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Year in Review

blurred photograph of fireworks

You got a favorite read from 2022?

Daniel Story: “The Painful Truth About Insects” by Daniel Burkett

I found this article to be so deliciously disturbing. Burkett gives us reason to think that insects can, like human beings, experience suffering and that moreover we have moral reason to care about this suffering. The potential implications of this are astonishing. When you crush an ant, swat a fly, or spray pesticides, you are spreading horror, just like if you were to, say, sever a puppy’s leg or poison a horse. And even if you never harm another insect in your life, many (if not most) of the 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 insects alive right now will very soon die excruciating deaths. What sort of hideous god would allow such a huge quantity of pointless suffering?

Giles Howdle: Were Parts of Your Mind Made in a Factory?” by Daniel Story

What I liked so much about this article was how fluently it moves from a compelling exploration of dementia and how its sufferers adapt, to a philosophically tricky concept — the ‘extended mind thesis.’ I also loved how the article explored so many tough and profound ethical questions.

Evan Arnet: “Kill-Switch Tractors and Techno-Pessimism” by Megan Fritts

Especially in light of recent publicized advances in AI, moral reflection on technology is critical. Despite the rise of modern agriculture, farming often has a traditionalist pastoral connotation and therefore tractors serve as a great example of the reach of technology into all aspects of our lives. It is also a vivid illustration of the tenuous control we have over our own possessions — our cars capable of locking us out remotely, our books held on someone else serves.

Richard Gibson: Kill-Switch Tractors and Techno-Pessimism” by Megan Fritts

Fritts’ article exploring the ethical conundrums of data-harvesting tractors does what good philosophy should – it reveals the complexities of the seemingly innocuous. Via the techno-optimist vs techno-pessimist debate and a nod to Nietzsche, Fritts’ piece demands the reader acknowledge that with increased automation and surveillance, we risk commodifying our very existence.

Elizabeth Williams: Implicit Bias and the Efficacy of Training” by A.G. Holdier

Holdier’s piece reckons well with the tendency of corporations to perform anti-bias trainings that seem like they’re working (but aren’t) in lieu of addressing deeper structural and institutional inequalities that perpetuate those biases.

Jake Wojtowicz:Why Misleading Is Wrong (but Isn’t Perjury)” by A.G. Holdier

Holdier does such a good job of explaining the ethics of lying and misleading, putting the distinctions out in a clear way and applies it to clarify one of those issues that people spend a lot of time ranting about without necessarily grasping the intricacies.

Benjamin Rossi:The Painful Truth About Insects” by Daniel Burkett

In this article, Daniel Burkett lays out a compelling case for a counterintuitive ethical conclusion. In this way, he succeeds in challenging our moral preconceptions, which is philosophy’s crucial task.

Just Say No to Christmas Turkey

top-down photograph of holiday table set with turkey and sides

My colleague Benjamin Rossi recently defended buying meat. With Christmas dinners approaching and readers’ New Years’ resolutions up for grabs, it’s a good time to consider the other side of that debate.

Rossi’s argument gets a lot right. Buying and consuming meat doesn’t harm the animal from which it came — that animal is already dead. He’s also right that an individual consumer buying meat, in our globalized mass-production food chain, can’t raise demand for meat significantly enough to cause more animals to be farmed or killed. Neither does purchasing meat violate the animal’s rights. If the animal’s rights were violated, that took place before the animal’s death. It appears, then, that buying meat makes no moral difference; our individual consumer choices produce so little positive or negative change that they don’t seem to have any moral significance at all.

But there’s an objection to this argument that I wish Rossi had considered: that buying and eating meat is wrong because it makes us complicit with an industry that is committing very serious wrongs.

The philosopher Tristram McPherson imagines a case in which a woman called Alice wants to buy a house in a quiet neighborhood near an elementary school that her young children could attend. The realtor has a great selection of houses in this neighborhood. The catch is that the realtor is a racist “who uses his business to promote the racial homogeneity of ‘nice’ neighborhoods. He does this by showing houses in these neighborhoods only to members of Alice’s race.”

Supposing there were other realtors available with reasonable alternative homes, it seems wrong for Alice to use the racist realtor’s services. Why? Because the “realtor has a wrongful plan” and by using his services to buy a home, “Alice would be seeking to benefit by cooperating with that plan. And it is wrong to do that.” In other words, using the racist realtor’s services would make Alice complicit with the racist plan of the realtor.

What’s interesting about being complicit with evil is that it seems wrong even if it doesn’t end up causing any additional harm.

If the racist realtor didn’t sell the house to Alice, he would sell it to another member of Alice’s race. So Alice wouldn’t cause greater racial segregation by doing business with the realtor and purchasing the house herself. She also wouldn’t reduce the level of racial segregation by buying a different house in the same neighborhood from a non-racist realtor. Nonetheless, it would be wrong for Alice to use the racist realtor’s services.

According to McPherson, the moral principle that explains this difference is that it is wrong to cooperate with the “wrongful plans” of others. The realtor’s racist plan was wrongful, and that’s why Alice shouldn’t be complicit with that plan.

The meat industry, McPherson argues, also has a “wrongful plan.” It systematically inflicts terrible and unnecessary suffering on billions of animals each year (and causes profound environmental damage), with the goal of generating a profit by selling meat products to consumers. This is a plan which cannot be ethically justified. The suffering caused by the industry is so massive it is impossible to truly comprehend. In the U.S., 99% of animals are factory farmed, often kept inside in small, overcrowded cages for their entire lives (strangely, most Americans believe that they are consuming the 1% of animals that aren’t factory farmed).

The suffering caused by the meat industry might be justifiable if a huge supply of meat were required for some morally significant purpose — if humans were carnivores for instance. But the truth is, we don’t actually need it.

We would get by just fine without meat in our diets. The meat industry causes massive needless suffering so that it can sell you meat at profit. Hence McPherson’s claim that the meat industry has a wrongful plan.

By buying that meat, you’re cooperating with the meat industry’s wrongful plan — you’re complicit with the industry’s massive wrongdoing. Just as it would be wrong for Alice to cooperate with the racist realtor’s plan, it would be wrong for you to cooperate with the meat industry’s plan.

This argument from complicity only works on the assumption that you have reasonable alternatives to being complicit. If Alice had to either do business with the racist realtor or become homeless, it seems morally permissible for her to cooperate with the wrongful plan of the realtor. Likewise, suppose a meat eater could not afford to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet or had a medical condition that demanded the consumption of meat. In that case, it seems permissible to cooperate with the meat industry by purchasing its products. But for almost all of us, reasonable alternatives exist.

Rossi may be right that individual consumer choices don’t (individually) cause more suffering, animal rights violations, or environmental damage. But being complicit with the meat industry is enough to make it wrong to buy that Christmas turkey.

Fireworks and Harm to Animals

photograph of alert cat in front of Christmas tree

As the end of 2022 approaches, so too does a staple of the holiday season: fireworks. In other parts of the world, this comes just a few weeks after another gunpowder-laden celebration – Guy Fawke’s Day. But while fireworks might be fun for some, there are many who find them less than enjoyable. Chief among these are our furry companions – the cats and dogs and other pets for whom fireworks don’t bring joy, but abject terror.

Many of us might already be familiar with common animal responses to fireworks: Dogs barking, cats cowering, birds becoming restless in their cages. But this impact is often understated.

