be: not necessarily. As the 17th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant argued, we have moral duties toward rational creatures — that is, human beings, including yourself — and that their rational nature is an essential aspect of why we have duties toward them. Replika AI chatbots are, as far as we can tell, completely non-sentient. Although they may appear rational, they lack the reasoning power of human agents in that they cannot be moved to act based on reasons for or against some action. They can act only within the limits of their programming. So, it seems that, for Kant, we do not have the same duties toward artificially-intelligent agents as we do toward human agents. On the other hand, as AI become more and more advanced, the bounds of their reasoning abilities begin to escape us. This type of advanced machine learning has presented human technologists with what is now known as the “black box problem”: algorithms that have learned so much on “their own” (that is, without the direct aid of human programmers) that their code is too long and complex for humans to be able to read it. So, for some advanced AI, we cannot really say how they reason and make choices! A Kantian may, then, be inclined to argue that we should avoid saying cruel things to AI bots out of a sense of moral caution. Even if we find it unlikely that these bots are genuine agents whom we have duties toward, it is better to be safe than sorry.

But perhaps the most obvious argument against such behavior is one discussed in the article itself: “users who flex their darkest impulses on chatbots could have those worst behaviors reinforced, building unhealthy habits for relationships with actual humans.” This is a point that echoes the discussion of ethics of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. In book 10 of his Nicomachean Ethics, he writes, “[T]o know what virtue is is not enough; we must endeavour to possess and to practice it, or in some other manner actually ourselves to become good.” Aristotle sees goodness and badness — for him, “virtue” and “vice” — as traits that are ingrained in us through practice. When we often act well, out of a knowledge that we are acting well, we will eventually form various virtues. On the other hand, when we frequently act badly, not attempting to be virtuous, we will quickly become “vicious.”

Consequentialists, on the other hand, will find themselves weighing some tricky questions about how to balance the predicted consequences of amusing oneself with robot abuse. While behavior that encourages or reinforces abusive tendencies is certainly a negative consequence of the app, as the article goes on to note, “being able to talk to or take one’s anger out on an unfeeling digital entity could be cathartic.” This catharsis could lead to a non-sentient chatbot taking the brunt of someone’s frustration, rather than their human partner, friend, or family member. Without the ability to vent their frustrations to AI chatbots, would-be users may choose to cultivate virtue in their human relationships — or they may exact cruelty on unsuspecting humans instead. Perhaps, then, allowing the chatbots to serve as potential punching bags is safer than betting on the self-control of the app users. Then again, one worries that users who would otherwise not be inclined toward cruelty may find themselves willing to experiment with controlling or demeaning behavior toward an agent that they believe they cannot harm.

How humans ought to engage with artificial intelligence is a new topic that we are just beginning to think seriously about. Do advanced AI have rights? Are they moral agents/moral patients? How will spending time engaging with AI affect the way we relate to other humans? Will these changes be good, or bad? Either way, as one Reddit user noted, ominously: “Some day the real AIs may dig up some of the… old histories and have opinions on how well we did.” An argument from self-preservation to avoid such virtual cruelty, at the very least.