Fireworks don’t just instill fear in animals, but can also cause irreparable physical and psychological harm.

There are, of course, the deaths and mutilations that occur as a result of the misuse of fireworks. But there are many less obvious physical harms as well. For one, the hearing of animals is much more sensitive than that of humans. Some fireworks can emit sounds of up to 190 decibels – louder than a jet plane (at 100 decibels) or even a gunshot (at 140 decibels). This can lead to conditions like tinnitus or the complete loss of hearing for some animals. Dogs are particularly susceptible, with a hearing range that is three times that of humans. Common reactions by dogs to loud fireworks may include freezing or paralysis, tremors, tachycardia, urination or defecation, increased activity, gastrointestinal disorders, and – in certain cases – irreversible hearing loss.

Further physical harms are created by the aftermath of fireworks too. Their detonation releases harmful particles that are toxic to inhale – posing a risk to the sensitive respiratory systems of smaller animals. There’s also the potential for the ingestion of the residue and detritus left by exploded fireworks. This affects cats in particular, who have a greater tendency to investigate (and devour) curious objects.

Birds are also affected, with some suffering tachycardia and death by fright. Loud noises like fireworks also cause birds to abandon their homes – sometimes permanently – leaving their young unable to fend for themselves.

The psychological effects are similarly concerning.

Loud, unpredictable noises can cause phobias in many animals. The reaction of dogs to the sound of fireworks is similar to post-traumatic stress in human animals, and it is estimated that around one-fifth of pet disappearances occur as a response to very loud sounds such as those created by fireworks.

All of these factors make the holiday season a stressful time for pet owners. It’s recommended that pets are microchipped before the holidays as insurance against possible firework-related disappearances. In addition, an entire industry has developed around products aimed at reducing the stress and anxiety of pets during the season, with catchy jingles reminding us to get our pets a “thundershirt” for Christmas. Earlier this month, the city of North Bend, Washington went one step further by banning the personal use of aerial fireworks.

But what are the ethics of this situation? Do the harms described above create a moral prohibition against enjoying a traditional fireworks display? Many of those who discuss the ethical treatment of animals would say “Yes.”

Consider a utilitarian approach – like that taken by Peter Singer. Stated simply, Singer argues that if it is wrong to inflict a certain amount of suffering on a human, then it is wrong to inflict that same amount of pain on an animal. We most likely could not bring ourselves to inflict the kind of distress described above on a human. Putting someone through an experience that creates such a risk of physical and psychological damage would clearly be wrong. And if this is the case, argues Singer, then it must be just as wrong to do the same to animals.

To be fair, Singer’s utilitarian approach does permit the infliction of such pain where there is a greater amount of pleasure to be gained – but it’s not clear that this justification can be used here. While the spectacle of fireworks creates joy and wonder for many – especially children – it’s unclear that these positive gains are of sufficient gravity to outweigh the negatives for animals. What’s more, it seems entirely possible for us to gain something approaching this same amount of joy through other – less harmful – celebratory activities.

Of course, Singer’s utilitarian approach isn’t the only analysis we might take. We could instead consider a rights-based approach, whereby the ethical treatment of animals is determined by whether or not we are respecting their rights. This rights-based approach is importantly different from utilitarianism in that it will still deem a rights-violating action as morally wrong even if outweighed by some greater good.

But do fireworks violate the rights of animals? It certainly seems so. In extreme cases, it’s an animals’ right to life and good health that is violated. More generally, however, the fear and stress resulting from the detonation of fireworks clearly violate an animal’s right to happiness. These violations should be of great moral concern regardless of how much good we humans might stand to gain from fireworks displays.

On the two most common approaches to the ethical treatment of animals, then, our indulgence in celebratory firework displays seems hard to justify. So do the right thing this New Year’s Eve – don’t let 2022 go out with a bang, but with a quiet, more animal-friendly celebration instead.

Neuralink, Meaningful Futures, and Animal Welfare Abuses

photograph of statue of gorilla contemplating a human skull

In December 2022, news outlets reported that Elon Musk’s medical device company, Neuralink, is under federal investigation for animal welfare violations. Neuralink is, in theory, a medical device that is robotically stitched into a person’s brain with the hope that it will help paralyzed individuals regain control over parts of their bodies to which they have lost access. If successful, the device may increase human ability to control things with their thoughts using a technological interface. The ability to regain control over one’s limbs and sense organs may just be the beginning of uses for this kind of device.

Musk has attracted some criticism for inaccurately reporting the speed at which we can expect this technology to develop. In December of this year, he claimed that implantation of the device in a human skull could happen as early as six months from the time that he made the announcement. Success in this endeavor has the potential to at least partially rehabilitate Musk’s tarnished reputation resulting from his handling of the Twitter takeover. He has powerful reasons to hope that his promises from Neuralink will be honored quickly. In keeping with these motivations, he has reportedly demanded that his employees conduct research more quickly. Employees are reporting that this increased speed has resulted in significant violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

This development is of particular concern because satisfying the demands of the Animal Welfare Act is not particularly difficult to do. The Act does not provide a tremendous number of restrictions when it comes to how animals can be treated when used in research. Many animals are not protected at all, such as birds, rats, and mice.

This means that whatever animal welfare regulations were being violated, it wasn’t a matter of treating animals of this type inhumanely (though, of course, such animals have moral status as well). To qualify for protections, the animals involved would have to be mammals — animals who we know to be intelligent, social, and capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.

Whistleblowers from the company report that rapid research into this technology has resulted in numerous botched animal surgeries, and Reuters reports that Neuralink has killed, “about 1,500 animals, including more than 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys, following experiments since 2018.”

These allegations of animal cruelty reveal what perhaps should have been obvious but that probably flew beneath the radar for most people: Nueralink is engaging in animal testing, with Elon Musk at the helm. There are a cluster of objections against using non-human animals for testing Neuralink in the first place. Some scientists have expressed doubts that this kind of technology is viable at all. Neuralink claims to be, essentially, a mind-reading device. To effectively and responsibly read minds, we’d need to understand a lot more about how brains function. If Nueralink is really just a billionaire’s sci-fi fantasy with little chance of actually delivering on its promises, then the use of beings who are capable of suffering and of living lives of their own outside of the lab is particularly unjustified.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the technology has the potential to work in the way Musk claims, there are still significant problems with using non-human animals to test it.

The first concern is a special and acute form of The Dilemma Argument Against Experimenting on Non-Human Animals. Either the brains of non-human animals are sufficiently similar to human brains or they are not.

If they are sufficiently similar, then there are all sorts of problems with testing this technology on them. These animals would be capable of both joy and suffering — they experience joy when they are left alone to pursue flourishing lives for members of their species; they experience suffering when researchers treat them like objects to be cut up and discarded.

If, on the other hand, these brains are unlike those of humans, then we don’t know the full consequences of implanting such a device in an animal — we don’t know the range of things it will allow them to control. Fundamentally changing the capabilities of a member of a different species without full knowledge of the consequences is at best risky and at worst extremely morally negligent.

Compounding this problem is the question of the content of non-human animal thought. Either the Neuralink device responds to mental events like impulse and instinct, or it responds to mental states that have propositional content. If it responds to instinct and impulse, it’s worth noting that we don’t know what will happen when the instincts and impulses of members of other species are enhanced. If it responds to thoughts with propositional content, then we learn nothing about how the device will function in the minds of humans, since non-human animals presumably don’t have thoughts with propositional content. If this is the case, we are carving up the bodies of non-human animals and causing them to suffer for no good reason, since human and non-human animal higher order thought are not sufficiently similar.

A further argument has to do with virtue and vice and how we perceive our place on this planet. In A Sand County Almanac conservationist Aldo Leopold emphasizes the importance of reconceiving our relation to the natural world.

Instead of thinking of ourselves as conquerors of the land, he argues that we should think of ourselves as members of a biotic community. Instead of thinking of science as “the sharpener of our sword,” it would be more environmentally virtuous to think of science as a “searchlight on the universe” helping us to better satisfy the important role that humans play in ecosystems.

Neuralink encourages us, not to reflect on our role in the natural world, but to transcend it; to become something more than human. What’s more, it encourages us to use the lives and bodies of non-human animals to get there with no regard for the consequences for them.

These problems posed by Nueralink are made worse by a more general concern about the way that some of these potential innovations come about. Largely unfettered capitalism allows rich entrepreneurs to pursue projects that might change the nature of human experience forever, to do so on a pile of countless bodies representing the lost lives of previously sentient creatures, all to bring about ends that might diminish quality of human life and the features that make it subjectively meaningful and worth living, all without the consent of the rest of the human community. Billionaires are given carte blanche to decide what the future will be. If chips in our brains can interface with external technology, then our minds themselves seem likely to be directly invaded by capitalist forces and Big Tech — the very forces that often encourage us to exploit non-human animals, the natural world, and each other.

Neuralink has the potential to do real good in the world; it is likely that some paralyzed individuals would very much like to see this technology come to fruition. That said, we should reflect on the lessons offered by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein; we should guard against allowing a feverish thirst for progress blind us to the things that make human life good or to the need for compassion for our most vulnerable populations.

Being Antisemitic to Be Anti-White: On Chappelle and Baldwin

photograph of Dave Chappelle promoting his Netflix special

“It shouldn’t be this scary to talk. About anything,” pleads Dave Chappelle in his now infamous Saturday Night Live monologue. This plea comes after a set about Kanye West and Kyrie Irving’s recent antisemitic incidents, in which the comedian invites a backlash that was quick in coming, complete with accusations of antisemitism over his own deployment of the antisemitic trope that Jews control Hollywood — a trope that Chappelle in principle rebukes, but simultaneously reinforces, suggesting that it is “not a crazy thing to think.” But this is comedy, and comedy is often slippery, and it’s worth taking another look at where Chappelle goes wrong.

This is not to say that one may never use antisemitic tropes. Criticizing a trope, for example, may be most effectively carried out by first using it to draw in anyone who accepts it and then demonstrating the absurdity and weakness of their logic. Comedy is perhaps best suited to this kind of task, but the essay form can do it as well.

James Baldwin, perhaps the greatest American essayist of all time, did precisely this in his 1967 “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” Beginning with recollections of his childhood in Harlem, Baldwin recounts how his family and those around them were exploited by Jewish landlords, Jewish butchers, and Jewish grocers. And then, slyly, he writes that “the merchants along 125th Street were Jewish — at least many of them were; I don’t know if Grant’s or Woolworth’s are Jewish names.” No doubt Baldwin was well aware that these WASPiest of names are not Jewish; on the very first page, then, he is implicitly demonstrating that Jews are not the true target of Black antisemitism, but only the most convenient and visible representatives of the true target: white supremacy.

At first, Chappelle’s approach seems similar, and what he says in his sets about gay and trans people presents a helpful comparison. For example, in his Netflix special “The Closer,” he tells us, “I have never had a problem with transgender people. If you listen to what I’m saying, clearly, my problem has always been with white people.” Making a similar point about gay people, Chappelle says, “gay people are minorities until they need to be white again.” Putting these claims together, we glimpse the outline of Chappelle’s strategy: gay and transgender people are just subsets of the white population, and thus appropriate targets for Black criticism. But he isn’t exactly pulling a Baldwin. He isn’t showing that being transphobic is a misguided way of being anti-white; he is being transphobic as a way of being anti-white.

Chappelle’s take on Kanye and Irving’s antisemitism has a similar form, but the sort of reversal Baldwin effects is even harder to see here. While he only denounces antisemitism briefly, he instead takes aim at the way Black speech, especially antisemitic Black speech, is policed in Hollywood, and his concern is less with antisemitism than the perception that punishment for it tends to be disproportionate — Kanye lost a huge fraction of his wealth when Adidas dropped him; Kyrie Irving was suspended from eight games — given that Black people are not responsible for the Holocaust. “I know that Jewish people have been through terrible things all over the world, but you can’t blame that on Black Americans, you just can’t,” Chappelle tells us, without explaining why you can’t blame ongoing antisemitism on the people who continue to peddle it. Antisemitic incidents in the U.S., after all, jumped to a historic high last year, so someone seems to be successfully spreading it, and it would be strange if widely known celebrities didn’t contribute to this effect just because they were Black.

Racisms of all kinds, antisemitism included, work by anchoring negative stereotypes in verifiable realities, but hiding the roots and context of those realities. Crime in poor Black communities is discussed in isolation from crime in poor communities generally. Black poverty is discussed without mention of the defunding of Black education and the history of redlining. Similarly, it’s easy to talk about the Jewish landlords and business owners in Black neighborhoods without a history of how Jews in particular ended up with a large share of properties in those neighborhoods. The facts racists point to for evidence are themselves usually explained by past racism. Repeating those facts without context only reinforces them. When Chappelle tells us that “there are a lot of Jews” in Hollywood, but gives no explanation of how antisemitism was responsible for this state of affairs, we are left to draw our own conclusions. And there is little indication that Chappelle is interested in challenging those conclusions.

When Chappelle says the idea that Jews control Hollywood “isn’t a crazy thing to think,” he doesn’t add that it is mistaken, but only that “it is a crazy thing to say out loud.” What worries him isn’t antisemitism, but that antisemitism has consequences for Black people. He ends his segment with the line, “I hope they don’t take anything away from me. Whoever they are.” This is a challenge: any move to “cancel” him, a move he is daring someone to make, would confirm the insinuation that Jews are in control. Perhaps his goal is to start a discussion. But since he’s given no reason to reverse the suggestion that Jews control Hollywood, it can only seem like he intends the starting point of the discussion to be just this: there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood. Discussions that start that way, like discussions that begin with the pervasiveness of Black crime or Muslim terrorism, are more likely to reinforce racist tropes than overturn them.

Unlike Baldwin, whose righteous anger was tempered by a humanist vision, Chappelle takes anti-Black racism as his only concern. As a result, once again, he finds himself being antisemitic as a way of being anti-white.

The late philosopher Charles Mills, following Baldwin, suggests that Black antisemitism has to be understood within a political system that this dynamic perpetuates. In Mills’s thinking, our political system is governed by a racial polity that assigns the status of persons to whites and subpersons to Blacks. A result is that Jews, who are only tenuously white, perceive Black antisemitism — like any antisemitism — as a threat to their status as persons and must respond accordingly. Blacks, whom the system treats as subpersons, must consistently fight to be granted basic respect, and thus see any pushback on the part of whites — tenuous or not — as simply more excuses for the system.

Chappelle seems comfortable with contributing to this dynamic, viewing LGBT and Jewish people as “white,” and thus as fair game. But since members of those groups face real threats of violence from the propagation of tropes about them, they have no choice but to respond with condemnation. Whatever attack on the wider system of racism Chappelle may have intended, it is necessarily lost in the back-and-forth, which cycles through the topics of Chappelle, comedy, and free speech. The institutions of power, Baldwin recognized, are not controlled by Jews; “they are controlled by Americans, and the American Negro situation is a direct result of this control. And anti-Semitism among Negroes … does not operate to menace this control, but only to confirm it.” Mills, like Baldwin, saw that such racial skirmishes only serve to confirm Black oppression. Both Chappelle and his audience would do well to remember that.

Neurodivergence, Diagnosis, and Blame

photograph of woman using TikTok on iphone

If your For You page on TikTok looks anything like mine, you know that there is a veritable trove of content about autism and ADHD, much of it focused on questions about diagnosis. The spread of this online content and discussion has been lauded for the potential good it can do, allowing women and non-binary people to have access to information about conditions that are often missed in those populations or by giving voice to traditionally marginalized groups who often deal with others speaking inaccurately on their behalf.

At the same time, the algorithm may function in ways that trend towards stereotyping the populations in question or pushing content that associates ADHD and autism with things not necessarily related to diagnostic criteria (e.g., ADHD with talking fast or autism with disliking the big room light). This can lead to misunderstandings and poor self-diagnosis that misses underlying issues, such as someone mistaking bipolar for ADHD. While similar misunderstandings and misdiagnoses can happen in medical contexts, those who rely on questionably-credentialed social media influencers may be more susceptible to misinformation.

But why is having a diagnosis so appealing? What does the diagnosis do for autistic and ADHD individuals?

I suspect that at least one part of the answer is found in our practices of blame and our beliefs about who deserves support: the diagnosis promises less self-blame and blame from others and more understanding and accommodations.

How might a diagnosis lead to less self-blame and blame from others? There are several possible philosophical answers to this question.

The first answer is relatively common: ADHD and autism are caused by brain chemistry and structure — they should be seen as medical or neurological conditions, not moral ones. On the purely medical view, ADHD and autism have nothing to do with character or who that person is as a moral agent. So, if someone is diagnosed with ADHD or autism, they shouldn’t be blamed for anything resulting from those conditions because they’re simply medical problems that are out of one’s control.

This answer has a few benefits:

the medical diagnosis adds a sense of legitimacy to the experience of individuals with ADHD and autism, it provides access to medical care, and it gives a clear conceptual apparatus to communicate to others about the specific accommodations that are needed.

At the same time, the purely medical answer has key drawbacks.

First, the medical mode is often moralized in its own way, with its own norms about health, disease, and disorder. Sometimes this is appropriate, but other times natural variations in human expression become labeled as disorders or deficits when they should not be (see how intersex people have been treated or the history of eugenics). The aim of medicine is often to provide a cure, but some things do not need to be cured. Medical care can and often has been helpful for individuals needing access to Adderall or Ritalin to function, but the purely medical mode has its limits for understanding the experiences of individuals with ADHD and autism.

Second, the medical mode tends to locate the problem in the individual, though some public health approaches have started to move towards structural and social thinking. For those with ADHD and autism, they may experience their condition as a disability in large part because of a lack of social support and understanding rather than a purely internal discomfort.

Third, the medical mode cannot always be separated from character. See, for example, the overlap of depression and grief or the fact that even normal psychological states are also caused by brain chemistry and structure.

In the case of autistic and ADHD individuals, the condition isn’t something that can be easily carved off from the person because they affect broad domains of the person’s life. In trying to separate out the autism or ADHD, others can easily create this idea of the “real” non-autistic, non-ADHD person, which can lead to failing to love and appreciate the actual person.

The second philosophical answer to the question as to how a diagnosis might lead to less blame is a capacities-based view of moral responsibility. This view is similar to the medical mode, in that the focus is often primarily on the individual, but it differs in its decidedly moral focus. On the capacities view, agents are morally responsible if they have some normal (or minimally normal) capacities of reasoning and choice. Agents are not responsible if they lack these capacities. There are ways of refining this kind of view, but let’s take the basic idea for now.

If we combine this kind of philosophical idea with the idea that ADHD and autistic people are deficient with regard to some of these capacities necessary to be a morally responsible agent, then it would make sense that ADHD and autistic folks would be either less responsible or not responsible at all in certain domains. But if the point of accommodations is to increase capacities, then accommodations should be supported. However, like the medical approach, there are a few drawbacks to at least some versions of this view.

First, there isn’t a clear capacities hierarchy between neurotypical people and neurodivergent people. While someone with ADHD may have trouble starting on a large project in advance, they may work exceptionally well under pressure. Someone with autism may have more difficulty in social situations but could have the ability to focus their time and energy to learn immense amounts of knowledge about a special interest. While parts of the ADHD and autistic experience involve deficits in certain capacities, the overall assessment is much less clear.

Second, claiming that someone with autism and ADHD can’t be a fully morally responsible agent also seems to have a troubling implication that they might not be full, self-legislating members of the moral community. This kind of view places people with autism and ADHD in the position of, say, a child who has some understanding of moral principles but isn’t yet a full agent.

Neither the medical model nor at least some versions of the capacities model seem to fully provide what people are looking for in a diagnosis. While both offer rationales for removing blame, they can have a dehumanizing effect. The drawbacks to these views, however, teach us some lessons: a good view should 1) consider the whole, actual person, 2) think about the person in their social context, and 3) avoid making the autistic or ADHD person out to be less than full moral agents.

I think the right question to ask isn’t “how is this person deficient in some way that removes responsibility?” but instead “what expectations are reasonable to place on this person, given who they are at this point in time?”

This is a rough suggestion that requires more development than I can give it here.

There are ethical considerations that enter in at the level of expectations which go beyond questions about capacity. What would it look like to be kind? To give each other space to be comfortable? To accept parts of ourselves we can’t change? To build a world that works for everyone? Capacity is certainly implicated by these questions, but it isn’t the whole picture.

By shifting our focus to the question about what expectations are reasonable to place on an individual person, we are recentering the whole person and recognizing the dis/abilities that the individual experiences.

Experiences with autism and ADHD can be very different from person to person, and the accommodations needed will vary from person to person. The expectations we can reasonably place on people with ADHD and autism may not be any less than those without — they may just be different.

And neurotypical people who interact with ADHD and autistic people may also be reasonably expected to provide certain accommodations. Everyone’s needs should be considered, and no one should be othered.

For example, say that an autistic person says something that comes off as rude to a neurotypical friend. This has happened a few times before, each within a new domain of conversation. Every time, the autistic individual apologizes and explains how autism affects their social communication and understanding of social norms and how they’re trying to get things right. Eventually the neurotypical friend gets upset and says “why do you always use the autism as an excuse to get out of responsibility?”

In this case, it doesn’t seem that the autistic person is abnegating responsibility, it seems that they’re clarifying what they are actually responsible for. The autistic person isn’t responsible for intentionally saying something rude, they’re responsible for accidentally saying something rude despite their best intentions otherwise. And the autistic person still apologizes for the hurt caused and promises that they will continue to try to do better in the future. Whichever way the two friends negotiate this part of their relationship, it seems important that they each understand where the other is coming from and that each friend’s feelings are given space.

What does this example tell us about relationship between diagnosis and blame? Perhaps we need to develop alternative frameworks to recontextualize responsibility, rather than simply diminish it.

Rejecting the Caste System and Discrimination Based on Religion

photograph of students milling in front of university library

In December 2022, Brown University became the latest institution of higher education and the first Ivy League institution in the United States to explicitly ban discrimination on the basis of caste. Brown has existing protections that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sex, religion, and sexual orientation, and it may seem that these protections are sufficient to cover discrimination on the basis of caste. However, in an increasingly globalized world, an expanding number of international students are coming to study at American universities. Many Americans are unfamiliar with the caste system and, as a result, caste-based discrimination and micro-aggressions can go largely unnoticed but remain tremendously harmful in learning environments.

In Hinduism, the caste system is a hierarchical system based on hereditary groupings. Some groups are perceived as less spiritually pure than others. The caste to which one belongs impacts the kinds of work that person is permitted to do, the kinds of food it is viewed as appropriate for them to eat, the extent to which education is deemed appropriate for them, whom they may marry, and even the people with whom they are allowed to have physical contact. The designations are often based on ancestral relations to people who engaged in certain kinds of labor. One’s caste designation is settled for life upon birth and limits one’s ability to move up the social ladder or to improve one’s lot in life. The system is enforced by social custom and, in the minds of many, supported and justified by religion — violating caste expectations is not just a violation of cultural norms, but a violation of spiritual principles as well.

The caste system refers to a very specific spiritual and cultural practice within Hinduism, primarily in India. That said, it is not uncommon to hear the term used to refer to other social systems in which people’s roles in society are rigidly designated by factors like race, ethnicity, sex, and religion. Many philosophers through the years, including no less significant a figure than Plato, have advocated in their writing for societies organized in such a way that every individual has their place and does all and only the work designated by members of their class. We’ve come to see this kind of societal organization as contributing to serious human rights violations — providing significant obstacles in the path of human beings to pursue the good life as they see it: to autonomously choose for themselves the kind of labor that seems meaningful to them, to marry a consenting adult whom they love, to assemble, befriend, and share ideas with a rich variety of other human beings, and to engage in the intimacy of physical touch so essential to human health and happiness. Depriving a human being of navigating the world on their own in this way is depriving them of the ability to live lives that they find subjectively meaningful and worth living.

Given the obstacles caste places on human development, it is, perhaps, wise for institutions of higher education to prohibit discrimination on this basis specifically, if only to highlight the unique potential for harm that it poses and to make people more likely to recognize caste discrimination on campus when they see it. A study conducted by Equality Labs revealed that members of the “Dalit” class, the class perceived as lowest on the social hierarchy and once referred to as “Untouchables” report frequent discrimination on campus — 25% of them report having experienced verbal or physical assault on the basis of their caste.

Caste can potentially create pronounced problems in an educational setting in particular, where the ability to interact with people from all sorts of backgrounds in ways that celebrate shared humanity and reasonableness is especially important. Nevertheless, some have responded to this policy by claiming that it violates religious liberty. A similar policy enacted in the Cal State system motivated a lawsuit brought by two Hindu professors. The Hindu American Foundation is representing the professors in their suit. Their concern is nuanced and is based on two claims. First, they are concerned that the policy defines the caste system as an element of Hinduism — a claim with which they disagree. They argue that universities ought not to be in the business of defining the core tenets of religion in order to make policies against them. They point out that many religions and cultures operate according to caste systems, not just Hinduism. Second, they argue that the only way to determine whether a Hindu is being discriminated against on the basis of caste is to assign Hindus on campus a caste—a practice to which they also object.

Even in light of this objection, to many it seems obvious that in that in the United States, we simply must be respectful of individual liberty and that the caste system is fundamentally inconsistent with that. That said, it can be easier to see the harms caused by the practices of other cultures than those caused by our own. Many of the same people who may think that the Hindu caste system is transparently inhumane are also supportive of a business owner’s right to deny services to a customer on the basis of their sexual orientation. This month, the United States Supreme Court heard a case challenging a Colorado antidiscrimination law that prohibits businesses from refusing services on the basis of sexual orientation. In the case in question, a Christian website designer is asserting religious liberty to deny same-sex couples services related to weddings.

In both cases, the question is: do we have an obligation to see to it that our institutions refrain from discrimination? Even those that object to campus policies regarding caste don’t seem to disagree that discrimination is wrong; indeed, that recognition is the basis for their arguments. The caste case provides a clear window to the insight: if discrimination is wrong, the fact that it has its origin in religion can’t make it right, nor can the claim that the policy is religious in nature undermine the idea that the behavior in question is discrimination. To insist that we ought not to discriminate against a person based on the circumstances of their birth is to insist that everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect and to pursue their own happiness without undue interference from others.

Driving with the Machine: Self-Driving Cars, Responsibility, and Moral Luck

photograph of driver sleeping in self-driving car

Charlie and Ego pick me up from a university parking lot on a balmy September afternoon. A soccer match is about to start nearby, and Charlie, eyeing the fans bustling around his car, carefully drives us off the lot. Charlie is a former student of mine. I gather as we catch up that Charlie now does something lucrative and occult with cryptocurrencies, of which the Tesla Model S we are riding in is presumably an alchemical product. It’s nice to see Charlie. As pleasant as our conversation is, though, that’s not why I’m here. I want to meet Ego.

There’s a map of our sleepy little town of San Luis Obispo, California on the touch screen in the center console of Charlie’s car. As we approach the edge of campus, Charlie casually selects a location downtown, clicks a few buttons, and lets go of the wheel. The wheel and the five-thousand pound car begin to move of their own accord. Ego is driving.

Ego, despite the moniker, is not a person. “Ego” is what Charlie calls the Full Self-Driving beta function on his car, a test version of Tesla’s self-driving program that is designed to navigate city streets and highways.

When Ego takes over, my riding experience immediately feels different, less familiar. Charlie’s driving was smooth and confident; Ego’s driving feels jerky and neurotic.

Ego drives us down suburban streets, past cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians. It doesn’t come close to hitting anyone (you can tell Ego is programmed to be extra careful around pedestrians), and it gets us where we want to go. But it moves unnaturally. The wheel jitters. Sometimes the car moves haltingly, slowing on empty streets or stopping abruptly in intersections. At other times it moves like a missile, accelerating rapidly into left-hand turns or sweeping within inches of inanimate obstacles. You wouldn’t mistake it for a bad human driver if your eyes were closed. It feels unmistakably robotic. I’m sure that many of Ego’s peculiarities reflect temporary technical problems, but it’s hard to shake the sense that there’s something fundamentally alien at the wheel.

Despite my unease about Ego, I never felt unsafe while Ego was driving. That’s because Charlie was attending assiduously to Ego’s movements. Whenever Ego would do something weird, Charlie would fiddle with the console to inform Tesla’s algorithms that something went wrong. And when Ego started to do something egregious or annoying, Charlie would grab the wheel and manually navigate us to a new situation. I soon realized that it wasn’t accurate to say that Ego is driving or that Charlie is driving. The better thing to say is that they’re driving together.

This is how Charlie sees things, too.

Over time it’s started to feel like it’s a team effort, that we’re working together. And I think that way because it messes up in the same spots. It’s very predictable. It shows me what it’s going to do, and I can override some of those functions. So it’s kind of like it’s doing the actual task of driving, but I’m overseeing it and making sure that it’s, you know, not crashing. So I do feel like it’s a team effort.

This dynamic piques my interest. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about moral responsibility in contexts of shared agency. Participants in shared agency are often praised or blamed for actions or outcomes that originate outside the sphere of their own individual agency. For example, if a medical provider working as part of a healthcare team goes above and beyond in a moment of crisis to save a patient’s life, the team members who enabled or supported the provider’s care may share some praise for saving the patient even though they weren’t directly involved in the crisis.

Whenever a person’s moral status (including their praiseworthiness or blameworthiness) depends upon factors that are at least partly outside of their control, they are subject to what’s called moral luck.

Moral luck is controversial because in the abstract we tend to think that a person’s moral status should be based on the quality of their intentions, choices, or character, on things they can fully control. However, our intuitions about particular cases often suggest otherwise.

A classic example involves drunk driving: we tend to morally blame drunk drivers who hit and kill children much more harshly than equally negligent drunk drivers who luckily get home safely.

In the past, I’ve argued that moral luck is a common feature of shared agency because when you act jointly with other people your moral status can be affected by them in ways you can’t fully anticipate or control. You might find yourself to blame for another agent’s actions. And as I watched Charlie and Ego drive around town together, I couldn’t help but feel that their shared activity exhibited a similar dynamic.

Ego does not meet the conditions required for moral responsibility. But Charlie does. He is the responsible adult in this activity, which is inherently risky and could result in serious harms. It’s natural to think that he is responsible for it, even if, because he and Ego are sharing the reins, he is not fully in control of how it unfolds.

If that’s right, then people who use self-driving programs are susceptible to moral luck because they can be on the moral hook for what these programs do. And this luck is analogous to the luck involved in shared agency between people.

It’s possible to complicate this line of thought. For one, it will not always be feasible for people to productively intervene to prevent harmful self-driving malfunctions, especially as the technology becomes more sophisticated and reliable. Accidents often happen quickly, and intervening can make things worse. When an accident involving a self-driving car is not due to the human driver’s negligence (or some other morally criticizable error), many people will say that the human driver is not morally responsible. Moreover, the human driver is not the only potentially responsible person in the mix. As my colleague Patrick Lin has pointed out, those who design self-driving cars can bear responsibility for bad outcomes that result from criticizable design choices. In fact, in many situations designers would seem to be a better candidate for blame than drivers, since, unlike drivers, designers have the luxury of time and forethought.

These points are both important, but they are compatible with the claim that human drivers are subject to a significant sort of moral luck by way of self-driving cars. At least when a human driver’s negligence leads to a harmful self-driving accident that would not have occurred had the driver not been negligent, it seems reasonable to say that the driver is blameworthy for that accident, even if other parties, such as designers or other drivers, bear some responsibility, too.

Reactions like praise and blame perform important functions in human life. Thus, thinking about the specific conditions under which humans are and are not morally responsible for self-driving cars is worthwhile. However, it is perhaps possible to overemphasize the importance of fault and blameworthiness here.

The more reliable and autonomous self-driving cars become, the more tempting it will be for human drivers to morally, socially, and personally distance themselves from harmful accidents involving their self-driving cars with the thought: “There’s nothing I could have done; I am unfortunate but as blameless as a mere spectator.”

This thought may be true, but it threatens to obscure in the driver’s conscience the fact that the driver’s own agency bears a special relation to the accident. There is something unsavory about someone who refuses to acknowledge this special relation. It’s appropriate for the driver, even if blameless, to feel a special type of first-personal regret about her choice to take the self-driving car out for a spin that day, a regret that is different from the sadness a spectator might feel and that might motivate her to make amends or apologize if she can. The willingness to take responsibility for those aspects of one’s embodied agency that fall outside of one’s control is a manifestation of a virtuous spirit and seems wholly appropriate – indeed, requisite – for those who choose to risk others’ lives by using self-driving cars.

The upshot is that using a self-driving car is morally risky, even for the most conscientious users. This is true of conventional cars as well. But the risk associated with self-driving cars is special because it originates in the actions of an artificial agent that has the potential to do great harm.

For now, I suspect that most self-driving car users are acutely aware of this. Charlie certainly is.

“If I was not paying attention, and I hit someone, I would feel 100% responsible. And I probably would feel at least mostly responsible if I was paying attention. So it very much feels like I am responsible for what it does.”

Privilege and Credibility: On the Muddled Message of ‘Barbarian’

photograph of stone basement floor at bottom of stairs

Although I avoid mentioning its largest twists, this column contains spoilers for some of “Barbarian”’s plot. Most recommend seeing the movie blind, so consider watching first before reading.

Barbarian may have been the biggest surprise horror hit of 2022. Against a budget of $4.5 million, the film earned over $45 million at the box office. The film marks writer and director Zach Cregger’s solo debut. He is known previously for his work with sketch comedy group the Whitest Kids U Know and for co-writing, co-directing, and starring in Miss March, a critical and commercial failure.  Barbarian also received high praise from critics. However, audience reactions seem more polarized. Out of 1022 ratings on Google, the film has an average score of 3.4 out of 5, with a majority of reviews at either 5 or 1 stars.

Horror often involves a split between what the film is ostensibly about and what it is metaphorically about. The monsters or killers we see on our scenes may be indirect ways of getting us to think about horrors in our actual world.

This is common with classics in the genre. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film literally about a family of cannibals in rural Texas killing a group of lost teenagers, is described by director Tobey Hooper as “being about meat” and is listed by PETA as an example of animal rights cinema. Night of the Living Dead, regarded as the first film to depict zombies as we now know them, is now viewed as offering commentary on race in the United States, even though this was not intended by director George A. Romero. Contemporary horror offers have no shortage of metaphorical content. One of my favorite horror films of recent years, Hereditary, tells a story about a family dealing with a devil worshiping cult. But its themes deal with mental illness, generational trauma, and other horrors we may inherit from our families. The Witch literally depicts a family in the colonial New England wilderness turning against one each other and dying one by one due to the influence of a witch. Yet it seems to tell a larger story about religiosity, isolation, paranoia, and community.

So, what is Barbarian literally about? The film opens with a young woman, Tess, arriving in town for a job interview at a house she had booked through AirBnB. However, she finds the house occupied. This other guest, Keith, has apparently also booked a stay. The house, residing in an abandoned Detroit neighborhood, hides some dangerous and horrific secrets. As the film progresses, Tess unearths these secrets.

But what is Barbarian really about? One theme emerges from the get-go. Tess is reluctant to enter the house after finding Keith there. When she enters to use the bathroom, she asks Keith if he could bring up proof of his reservation. Keith responds sarcastically, stating that she must want him to prove he’s not just a squatter. Later, Keith, trying to be hospitable, offers Tess something to drink while she searches for hotels. She turns down his offer, but he prepares her tea in the kitchen. Tess does not touch the tea.

Tess’ default posture towards men throughout the film is defensive. Her immediate reaction in a new situation is to imagine ways in which her environment or the people within it may threaten her, and how she can best defend herself against these threats. Her behavior reflects the reality faced by women.

The phrase “rape culture” was coined by feminists to describe a society where rape and sexual violence are somewhat normalized. There are many signs of rape culture, which include women having to live in fear of, and take defensive measures against, sexual violence. Men, for instance, may think nothing of walking to their car in an unlit parking lot after a late night at work. But, for women, this situation calls for an almost ritualistic check-list of defensive measures – scan for the exits and spots where someone may be hiding, have your keys in your hand, maybe in a hammer grip, stay on the phone with a friend or loved one so someone knows your whereabouts, or maybe even pre-dial 911 and press call if a stranger approaches you.

This reality is reflected in the differences in behavior of Barbarian’s male and female characters. When Tess first uncovers one of the house’s secrets, she quips “Nope!” and walks away, only returning after carefully and cleverly reducing the potential threat. However, when Tess describes this secret of the house to Keith, he is incredulous, failing to see why she would be disturbed. He later trots headlong into danger. The owner of the house, another male character, is incredibly excited to find its secrets – it’s free real estate! – and gleefully proceeds to measure the square footage of the area despite passing numerous warning signs along the way. Throughout the movie men ultimately fail to notice potential threats, and this leads to their downfall. But in doing so, they continually put Tess in harm’s way.

Barbarian also deals with issues of epistemic injustice. This occurs when someone wrongs another for failing to consider her as a potential source of knowledge. In one scene, after escaping from the horror in the basement, Tess is finally able to call the police. After they arrive, the officers are dismissive and incredulous towards her – she is dirty, haggard, excited, admits to not living in the area, lacks any proof of her identity, and lacks any way to prove that she ought to be in the house she is asking them to enter. They refuse to examine the house, prepare to leave, and accuse Tess of being high or drunk when she becomes angry.

This failure of the police officers to trust Tess may be seen as an instance of what Miranda Fricker calls “testimonial injustice.” Epistemic injustices of this sort occur when, due to biases, one fails to accept the testimony of others as credible.

The officers, seeing Tess’s physical condition and her location in a bad neighborhood, assume that she should not be believed. While drug use or mental instability would explain her condition, her testimony being accurate has equal explanatory power. Hence, by assuming the worst and not taking her testimony seriously, the officers treat Tess unjustly by refusing to recognize her as a credible bearer of knowledge.

Tess herself arguably commits testimonial injustice, though her conduct seem much more defensible. After a job interview where her prospective employer strongly cautions her against staying in that neighborhood, she returns to the rental home. As leaving her car to enter the house, a man apparently experiencing homelessness runs toward her screaming that she needs to leave. Tess, in a panic, narrowly manages to enter the house before he reaches the porch and locks the door. The man then proceeds to repeatedly bang his fists on the door, still shouting, before eventually departing.

This stranger was right – had Tess gotten in her car and left at that point, the story would have ended with her remaining unscathed. But she seems justified in viewing a strange man running towards her shouting as a threat, rather than as someone seeking to help her. It’s the fact that she lives in a world which compels her to act defensively to avoid threats which leads her to dismiss him.

This demonstrates why, ultimately, the message of Barbarian is muddled. At times, it seems to criticize its characters – Tess, the police – for failing to trust strangers.  In some of these interactions – finding Keith at the house, the homeless man shouting – skepticism is justified. Yet had Tess trusted these men, despite the red flags, she would have avoided danger.

One might be forgiven for thinking the message of the film has to do with being more trusting of others. However, in every scene where a woman trusts a strange man, they either fail her or actively seek to harm her. So, it becomes unclear what ultimate lesson Barbarian means to impart.

Perhaps Cregger’s point was to simply demonstrate some societal problems – that women must view men as threats, and that we may do others an injustice when we assume they are not credible. If that was Cregger’s goal, then he succeeded in a stylish, original, and technically impressive way. But if the goal was to say something deeper or more profound, then it is wholly unclear what that something was.

Potential Lives Can Matter, but Only Through Actual Lives (Pt. II)

photograph of plastinated body on display

In the first part of this two-part article, I presented a way of thinking about the moral importance of potential which would support viewing most abortions as morally uncomplicated. The key claim is that potential matters only insofar as it matters for someone who already exists. I want to contrast this with, and criticize, an opposed way of thinking, one which I think is common among opponents of abortion. For this way of thinking, the embryo counts as a moral individual already, simply because of its potential. Potential lives can matter all by themselves – and, on the more extreme views, can matter as much as actual lives.

I think this way of thinking about potential is confused: moreover, I think its popularity comes from smuggling in illiberal ideas about gender. Let me explain.

Once we move away from how potential matters for already-existing people, we can’t make reference to what actual people want, intend, or care about, or to what’s realistic for them. We’re just talking about what is objectively possible. And many, many things are objectively possible.

For example, after removing your inflamed appendix, a doctor using sufficiently advanced medical technology could make the cells in it revert to a pluripotent state, implant them into somebody’s womb, and grow them into one (or more) clones of you – people who might be just as thoughtful, loving, and reflective as me or you. So if we say that an embryo already counts as a person because of its potential, why don’t we say the same about an appendix?

Of course one of these is far more likely, far more feasible, than the other. But does it make sense to assign degrees of moral status based on relative probabilities? Perhaps it does (though opponents of abortion generally don’t talk that way). But even if we accept that way of thinking: the odds of an embryo in the womb of someone determined to abort it has virtually no chance of becoming a person – because it’s very likely to be aborted. So it has virtually no moral status, and aborting it is morally uncomplicated, as I’ve been arguing.

It’s no good to say that the appendix won’t grow into a person on its own, that it requires outside intervention (and a surrogate womb). Exactly the same is true of an embryo: it won’t develop into anything on its own, it requires outside intervention. It requires another person and their body to feed it, house it, and protect it for nine months (and more care after that).

To say that the embryo is “in itself” a potential life, while the appendix is just something that “could be used to make” a potential life, is a way of positioning the pregnant person as a passive receptacle, and erasing the work that pregnancy is.

Could we say that the embryo’s development into a person is natural, while the appendix could only develop into a person in an artificial, technological, way? I think this is exactly how many people see it, implicitly or explicitly: the embryo is meant to become a person, that’s its proper function, while the appendix is meant to do something else, but could be unnaturally turned into a person.

The problem is that what is or isn’t natural can’t support this kind of moral weight. It’s not that we can’t make sense of it: statements like “my heart has the natural function of pumping blood” can be true and informative. What they mean is: “my heart wouldn’t be the way it is, if analogous organs in my ancestors hadn’t improved their odds of reproducing, and the way those organs did that was by pumping blood.”

This isn’t a moral prescription for a good and fair way to live, it’s just a convenient way to summarize a long causal chain of morally-neutral events. If we accept the theory of evolution, we can’t guide our moral judgments by reference to what is or is not “natural.”

So why do we keep doing so? Why do so many people find it deeply intuitive that embryos matter because of their potential, while appendixes don’t? I think it’s because “nature” is here a cover for a value-laden idea of how humans should live. In particular, it’s a cover for an idea of how women should live: for the idea that women are meant to be mothers, that parenthood is their “proper function,” and abortion is thus a perverse rejection of their own nature. It feels right to some people that an embryo is already somehow latently a child, because it feels right to them that anyone with a womb is already somehow latently a mother.

We can also put this in the language of possibilities and potential. In part 1, I said that a pregnant person might experience the destruction of an embryo, intended or unintended, as a tragic loss because the potential life it represented – a life where it becomes a child and they become a parent – was important to them. The moral importance of a possible future flows from an autonomous person’s capacity to choose.

But the anti-abortion perspective we’re considering doesn’t fit with that. It assigns importance to one possible future: the one where an embryo becomes a child and a pregnant person becomes a parent. And it seeks to promote this future, sometimes to the point of effectively mandating it for anyone with a womb.

So it severs the link between possible futures and autonomous choice, and treats this future as mattering all by itself, objectively, as “a potential life,” embodied in an embryo, that must be defended. It justifies this by appeal to “natural development,” but biological science, I’m suggesting, has nothing to do with it. The underlying explanation of why this potential is given independent moral status is, as Kate Manne puts it, to “Designate [a woman] a mother as early as is imaginatively possible, by reenvisaging a tiny cluster of developing human cells as a fully fledged human being.”

If this demand were presented explicitly, it would be obvious that it rejects the basic idea of liberal democracy. In a liberal democracy you can’t say: “we should ban abortion because women should be mothers (and anyone who can get pregnant should be a woman).” You can’t base laws on your specific view of what sort of life certain people should live: the law exists to protect people’s ability to choose for themselves what sort of life to live. That’s why it’s so useful for opponents of abortion to be able to repackage the demand that women be made mothers against their will as a demand to protect the equal rights of “unborn children.” It allows a deeply illiberal demand to masquerade as an extension of liberal rights to a vulnerable minority. But if the argument laid out here is correct, this relies on a philosophical mistake: selectively treating certain “potential lives” as independent bearers of rights. But potential lives only matter through actual lives.

Potential Lives Can Matter, but Only Through Actual Lives

photograph of shadow on asphalt of parent holding child's hand

Some people say they’re pro-choice but not pro-abortion: they believe people should be able to get abortions, but that it’s still “a sad, even tragic choice,” such that we should hope for abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare.”

Others are happy to call themselves pro-abortion, partly because they think the availability of abortion makes us freer and more equal, and partly because they don’t think abortions need to be occasions for mourning, shame, or feelings of moral conflict. “Abortion is healthcare,” they say, and should be available “on-demand and without apology.” In short, abortion can be a morally uncomplicated decision.

In this two-part article, I want to defend this enthusiastically pro-abortion position against a certain sort of objection: that by being so blasé about the moral simplicity of abortion, it invalidates and ignores the lived experience of people who do feel sadness or moral conflict about their abortions, as well as people who experience grief at a miscarriage.

I want to explain how different people’s different feelings about their abortions can all be appropriate – how one person’s grief can co-exist with another person’s nonchalance.

The objection I’ll consider can also be viewed as a dilemma about the moral importance of potential: does the mere potential to become a child in the future give an embryo moral importance? At first glance, we might think: either potential matters morally or it doesn’t. If it does, then any embryo or fetus has some degree of moral status, and destroying it is not morally uncomplicated. So grief makes sense and nonchalance doesn’t. But if potential doesn’t matter morally, then embryos and many fetuses have no moral status, and nonchalance makes sense but grief doesn’t. How can the pro-abortion side have it both ways?

The solution I’ll outline in part 1 is that potential can matter, but only insofar as it matters for someone who already exists. That is, a potential life can be precious and important for the parent who loses it, or for an existing child who would live it, but isn’t an independent basis for moral status in something that only has potential. In part 2, I’ll build on this to argue that treating potential as having independent moral importance amounts to selectively elevating some future lives that a pregnant person could live over others – in particular, selectively elevating the future where they become a parent over their other possible futures. In this way, treating potential as independently important serves an illiberal social agenda, what feminist philosopher Kate Manne describes as “the urge to make women notional mothers at an earlier and earlier stage in their pregnancies.”

Before proceeding, let me clarify that I take the pro-abortion position to say only that most abortions are morally uncomplicated. That’s because most (about 90%) of abortions occur in the first trimester, when there is no brain and hence no mind, and the overwhelming majority (about 99%) occur in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, when even as a rudimentary brain is forming, it likely has no organized brain activity, and so no capacity for consciousness or a mind as we understand it.

Abortions later than this – during the period when the fetus is getting more and more similar to a sleeping baby – are both extremely rare and almost always a result of a wanted pregnancy encountering serious unforeseen health complications (or the delaying and obstructing tactics used by anti-abortion activists). It seems likely that that third-trimester abortion destroys something with a functional brain capable of supporting happiness or suffering (though it also seems likely that it remains in a sedated, sleep-like state until birth). To that extent, it involves ending a life with some degree of moral status.

This demands a moral weighing up of competing considerations – a weighing up that is complicated, highly individual, often heartwrenching, and, I would argue, best performed by the pregnant person themselves, not by doctors, judges, or politicians.

The pro-abortion position needn’t claim that these rare cases are morally uncomplicated: it need only claim that the great majority of abortions are.

So let’s focus on the typical abortion, which occurs early enough in pregnancy that there is plausibly no functioning brain. The pro-abortion position, as I am presenting it, will say that for this reason the fetus or embryo doesn’t at that time have the key properties that would make it matter morally: conscious experience, pleasure and suffering, an inner life of some kind. It is, to put it crudely, a bunch of cells, a piece of tissue, and removing it from your body is like having a cyst or an inflamed appendix removed: morally uncomplicated healthcare.

But of course there seems to be a big difference between even a small embryo and a cyst or appendix. Neither currently has an inner life, but one of them, it seems, will have an inner life in the future, if the right things happen. One of them has the potential to have the properties that matter for morality, the other doesn’t. Critics of abortion, even those who are pro-choice, often say that this potential gives the embryo moral status from the beginning, even when this potential hasn’t yet been fulfilled.

Should we agree? Do merely potential lives matter?

It’s not as though we never take potential into account when making moral decisions. A lot of the way that we treat children rests on the fact that they have the potential to become rational and self-aware in ways that they aren’t now.

A 1-year-old baby seems quite different from a cat, morally speaking, even though it’s probably not at present more advanced in any cognitive respect. Its potential matters.

But the pro-abortion side could point out that the baby’s potential belongs to a specific entity that already exists, and already has moral status in virtue of its current properties. They might appeal to a principle suggested by Michael Lockwood in 1988:

A potential for X generates an [morally significant] interest only where there is some individual for whom the development of the potential for X constitutes a benefit.

So an actual baby can have rights now in virtue of its potential to become an adult, but the merely potential babies that someone might conceive next year don’t – since they don’t exist yet, they don’t have rights in virtue of what they could become.

I think Lockwood’s principle lets us make sense of the feelings of people who have abortions – even early ones – and experience them as tragic and complicated choices. Because even though an embryo isn’t yet an individual with rights, and so not something for which a potential life can matter, the pregnant person is.

The potential life that the embryo could grow into can matter for them, insofar as it represents a possible life they could live: a life as a parent. Within that life they could live, the embryo would become a child, and that child would be loved. The destruction of the embryo is thus the destruction of the possibility of that child, and it makes sense for the destruction of that potential love to be felt as grief.

Similarly, it can make sense for someone undergoing a miscarriage to experience grief about the loss of a potential child and the potential love it would have received.

But it’s crucial that this sort of moral importance for potential lives can’t support any kind of constraint on the pregnant person’s choice, because it comes from the pregnant person’s choice. It’s an expression of their autonomy: that they can project themselves into different possible futures, like a future as a parent. If they don’t care about that future, then there’s no actual individual involved for whom it has moral importance – not them, not the embryo itself (since it’s not yet a moral individual). If the pregnant person feels unconflicted about removing the embryo, then doing so is morally uncomplicated – just like removing an inflamed appendix.